A few vehicles in the history of an automotive company really change their place in the market place. Ford has had a couple of these over the past 101 years like the Model T, Mustang, Taurus, and, oddly enough, the Ford Explorer SUV. They have sold more than 6 million Explorers and 4 million of them are still running down the road.
It is also true that most of those 6 million Explorers never did make it off-road, even though surveys say their owners still want this capability if they are going to buy another Explorer. So Ford has decided that the all-new 2011 Explorer is still an SUV and not a crossover. For most non-Explorer owners, it will come down to perceived Ford quality and durability.
After driving through the mountains surrounding San Diego and a short off-road course, I am sure that this 7-passenger Explorer has all the smooth highway and cornering characteristics of a crossover. In fact, it handles the road better than Infiniti QX56 or Toyota Highlander. It doesn't lean in the corners or dive under hard braking or drift around in high winds.
The four-wheel independent suspension is compliant and the electronically controlled all-wheel drive is better on the road than it is off. Yet, Ford insists this Explorer is an SUV with 8-inches of clearance (after the air dam) and 5,000 pounds of towing capacity (V6 with towing package).
The seats are comfortable for 5 adults and 2 pretty large kids in the third row, with headroom for anyone over 6 feet tall. Ford engineers claim to have an interior craftsmanship equal to Audi. Fit-n-finish is really quite luxurious with soft yet solid materials.
There is no truck ambiance in this cabin and muddy shoes would just mess up the plush carpets. It is one of the most comfortable and quiet cabins I have experienced in recent crossovers…sorry, I mean SUV's.
The dash instrumentation is brilliant, customizable, and technologically advanced with multi-screen displays for climate control, navigation, communication, and audio sound. The new MyFord Touch system controls almost everything in the Explorer and is complex yet understandable to people 40+ years old- with a few hours of practice.
Now some will read this and say "So what." However, if one uses any voice controlled navigation or Bluetooth features in a vehicle now, it is impressive the advances Ford and their partners Nuance and Microsoft SYNC(R) have made in this high tech arena. The MyFord Touch(TM) driver connect technology recognizes more than 10,000 first-level commands.
Simply say "Find ice cream" and it will give you the nearest ice cream location and phone number. "Add a phone" gets you a pairing quickly and "James" will get you my phone connection. You can even add navigation using an SD-Card after you have purchased a Ford Explorer as a dealer accessory- using the same MyFord Touch screen with no modifications. Amazing.
The multi-terrain Land Rover-ish dial lets the driver select sand, snow, and mud modes that actually work well- giving the Explorer some bad-road climbing traction. But Ford has chosen to skip the bolder bouncing setting, low-range gearing, and skid-plates found on other SUV's and real off-road vehicles. It does have substantial V6 power (290 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque) and is expected to deliver more than 20 percent better fuel economy than the 2010 model).
In the spring, Explorer can be equipped with an optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost(TM) I-4 engine promising around 30 mpg. This premium engine is all-new and will be made in Europe and touting 237 horsepower. All Explorers get a six-speed automatic transmission, electric power-assisted steering, and a very clever variable-displacement air-conditioning compressor.
This SUV is also very safety conscious (like a crossover) with Ford's AdvanceTrac and a new traction control for corners called Curve Control. They will also offer the industries first air inflation seat belts for rear seat passengers where elderly and younger passengers need more thoracic support during accident.
It acts like a seat belt and an airbag across the chest during a collision. There are second-generation first-row airbags, side seat airbags, and a canopy curtain airbag that deploys if this "SUV" should roll.
The uni-body has been reinforced with high-strength steel and hydro-formed structural members to give this Explorer a very solid platform. Available safety features include Ford's adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support to react to what the driver does not see in time. Even people walking behind the Explorer are safer due to Ford's BLIS(R) (Blind Spot Information System) that alerts the driver of cross-traffic.
Ford may call this an SUV but I think the new Explorer is better than most of the crossovers and wagons I've driving recently. It is quiet, comfortable, and capable of traversing any terrain 99% of its drivers will travel. With advertised 25 mpg from the 3.5 liter V6 (2WD), the Explorer gets better mileage than any SUV so it has range for family trips and room to carry them.
I averaged 19.9 mpg after a hard day of driving up mountains and over hills. Call the 2011 Ford Explorer what you will but I think it will appeal to a broader market than SUV hunters and it will benchmark the crossover competition for years to come. As for the perceived quality and durability, Ford has made real progress here with the new Explorer and across their full line.