The Ford Explorer has evolved over three decades into an iconic family friendly suburban soccer SUV. Now, it is putting its hiking boots back on and returning to its roots.
The 2021 Explorer Timberline model transforms this urban-friendly family hauler into a backwoods-capable adventure vehicle, suited up with all the heavy-duty gear needed to tackle a logging road near you.
Ford claims the enhanced ground clearance, steel skid plates, limited slip differential, Bridgestone Dueler all-terrain tires, and beefier shocks, springs and stabilizer bars make this the most off-road capable Explorer offered since the model first hit the trails in 1991.
With the Timberline brand, the company aims to create a new micro-niche that balances three-row passenger space, a desire for comfortable on-pavement riding and “moderate” off-road capability, said Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford’s Americas and international markets group.
The Timberline is designed to take passengers off-road rather than off-roading, said Adam Gryglak, Explorer’s chief engineer, drawing a distinction between this vehicle and the hard-core rock-crawling experience of a Jeep Wrangler. It will be powered by a small-displacement 2.3-litre gasoline engine, turbo-charged to achieve a rated 300 horsepower and 310 lb./ft. of torque. Mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission, it is capable of towing as much as 2,400 kilograms, the company states.
The off-road goodie list is long and rich. LED fog lamps, trimmed in a dark carbonized grey grille, will help illuminate trail edges at night. Even cooler, though, is an optional auxiliary light panel incorporated into the front grille with an output of 169,000 candelas – about 2.5 times the intensity of the vehicle’s high beams. A Ford Performance part, it is priced at US $499.
The Timberline sits 19 mm higher than the standard Explorer at 220 mm. That allows the vehicle to not only clear bigger rocks but also achieve more extreme approach and departure angles – i.e., basically the degree to which the vehicle can tip up or down without scraping bottom. Should an unwelcome rock emerge, the Timberline is equipped with skid plates on the front, under the engine and transmission and in the rear to prevent damage to critical components.
The shocks are a tweaked version of those created for the Police Interceptor model. The Bridgestone Dueler tires, fitted on 18-inch black painted alloy wheels, have high-sidewall profile to cushion severe bumps.
For improved traction, the Timberline has standard intelligent four-wheel drive and limited-slip rear differential. The system adjusts the amount of torque sent to each wheel and prevents wheels from slipping while others are gripping.
The electronic terrain management system has seven drive modes that include trail and deep snow/sand. Hill descent control allows the driver to choose a constant speed between 3 and 19 km/h when descending tricky paths; the vehicle applies the braking so the driver can concentrate on the road ahead.
Inside, the Timberline gets its own treatment with a grey “deep cypress” colour scheme. Heavy-duty rubber floor mats are standard, as is a vegan-friendly, leather-like synthetic seat covering that Ford calls ActiveX. Cloth inserts are included to keep occupants from sliding around on rough terrain. The Timberline mountain range logo is embossed on the seats and badged on the exterior.
In keeping with its on-road friendly theme, the Timberline also has a generous blend of driver-assist features, which Ford calls Co-Pilot360 and Co-Pilot360 Assist. The suite of electronic features includes adaptive cruise control, lane centring, evasive steering assist, and a voice-activated touch screen.
The Explorer Timberline appears to be the bellwether of a new line of off-road capable vehicles Ford will introduce in the coming months. While the company, like all automakers, typically does not discuss planned products, Lee Newcombe, Explorer marketing manager, told journalists there will be “more news” on the sub-brand later this year.
When introduced three decades ago, the Explorer was a rough and rugged body-on-frame truck-like vehicle with standard rear-wheel drive (with an AWD option). By its fifth generation in 2011, it had become a front-wheel-drive vehicle (also with AWD option) on unibody construction. The sixth generation, on which the Timberline is based, was introduced in 2020.
Light trucks, including SUVs, account for about 83 per cent of all vehicles sold in Canada, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
Ford states the Timberline will arrive at dealers this summer.
Base price: $50,799, plus $1,900 PDI.
Engine: 2.3-litre, 4-cylinder turbo-charged
Transmission/drive: 10-speed with four-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100km): Not yet rated. A similarly equipped Explorer achieves 11.7 city/8.6 highway
Alternatives: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover Range Rover Sport
The writer attended an online presentation from Ford Motor Company.