First Drive: 2011 Ford Explorer [Review]

The Ford Explorer is back - and it shares little more than a name and a general concept with the ancient outgoing model. Will it bring buyers back?

The Ford Explorer helped to define a segment, but like so many one time celebrities, it eventually became an also ran that could no longer trade on just its name. Like another Motown hit-maker, Ford has decided it was time for a re-write, if you will.

But the question remains: How do you remake an icon that means so much to the corporate coffers of Ford Motor Company?

Start with a clean piece of paper. Goodbye body-on-frame architecture. Adios confined interior. Sayonara antiquated powertrains. Peace out utility.

Frank Davis, the Vice President of product development for Ford Europe, was the overseer of this project. He calls the new Explorer the "SUV for the 21st century." Lofty words for sure, but if they are going to make that statement, they had better walk the walk that goes with that talk. With a claimed 96-percent nameplate recognition, the Explorer has never been a wallflower. At the same time, it would be foolish to think that the Explorer could survive by maintaining the status quo.

To that end, Ford designers and engineers instilled a heaping dose of refinement, improved vehicle dynamics, new safety firsts, and they ditched the V8 in favor of a 3.5-liter V6 yielded among other things, a 25-percent increase in fuel economy, a full 5 mpg more than the outgoing model.

A known entity The Explorer is not an unknown. Now exported to more than 90 markets, the Explorer was Ford's bread-and-butter offering for the 1990s.

Even though it fell from grace after its last major redo - in 2002 - a new maxim at Ford means that no wholesale changes can occur without an eye towards continuity of the brand. To that end, Ford designers looked to modernize the vehicle with an understanding of the realities of the typical Explorer customer. Among them: Customers have said a true SUV needs to tow things and go off road. The reality: Explorer buyers typically don't do either one too often. Studies conducted by the company found that 85 percent of Explorer customers do not tow. Of those who do, 12 percent tow under 5,000 lbs., while 0.4 percent tow more than 5,000 lbs. The real heavy haulers buy pickups and full-size SUVs.

That's not to say that Ford left the Explorer without any "nads. Instead, the new 2011 model will tow up to 5000-pounds of class III towing cargo, and can be equipped with the trailering niceties seen elsewhere in the Ford lineup.

Inside sources Benchmarked against the European competition, the Explorer is now a picture of refinement. Wood trim, soft-touch dashboard materials and a new three-row interior features high quality trim including such tiny, but appreciable touches like metal covers over the audio system's speakers. Fabric seat offerings were top shelf, but the perforated leather with ventilated seating was even more so. Tick off adjustable pedals and MyTouch driver connectivity with configurable panels inside the instrument cluster. Only hard plastic on the doors lets the interior down, but there's no question that this is Ford's best effort ever.

MyFord Touch and Ford Sync driver technologies blend Sony audio tech with HD, Bluetooth, and navigation functions through Nuance, which incorporates a variety of voice recognition software for handsfree connectivity. Voice Recognition software, and Sync Apps add personality and functionality inside, while Gracenotes music database technology downloads album data and art for a complete musical experience. A WiFi mobile hot spot allows passengers to connect, while text-to-voice technology is available for incoming text messages to a connected smartphone. The controls are all available on an eight-inch diagonal touchscreen that takes a bit of time to figure out but offers tremendous functionality.

Get me rewrite! Ford decided to rewrite the page as far as the Explorer's motive power was concerned. In this chapter, they cast off the old V8 (however, never say never) in favor of a new front wheel drive 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6. With power output nearly the equal of a V8 at 290 ponies and 255 lb-ft. of torque, Ford is anticipating the new powerplant will sip fuel at a rate of 25 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg around town.

In the middle of next year, a second engine will come online. This one, an EcoBoost with intercooler and turbocharger, is slated to deliver V6 power (239 horsepower and 250 lb-ft. of torque) from a 2.0-liter inline direct-injection four-cylinder. All this from an Explorer that is larger, has more content and is lighter than ever before.

All Explorers will be equipped with six-speed automatic transmissions. On mid-level XLT and high-line Limited models, a SelectShift Automatic transmission toggle lever is included on the side of the shift knob, which allows the driver to row it yourself (well, sort of), as he gets up to speed. Frankly, we would rather see paddle shift levers or a separate gate, which are much more intuitive than a smallish toggle switch mounted in an odd position.

Heard it through the (grape) vine At one time, the Explorer was a solid hit. As fuel prices rose, sales numbers dropped. Ford hopes for a comeback (everyone loves a comeback) and has loaded the new ride with loads of content that will hopefully answer the wants and needs of a variety of drivers. Available amongst these is "Intelligent" all-wheel-drive, which is equipped with Terrain Management System, whose controls look as though they were pulled directly from Land Rover's parts bins. That's because they were developed when Ford still owned Land Rover.

With the ability to challenge snow, mud, sand and normal road conditions, we found the Explorer a very competent performer on light trails. On our test drives in the San Diego, California, area, we crawled along a purpose-built off-road course through about four miles of wooded and viney terrain. With a dirt skid pad to simulate snow and sand, as well as 40-degree angle hill climbs with equally steep descent routes, we had a chance to see that although the new Explorer had gone unibody, it has not lost any chops. With a total reworking of the suspension, the Explorer now utilizes front MacPherson struts with a 32mm stabilizer bar, while the rear is now an independent multilink kit. Climbing a hill with the V6 was effortless, while we enjoyed the feeling of having the Explorer creep down the other side with engine braking from Ford's hill descent mode.

If you want to go off road for fun, buy a Jeep or Land Rover. But if you occasionally find yourself with a need for hopping down a dirt road, the Explorer will be just as fine as ever, even if it lacks a two-speed transfer case.

Uptight, everything is all right This Explorer, with its new tightly constructed unibody platform, is quieter than any recent SUV we can recall. Road and wind noise barely penetrates the cabin and we felt it had a newfound confidence as we cut the corners of freeway on-ramps and rounded sharp turns with the improved roll control that a unibody build brings. Standard on all Explorers, Advance Trac with RSC includes Curve Control to provide braking in an effort to maintain stability by each individual wheel.

Loaded with all the typical safety alphabeticals (ABS, TSC, EBD, etc), the Explorer is also the first production vehicle with second row outside inflatable shoulder belts. The end result is five times the load reduction in shoulder belt deployment, all for just $195.

During our drive day in San Diego, we had a chance to travel over virtually every type of road surface that is known to man, with the exception of snow. Our AWD Limited model handled the racket from expansion joints with total unflappability. Same thing with the grooves on the freeway. The part that really impressed us was on the off road course. The new Explorer managed to go up, down, and all around with nary a whimper, creak or groan from its stout unibody architecture.

Leftlane's bottom line: The Nattering Nabobs of Negativity are probably weighing in as we go to deadline but the study has shown that many don't really need the capabilities that made up the previous model. On the other hand, we don't think they have had to give up very much.

Ford has allowed the market to seek its own level and the result is that buyers now have a choice to receive all the on and off-road power, connectivity, and safety technologies that were once only available in luxury SUVs. Look out GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander: Suburbia's new Explorer has arrived. Oh, and goodbye Ford Flex. We hardly knew ye. 2011 Ford Explorer base price range, $28,190 to $39,190.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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