By Chris Haak
With the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer, Ford reallywants you to know that it has re-invented the SUV. Except that Ford was far from the first to peddle something called an “SUV” built on a unibody platform; we’re not sure who was the first, but at the very least, the XJ Jeep Cherokee pre-dates the 2011 Explorer by 27 model years. More recently, the Camry-based Toyota Highlander and the Accord-derived Honda Pilot have been offering family-friendly midsize SUVs wrapped in trucklike packaging.
The Explorer, of course, had been the poster child of the 1990s SUV boom. In those years, Ford sold nearly a half million new Explorers every year, with the peak coming at 445,157 units sold in 2000. Last year, the company barely cracked tenth of that sales volume with the Explorer, as 52,190 of them found new homes. You see, the Explorer later became the poster child for the 2000s SUV bust. Ford thinks that it now has the right formula with the 2011 Explorer to reverse that trend, and regain some of the lost sales momentum that the original featured.
So why did buyers abandon midsize body-on-frame SUVs in droves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 oil price spike anyway? I’ve had a theory for years that it’s because midsize SUVs offered the fuel economy of a full-size SUV with little more passenger space than a car. Couple the poor handling, high cost, and suddenly-unfashionable SUV design, and you have a recipe for disaster. In an effort to change its luck, the new Explorer is more spacious, far better handling, and more economical, all without costing much more than the outgoing 2010 model.
The resulting vehicle, while little more than another re-skin of the Flex/MKT/Taurus X, eschews the controversial/cetacean/nondescript styling of the former and puts a good-looking SUV wrapper around the Volvo-derived unibody platform. Fuel economy has dramatically improved over the 2010 model: this 2011 Explorer 4WD with a V6 is rated by the EPA at 17 MPG city/23 MPG highway, while a 2010 Explorer 4WD with a V8 is rated at 14/19. The ratings for the 2010 Explorer 4WD V6 are even worse at 13/19, thanks to it having only five forward cogs in its transmission. In a week of mixed driving, I averaged around 18 MPG, with light-footed treks that had few stops netting me at or above the EPA highway number of 23 MPG.
Credit the more modern, efficient drivetrain – the Explorer’s new 3.5 liter V6 shares its sophisticated TiVCT variable valve timing technology with the fuel-sipping 2011 Mustang – as well as a more aerodynamic shape for the Explorer’s much-improved fuel efficiency. Credit is also due to the near-obsessive attention to weight reduction employed in the Explorer and several other recent Ford new-vehicle introductions.
A few weeks ago, Bloomberg ran an excellent pieceon how Alan Mulally threatened to kill the Explorer if the 2011 model didn’t lose weight and find more efficiency. The Bloomberg article details some examples of ways the engineers removed two pounds from each of the Taurus’ 15-pound control arms, yet making them stronger. In the end, the 2011 Explorer is about 100 pounds lighter than the 2010 model, despite added interior volume, comfort, and safety technology.
And the 2011 Explorer is comfortable. There is a considerable amount of width inside and out – it’s over five inches wider than the 2010 model, and has about two inches more hip room and shoulder room in the first row. The high door sills and narrower window openings convey a sense of security and solidity, but the view through the windshield is very good. Despite being equipped with cloth seats rather than the optional leather ones, I found my XLT-spec tester’s seats to be comfortable for hour-plus stints behind the wheel with no signs of rear-end fatigue.
Despite not being the high-end Limited trim level and having cloth seats, Ford did throw in all of the infotainment options to show off MyFord Touch and the company’s newest-generation navigations system. MyFord Touch worked flawlessly; what I mean by that is not that it’s an ideal control interface, but that it worked as designed. The problem is, an interface that requires no physical button presses or knob turning is all but impossible to use without taking your eyes off the road. So it works well (and even has clever features like a “my temperature” setting that works like a radio preset to move your temperature setting to a specific number with a single touch), but is sometimes overly sensitive and quite likely increases driver distraction. Before MyFord Touch, Ford’s center stack controls were rows of identically-sized and shaped rectangular buttons that were also hard to use without looking. I’m afraid that this is worse.
The large center-dash navigation display is gorgeous, with attractive fonts, a nice interface, and a high resolution display. It was easy to use, with the exception being that its old-fashioned (non-capacitive touchscreen) requires a much harder physical press than does a smartphone screen or even the MyFord Touch buttons immediately below it, and the response times are sluggish. There’s sometimes a second or two delay between when a letter is pressed when entering a destination address, for instance. I’m a fan of providing a lot of information on a single screen if I ask for it, but in some cases, there was an excessive amount of small, detailed text on the map screen that, again, could increase driver distraction.
Aside from my gripes about the interface, though, SYNC and MyFord Touch worked well, and did a nice job of integrating cleanly with my iPhone. This integration included downloading my phone’s address book (so I could see the name of an incoming caller on the display, not just the number), Bluetooth phone connectivity, Bluetooth streaming audio (including the ability to play streaming Pandora radio through the Explorer’s sound system), and activating Ford’s automatic 911 dialer that uses your phone’s connection in the event of a crash, somewhat mimicking the way OnStar works, but without requiring an OnStar subscription.
The attention to detail throughout the Explorer’s interior was consistently good. Nice touches like storage bins, soft-touch plastic, clear instrumentation, and laminated windshield glass lent the Explorer a premium air, even in its midlevel trim. One of my favorite touches was the door-mounted speaker cover (for the tweeters) that also concealed the power lock button. The lock button has a chrome rim (as do many of the other buttons throughout the interior), and it felt like the part could easily be found in an Audi or Lexus. Using premium materials for touch points that drivers are likely to use often is a great way to improve the perceived value of a vehicle.
Ford sells the non-front wheel drive Explorer as a 4WD, but it’s not a 4WD in the traditional sense, but rather all wheel drive. There’s no way to disconnect either the front or rear axle from the drivetrain and operate in two wheel drive mode, which might help reduce fuel consumption. This means that you can forget about doing any kind of burnout in the Explorer (probably not a problem, considering its target audience), but also that on dry pavement, all four wheels are powered. The Explorer offers a Land Rover-like terrain response 4WD system that is designed to provide optimal traction in snow, sand, gravel, or asphalt, plus hill descent control. Though I had a lot of inclement weather to deal with when driving a rear wheel drive Lexus the week before the Explorer, Mother Nature didn’t provide anything other than a mist of rain, so there was little opportunity to test the different terrain settings.
I’ve discussed the comfort of the front row, but most people who buy or lease a new Explorer will be interested in the second row, if not the third row as well. At six-foot-four, my driver’s seat occupies a lot of the second row’s real estate. However, I was able to “sit behind” my preferred front-seat setting in reasonable comfort, and in fact, the quantitative measurements are nearly identical between the first and second row seats. Third row access is easy to do; the second row seats independently lean forward and slide on tracks to create a coupe-like experience in crawling back there. Once in the third row, headroom is at a premium. For that matter, so is legroom and hip room. But for smaller children or for brief jaunts, it’s adequate. Otherwise, fold it down and enjoy 43.8 cubic feet of cargo space (0.1 cubic feet less than the 2010 Explorer, by the way). Parents of small children will appreciate that LATCH anchors in the second row are easy to access and have large openings.
A more car-like Explorer should mean that it drives more like a car, and that is true. The 2011 Explorer is about two and a half inches less tall than the 2010 model (4WD vs. 4WD), and that helps lower the new model’s center of gravity. Consequently, it no longer drives like an SUV (as the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner still do). Instead, it feels reasonably well-planted on the road without any alarming body roll or lean that you might find in a Ranger-based Explorer. Over the past year, Ford has taken persistent criticism of its brake hardware to heart, and 2011 models generally have stronger, larger brakes than older models did. The Explorer’s power steering is electrically assisted, providing decent feedback and accuracy. Over uneven road surfaces, the Explorer is very quiet and solid.
You’re not going to beat a Subaru Impreza WRX STI in a rally race with the Explorer, but you could surely beat an old Explorer, even one with a V8. Ford has thrown in ever more sophisticated electronic nannies, including a new version of its stability control that projects the angle the vehicle should be taking into a curve, and reins things back in immediately if the reality doesn’t match the theory. This being a borrowed $40,000 vehicle, and me valuing my driver’s license even more than that, I will have to take their word for it.
Speaking of $40,000 vehicles, the Explorer XLT 4WD starts at $33,190. My tester had the Rapid Spec 201A option for $1,750 (includes the Driver Connect Package (MyFord Touch, SYNC, rear view camera, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, and premium plus single CD player with MP3), $570 Trailer Tow Package, $1,595 Dual Panel Moonroof, $395 Red Candy Metallic Tint (which was gorgeous), and $795 Voice Activated Navigation System). With options, the MSRP comes to $38,295, and with $805 destination, the final tally was $39,100.
Though the tester was nicely equipped, you can spec out an Explorer with even more features if your budget and interest levels allow. For instance, the Explorer Limited is available with Active Park Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, xenon HID headlamps, and more. In my experience, those types of options are nice to have available, but typically sell in very small volumes (and huge profit margins for the manufacturer). I’m guessing that the configuration of this vehicle as tested, aside from perhaps being equipped with navigation, MyFord Touch, and the dual panel moonroof, would be reasonably close to what you’ll see most people buying, which would put its price at less than $35,000 out the door.
Overall, the Explorer is probably the best repackaging job of this platform that Ford has done to date. It’s attractive, has classic SUV proportions without resorting to nonsense like an Eddie Bauer package and raised white letter tires to sell its off road credentials. It’s probably more capable off road than 90% of the world, and 95% of its owners could ever ask for, and it has a comfortable high-tech interior. Despite my concerns about driver distraction caused by MyFord Touch, it’s probably the SUV I’d buy for my family. That is, if I didn’t prefer the comfort and practicality of a minivan.