The 2011 Ford Explorer is not only the beginning of a new generation, but of a new life. Ford calls it 100 percent reinvented, and it's the truth, and it's all good.
This reinvention of the venerable Ford Explorer is 4 inches longer, 5 inches wider, and makes the third row standard. Yet it's 100 pounds lighter. Its engine has 80 more horsepower and gets 25 percent better fuel mileage. Its price is $1100 lower than the previous model.
The 2011 Explorer pretty much blows its competition out of the water, with first-in-class EPA fuel mileage of 17 city/25 highway miles per gallon, first-in-class horsepower (tied with Jeep Grand Cherokee), first in cargo capacity and second-row legroom. Ford claims 10 segment exclusives, including some in safety, with optional inflatable rear seatbelts ($195) and standard curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory.
There are three Explorer models, Base, XLT and Limited. Each seats 7 passengers, and uses the new 3.5-liter V6 engine, 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, with a new 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2.0-liter turbocharged and ballyhooed EcoBoost direct-injection four-cylinder engine will be available later in the year. It has 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, gets one more mile per gallon, and likely won't cost any less.
The optional 4WD Terrain Management System uses no transfer case. The driver selects the terrain with a knob (Normal, Sand, Mud/Ruts, or Snow/Gravel), and the car does the rest, flawlessly. The system includes Hill Descent Control, which could save your life on an icy street.
The Explorer's width is evident in its confident stance spanning a 67-inch track, but its smooth styling cheats the eye. It has beefy but smooth proportions, with short overhangs and fluid lines that are 12 percent more aerodynamic than before.
The chassis is super rigid, using twice as much high-strength steel as the old. There's also some Boron steel whose strength is not only high, it's also thin and it bends more easily, to form the Explorer's front bumper beam, allowing the fenders to wrap gracefully and fade away at the corners. Such curves also help to transmit crash energy down and outside, away from the cabin.
There's a segment-leading 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, with the split rear rows folded, which they do at the touch of a button on each side, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever. There's outstanding second-row legroom of 39.8 inches, with good third-row space at 33.2 inches.
Ford's stated goal was to make the Explorer's interior look expensive, like the cabin of a BMW X5 or Audi Q7. They've succeeded, at least on the Explorer Limited, whose leather seats are perfect, both in bolstering and stiffness/softness.
The front seat elevates high. The Explorer will be a versatile family vehicle, so the seats have memory for the XLT and Limited, while the steering wheel and pedals adjust for different drivers in the family. The ratcheted headrests are great, because they meet safety standards but don't push your head down at the chin, an annoyance we've noted on some recent Ford models.
When the driver surveys his or her domain, it all looks satisfying, with a clean and slanted center stack using stylish satin-finish trim materials, with attractive climate vents and audio speakers.
The new 3.5-liter V6, a DOHC all-aluminum mill with variable cam timing, was first used in the Ford Edge. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, we found the power and acceleration to be smooth and responsive, with plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to 5th gear.
Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the new Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH results they hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. We found the new Explorer takes corners and undulations flat (without excessive leaning), and the speed-sensitive electric power steering enables it to turn relatively tight and quick.
We tested the Explorer off-road as well as on the highway. The Terrain Management System uses no transfer case. Even with all-season tires (as opposed to all-terrain tires which improve traction in snow, sand and mud), the Explorer blasted around a sand pit and traversed deep ditches and steep hills, no problem. It was the smoothest ride we've ever encountered over such terrain.
Two-thirds of all 6 million Explorers sold over the last 20 years are still on the road, says Ford. The Explorer vehicle engineering team took prototypes of the new model over towering Colorado passes, buried them in deep sand in the California desert, carved through snow in Minnesota and Northern Michigan, traversed mud bogs in Alabama, and logged countless development miles at Arizona and Michigan proving grounds.
All three 2011 Explorer models seat seven passengers. Initially, all use the new 3.5-liter V6 engine with new 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2.4-liter turbocharged and ballyhooed EcoBoost motor will be available later in the year. It has nearly as much horsepower and similar as the V6, and gets better fuel mileage, but likely won't cost any less.
The 2011 Explorer is a looker. It truly looks 100 percent reinvented, Ford's motto for the car. And it is a car; we can stop saying truck for almost every SUV now, and maybe even stop saying crossover, because they've just about all crossed over. The body-on-frame structure is just for pickups again, with virtually every manufacturer building their SUVs with unibody structures because they're stiffer, and with today's high-strength steels, they can be made lighter while still having a ride and handling that's firm.
The reinvented Explorer uses twice as much of that steel as the old, and throws in Boron steel because its strength is not only high, it's also thin so bends more easily, to form the Explorer's chassis curves, in particular the front bumper beam, allowing the fenders to wrap gracefully and fade away at the corners. Such curves also help to transmit crash energy down and outside, away from the cabin.
The Explorer is 4 inches longer and 5 inches wider than before, and its width is evident in its confident stance, but its smooth styling cheats the eye. It has beefy but smooth proportions, with short overhangs and fluid lines that are 12 percent more aerodynamic than before. Details such as the liftgate spoiler lip and flexible lower front air dam (black) were tweaked in the wind tunnel. Beautiful and headlamps complement the graceful fenders and transform the inherently square nose; the amber indicators sweep back like narrow wings, atop the tidy projector beam.
Rear taillamps are LED, and also look good. Black rockers on the sides allegedly lift the eye, but do they? We still like body-colored better.
The hood looks short from the side but long when looking straight down it; it's got two parallel humps and a scoop in the center, smoother than it sounds.
The window outline is clean, bold and symmetrical, with blackened A-, B-, and D-pillars, and with body-colored C-pillars that slant down and back and impart forward motion to the vehicle. With the dark privacy glass, from the shoulders up, in white at least, the Explorer looks like a sleek and powerful yacht. The fender flares are inspired by the Mustang, body sides follow the lines of the Taurus, and new three-bar grille strikes clearly of Range Rover (formerly in the family). The plastic grille is gray on the Base, body-colored on the XLT (the best looking), and satin-coated on the Limited.
Wheels are 17-inch steel with wheel covers on the Base, 10-spoke 18-inch painted aluminum on the XLT (best looking), and 20-inch painted aluminum with spokes like flower petals on the Limited. There are optional 20-inch polished aluminum wheels with spokes like shriveling flower petals; no wait, the spokes now look like crab pincers, no, make that a dentist's tooth extractor tool.
There's a rich shiny beautiful brownish color called Golden Bronze Metallic that we swear we've seen on Range Rovers, only it looks even better on the Explorer.
Where to start? There's so much that's good.
Let's start with size. There's a segment-leading 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, with the split rear rows folded, which they do like magic at the touch of a button on each side, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever; and outstanding second-row legroom of 39.8 inches, with good third-row space at 33.2 inches. Two kids will be happy in the third row, with that legroom to squirm and their own cupholders and bins. Because the doors swing wide and open easily, and because the second-row seat flips forward in a heartbeat, reaching the rear row, even for adults, is an easy climb.
Ford's goal was to make the Explorer's interior look expensive, like a BMW X5 or Audi Q7 they say. They've succeeded, at least on the Limited, although 40k-ish is expensive enough to warrant looking it. The Limited's leather seats are perfect (optional on the XLT), both in bolstering and stiffness/softness. Heated on XLT, heated and cooled with perforated leather on Limited. We haven't seen the cloth upholstery.
The front seat elevates high, which is good because the hood looks long from the driver's seat. The Explorer will be a versatile family vehicle, so the seats have memory for the XLT and Limited, while the steering wheel and pedals adjust for different drivers in the family. The ratcheted headrests are great, because they meet safety standards but don't push your head down at the chin. It's a problem with other vehicles that Ford solves with ratchets.
When the driver surveys his or her domain, it all looks satisfying, with a clean and slanted center stack using stylish satin-finish trim materials, with attractive climate vents and audio speakers. The doors have metal speaker grilles, and curve into the dash panel. There's a big glovebox with shelf, leather grab handles and armrests, and long door pockets with space for a bottle.
One reason we like the Base model is its relatively simple 4.2-inch LCD screen, and it doesn't come with the MyFord Touch driver connect technology, and neither does the XLT, at least not standard. MyFord Touch uses two driver-configurable LCD cluster screens, and already our driving is distracted. It's a cluster screen, all right; there are more screens than gauges, coming in four quadrants and colors: yellow for phone, red for audio, blue for climate and red for navigation. You have to scroll through a lot of stuff to get information, for example engine temperature, and even after you figure it all out, it will take your focus off the road to perpetually configure.
MyFord Touch uses an 8-inch color touch screen in the center stack to do the configuring. According to Ford, it replaces many of the traditional vehicle buttons, knobs and gauges with clear, colorful LCD screens and five-way buttons. The screens can be personalized to display information relevant to each individual driver using a simple button click, voice command or touch screen tap. We beg to differ with two words in that description: clear, and simple.
The voice command is also problematic. At the introduction in San Diego, we drove for the morning with a Ford representative, and for the afternoon with a fellow automotive journalist having a clear radio voice, and Voice Command didn't work for any of the three of us. Well, less than half the time.
We said, “Climate,” and it replied, “Climb in.” We said, “Seventy-two degrees,” and it replied, “Eighty-two degrees.” We repeated, slowly and with careful articulation, and it stuck to its 82 degrees. We said, “Sixty-five degrees,” and it replied, “Fifty-six degrees is not a valid temperature.” It got frustrated with us (maybe it just didn't like our smart-mouthing it), and once told us in no uncertain terms, “Say yes or no.” We are not making this up. And there's more; it wasn't just a war over temperature, it was a war over everything. It got worse before it got better. We wanted POIs and it demanded we give it an address for navigation.
We stopped talking to her. If you run out to your Explorer to escape a demanding spouse, you better know where you want to go and how to get there, or you'll be in the same boat.
There's a pleasant and satisfying little blip sound (ah, that's more like it), when you make positive contact with a function on the touch screen, for example the climate system, for which you can use a button. Still, the touch screen doesn't work as well as the buttons, at least not for us.
In short, we are not fans of the voice commands or MyFord Touch, but we like the rest of the Explorer cabin.
The new 3.5-liter V6, a DOHC all-aluminum mill with variable cam timing, was first used in the Ford Edge; called Ti-VCT, it's been pumped up to 290 horsepower in the Explorer, with 255 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, we found the power and acceleration to be smooth and responsive, with plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to fifth gear.
One virtue of the engine is its efficiency and, combined with the reduced weight and improved aerodynamics, the Explorer's fuel mileage is EPA rated at 17 City and 25 Highway miles per gallon. We drove nearly 200 miles in the Explorer, mostly at about 60 mph on casual two-lanes with about a dozen freeway miles running uphill to 80 mph, and averaged about 17 mpg. Before we got on the throttle on the freeway, we saw a 20-mpg average.
Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the new Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) results they hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. It takes corners and undulations flat, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering enables it to turn relatively tight and quick.
The front suspension uses short and long arms with a fat 32mm stabilizer bar. Engineers gave the rear suspension a name, SR1, because for each wheel movement, the shock absorbers are tuned to make the same motion in the same cadence, which they say eliminates undesirable ride motions. It must be true because we felt no undesirable motions when we drove the Explorer.
Not even off-road. Our introduction included seat time on an off-road course, and we've never tested anything off road that absorbed deep ruts and huge humps so smoothly. We're talking 10 mph here. It was as if the Explorer had a few extra feet of travel in the suspension.
The main object of the off-road driving was to test the electronic Terrain Management System, which uses no transfer case; saves weight, and that helps fuel mileage. Even with all-season tires (as opposed to all-terrain tires which improve traction in snow, sand and mud), the Explorer blasted around a sand pit no problem. Never fear going to the beach and exploring. Have a family picnic atop the far dune.
There are four modes to the system, which the driver sets with a knob behind the shift lever. In the Normal mode, on dry pavement, the vehicle runs at about a 90/10 bias in front-wheel drive, and torque shifts to the rear as needed. This is what you'll use most of the time, rain or shine.
The Snow/Gravel mode allows less wheelspin, provides conservative throttle control, and enables earlier transmission upshifts. This should help stabilize handling, making it easier to control, though you'll still need to exercise care when slowing down.
The Sand mode provides more aggressive throttle, holds the transmission in gear longer, and desensitizes traction control. Because, unlike in snow, to make progress in sand you need wheelspin.
Mud/Ruts allows torque as throttle increases. Stability control is desensitized to help maintain momentum over soft or uneven surfaces.
Terrain Management also includes Hill Descent Control, which proved itself on a steep downhill on the off-road course, holding the Explorer's speed to 4 mph without driver input. It's proven itself in many vehicles we've tested, including many Land Rovers. On an icy hill, it could save your life or at least help you avoid crashing and damaging your vehicle. If you think you'll need this feature, it's worth learning how to use it most effectively.
The Explorer will tow 5000 pounds when equipped with the tow package, a spendy option, but it includes things you might wonder how you lived without. There's trailer sway control, which works with the stability control, and is another thing that could save your life. There's also a rearview camera with zoom, which will guide you to position the hitch ball directly under the trailer hitch cap, and make you feel like an astronaut docking his spacecraft.
The all-new 2011 Ford Explorer is worth the wait. It's improved in every area, while costing $1100 less than before. In the Base model, you get a totally equipped, state-of-the-art, powerful 7-seat SUV that gets an EPA-rated 25 mpg on the highway, for about $33,000, a deal that can't be beat.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Ford Explorer near La Jolla, California.