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car review

The 2011 Ford Explorer ($29,999-$44,199) is not a truck.

It may look like a truck-based SUV, but underneath is the same platform as the company's Ford Taurus sedan rather than the more rigid truck frame of the outgoing model. So this 2011 Explorer is what you might call a crossover, not a traditional SUV.

That said, Ford types argue the new Explorer's off-road capability and 2,273 kg towing capacity will satisfy most customers. The bonus is good fuel economy - 12.5 litres/100 km city and 8.8 highway for the V-6 - and a smoother ride compared to the old version.

Gone is any option of a V-8 engine for the Explorer. The base engine is a 3.5-litre V-6 with 290 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. Soon, a radically small 2.0-litre, 237-hp, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine will available.

Gone, too, is the rear-biased all-wheel-drive system or the availability of a two-speed transfer case. The new Explorer is a front-drive vehicle, sharing its powertrain bits with the Flex station wagon. The optional "Intelligent 4WD" system uses computer controls to route power to the rear wheels if and when the fronts slip.

But there's more to the four-wheel-drive story. Ford is offering a Land Rover-like Terrain Management system that governs throttle response, gear shift points and the behaviour of ABS and traction control. This means the driver can literally dial in 4WD responses for grass/gravel/snow, mud ruts and sand. ABS-based Hill Descent Control - automatically slowing the vehicle on steep downward slopes - is also in the mix.

With car-like ground clearance the Explorer isn't particularly intrepid, but it drives as well as any mainstream family sedan, just a slightly taller one.

Inside, the cabin is really well done - wide and roomy, with cockpit styling for instruments and controls and an instrument cluster with a big analog speedometer flanked on both sides with graphics-heavy LCD readouts. The animated fuel gauge keeps track of consumption and there is a virtual compass, too.

In the centre stack is the MyFord Touch display, a customizable eight-inch display with controls for audio, navigation, climate and phone. These readouts are repeated in miniature in the instrument cluster and operable through the steering-wheel-mounted buttons.

Below the centre stack display is a black, glass-style panel. It provides redundant climate buttons and a rotary control for the audio system.

I was ready to dislike the Explorer, prepared to write it off as the product of outrageous marketing hype. It's not. This is a pretty good and pretty good-looking family rig.