Back in the early 1990s, the Ford Explorer was among the most popular vehicles sold in America. Not most popular truck - I’m talking vehicle, constantly selling around 400,000 units a year, the kind of volume Camry and Accord do today. Originally based on the compact Ranger pickup chassis, it helped establish our love affair with the SUV.
Oh, how times change. Over the years Explorer has been battered by the Firestone tire controversy, a worldwide economic meltdown and the rising cost of gasoline. Families began switching to car-based crossovers that are both more comfortable and fuel efficient. Explorer, it seemed to some, had run its course.
Time for a Robert Downey Jr. style re-boot. The name is about all the new 2011 Explorer carries over. While the handsome sheetmetal is evolutionary, what’s under it is a little more revolutionary since for the first time ever Explorer does not ride on a truck chassis. It’s built on the same unibody architecture as the Taurus sedan and Flex crossover. Skip all-wheel drive and Explorer is now powered by its front wheels.
Do not be alarmed
Ford is marketing this fifth generation model as an SUV, not a crossover. In reality, only a few people truly use the rugged capabilities of sport utes. It’s not as if Explorer has become a shopping mall cruiser though. It can tow up to 5,000 pounds and traverse some fairly nasty terrain. Remember, the very capable Jeep Grand Cherokee has always been unibody, same with Range Rover and no one disses their abilities.
When approaching this do over, the engineers knew they needed a big boost in both fuel economy and refinement. Gas isn’t getting any cheaper and crossovers offer both comfort and utility. Any compromise on Explorer’s toughness and the image suffers. And you though your job was hard...
What they came up with
A very nice vehicle to be sure. The 2011 version is about 5 inches wider and 4 inches longer. Seven-passenger seating is standard, a six-person configuration is available.
Bigger yes, but loads of high strength steel and an aluminum hood makes the vehicle lighter by around 100 pounds. The 3.5-liter V6 engine pumps out 80 more horsepower now for a total of 290 (255 lb-ft of torque). In fact, Ford has eliminated the V8. Later this year Ford will offer an optional turbocharged four-cylinder (yes, four) EcoBoost engine. It’s better fuel economy won’t be available with all-wheel drive.
I’m driving a top-of-the-line Limited model with push button keyless ignition. The transmission is a six-speed unit that offers up quick decisive shifts. Manual control is done with a small button on the console lever
Fuel economy is 25 percent better now with AWD models EPA rated at 17 city, 23 highway and front drivers at 17/25. Those numbers are about even with Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander V6, in some cases ever so slightly better. A bonus? Like many Fords, the gas filler is capless.
Not many will miss the V8
Explorer is quick off the line with good low-end torque. The structure may be lighter, but it feels exceptionally solid with the cabin remaining nice and quiet at highway speeds. For a larger rig, Explorer is crisp in the corners, though some may find the ride quality a bit too firm. Many want to compare Explorer with Grand Cherokee even though the Jeep stops the body count at five. As far as driving dynamics go, the Ford is Euro firm with minimal body roll (for an SUV anyways). JGC take a softer ride approach with a more luxurious Lexus-like dynamic (again, for a sport ute). In the end, the driving dynamic reminds me most of Pilot.
My tester is all-wheel drive and I drove it exclusively in stop-and-go city situations for two days straight to check gas mileage. With my usual foot of lead, the trip computer reads 16 miles per gallon. Contrast that with the 2008 V6 Explorer I use as a production vehicle at KING TV, which routinely slups a gallon every 13 miles in the city, 18 on the highway. That’s a decent improvement considering the old one is smaller and less powerful. I’ll take the driving dynamic of the new one too.
Doors that keep your Levi’s clean
Like Flex, Explorer has a door design that fully covers the entire sill so after a good romp in the mud it’s clean, and so are your pant legs. Once inside its easy to see this high-end Limited version has a rich interior, only the remarkably picky will not find a comfortable driving position with a tilt/telescope steering wheels and adjustable pedals. The big asterisk with that statement would be my wife, who being as petite as she is lovely, cannot touch the floor with her feet since the chairs are on the high side. At least the seats are heated and vented.
Ford’s new gauge cluster uses a center-mounted speedometer flanked on either side by high definition LCD displays. The beauty here is a driver can configure it the way they want. Choose between two different tachometers styles or ditch it all together. Options include trip computer, phone info, radio stations, compass and much more. The list goes on and on.
Materials are soft to the touch and pleasant to look at. The Sony sound system is terrific, I’m not too crazy about the grainy sound quality of Sirius satellite radio, the HD Radio tuner is very nice (and doesn’t require a monthly fee).
It’s all controlled by the new MyFord Touch interface that groups operations by color (red for entertainment, yellow for phone, ect...) on a touch screen to enhance the Microsoft SYNC system. Unlike Consumer Reports, I really like MFT but have two issues: The touch sensitively could be better and the hazard button just below the screen is easy to trip, even though it’s recessed. Connect just about anything with A/V inputs and outputs, there are RCA jacks, two USB ports, and Bluetooth for phones. The electronics are so deep on Explorer, an entire article could be written about them.
MyFord Touch doesn’t hand over all the controls to the screen, redundant controls are on the center stack which is a touch surface, not really buttons. At 43 grand as tested there’s no sunroof or video entertainment system installed. This is not inexpensive vehicle.
One last controller is a knob on the center console that’s found on all-wheel drive Explorers. Called Terrain Response, it makes the all-wheel drive system easier to use and more effective in operation. Match the icon on the dial to the surface you want to drive on (mud, sand or snow) and you’re good to go. The traction control automatically optimizes itself for the terrain you choose. There’s also hill decent control that operates the throttle while descending very steep grades so you can concentrate on steering.
Back to row two
The middle row has a lot going on. Leg and knee room is about average, foot room is more generous. This can’t be changed because the seats don’t slide fore an aft. There’s a fold down armrest and the bench splits and reclines. Lots of cupholders back here too, plus a 110v outlet and map pockets for more storage. Finally, there are climate controls so passengers can dial in their own comfort.
One safety technology unique to Explorer’s middle row is seatbelts with built in airbags. Because the front chairs get adjusted in different ways it’s difficult to properly mount a forward facing airbag in the second row. Upon impact, the belts expand instantly making the restraint much wider, dissipating the force so it causes less injury to the occupant. The belts themselves feel thicker and stiffer and the buckle is hollow so compressed air can be forced through it up into the strap. Nice tech. Hope I never need it.
Going way back
Explorer has a standard third row now, often that means a cramped penalty box. As an average sized guy like me would be OK in this space for short trips across town and kids should be quite comfortable. NBA players would be unhappy (but hey, they’ll be driving their Escalades).
My well-optioned Limited tester has power third row folding seats that are a Godsend when trying to raise them from the floor. The cargo hold is large; a trim piece on the edge of it that’s designed to snap off for access to the spare tire does so a little too easy. In full-on 7 passenger mode Explorer does pretty well storage-wise. Normally, with the third row in use, crossovers can only handle two packs. Explorer holds five. Drop row number three and Explorer swallows up 16 bundles of Kirkland brand bath tissue, among the best in class.
Front drive Explorers start at $29,000. The direction gas prices are headed, this SUV may never sell 400,000 units a year again. Still, for those who need seating for up to 7 and sophisticated all-wheel drive, there’s no doubt Ford has built the best Explorer ever.