2011 Ford Explorer: Redefining the SUV

By Charles Krome

Okay, I’m calling Ford’s bluff. The all-new 2011 Ford Explorer, as impressive as it is, is simply not an SUV. Or maybe this is just what Ford means by “redefining” the segment.

Think about it this way: The classic definition of an SUV, although perhaps hard to pin down in its particulars, has long revolved around things like body-on-frame construction, towing capacity, off-road capabilities and (lack of) fuel efficiency. But it’s obvious from reading the Explorer press releases that Ford is working off a different vocabulary list. In fact, going through the marketing materials is a near-Orwellian experience.

Ford takes each of those elements, admits the new Explorer doesn’t have them in traditional SUV amounts, and then brazenly claims to be an SUV anyway. The company’s scribes even go the extra mile by claiming specifically that not having these elements makes the Explorer a better SUV.

Body-on-frame construction? Unnecessary, because (unlike body-on-frame vehicles?) the Explorer “targets top safety ratings with a stiff unibody structure.” Plus, “The shift to a unibody construction platform enabled a reduction in road noise and significantly decreased Explorer body roll in dynamic cornering situations.”

Towing capacity? Well, even though Ford’s group vice president for Global Product Development, Derrick Kuzak, says the Explorer is “the hands-down winner for towing capability,” its actual towing maximum is 5,000 lbs—2,115 fewer than the 2010 Explorer and 200 lbs fewer than the Chevrolet Traverse crossover.

Off-road capability? While I doubt too many people took previous Explorers on serious rock-crawling trips, the new model comes sans transfer case, swapping in a new terrain-management system that “takes the guesswork out of maximizing 4WD and the capabilities it enables.” Maybe, but doesn’t it also take some of the utility out of what’s supposed to be a sport-utility vehicle?

Finally, there’s the fuel-efficiency factor. I could take the low road here and joke about how the term “fuel-efficient SUV” is an oxymoron, but instead I’ll just point out when Ford PR is touting the new Explorer’s mileage, the vehicles used for comparison aren’t the Chevrolet Tahoe or Toyota 4Runner, they’re the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Now, I’m confident that the new Explorer will be a success, and it’s certainly as capable and efficient as any crossover on the market, if not more so. But Ford calling it an SUV is akin to an automaker deciding to put a new spin on convertibles by manufacturing them with fixed roofs. Or like a company attempting to redefine the word “coupe” to include cars with four doors.

Okay, forget that last one, but consider: What would the reaction have been if Toyota had come out with the same kind of vehicle as the new Explorer and unapologetically called it an SUV?

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. Go to Toyota’s website and try to find the Highlander (or for that matter the Rav4) What do they list them under? SUV? Yep. Escape has always been an “SUV”. Calling the Explorer an SUV is nothing new.

  2. Good points, SullyND, but the thing is, Toyota usually tosses out a qualifier or two when discussing these vehicles.

    For example, the current RAV4 was launched as being “among the most versatile compact crossover-type SUVs,” and the Highlander gets noted as “setting the standard for car-based SUVs.”

    What’s new, IMHO, is that Ford doesn’t seem to be hedging at all on the Explorer.

  3. I can guaratee you that a body on frame is guieter and has little road noise especially when the tires are half worn out, than a unit body!

    Unibody are cheaper to build and lighter, thus better on fuel!

    I have owned both and personaly when it comes to SUVS and Luxury Cars I would pay more and prefer body on frame anyday!

  4. They could’ve gone the really daft Toyota route of calling it an AUV or action utility vehicle….but it might be better if they went with Family Utility Vehicle or even Ford Utility Vehicle….at least then we would have an acronym where Ford tells us what they really think of their SUV target audience.

  5. It didn’t sell as a freestyle or as a taures X, so let’s call it an explorer, and see what happens

  6. Personally, I’m not that impressed; it’s just another “transportation pod” in an already crowded crossover market; a Flex with different styling. Obviously, Ford had to do something with the Explorer, as the name recognition is too valuable to waste. But what new ground has been broken with this vehicle? Keeping the Explorer a true SUV, maybe even more hard core in the spirit of the new 4Runner, would have been more preferable to me, and it may have kept the Ranger around as a platform sibling.

  7. Of course it’s not an SUV. Note however that Ford has always marketed the Escape (unibody, FWD) as an SUV, and it has never been an SUV either.

    I assume this ugly poser of of car is actualy FWD as well.

    Also it would be unfair of Ford to compare this thing to a Tahoe. The Tahoe is a different class of viehicle and competes with the Expedition.

    As for this “so-caleed” SUV, I’ll stick with my Expedition.

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