2011 Ford Explorer: Back from the drawing board

(Photos courtesy Ford)

Welcome to July 26, 2010, or what the folks in Dearborn, Michigan are calling “Ford Explorer Day.” Ford Motor Company has become known for segment-defining vehicles in its rich history. The Model T, the Model A, F-series pickup, the OG pony car Ford Mustang and a vehicle that began a new revolution when introduced in 1990, the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.

In recent years, Explorer (and nearly all SUVs) have fallen from their lofty perches in manufacturers lineups. SUV buyers were pulled into the segment due to attributes of these utilitarian workhorses. Haul the family, haul a trailer and some even just hauled buns – all at the expense of fuel economy and lately, fuel prices.
So the big blue oval Explorer team went back to the drawing board. In their words, they began with a Vision: Re-invent Explorer for a still vibrant SUV market.

Touting a whopping 96 percent name recognition for the model, Ford sets out today to deliver a vehicle for customers who still want the capabilities found in an SUV but not at the expense of fuel economy.

“The all-new Explorer will deliver today’s SUV buyers the attributes they really want and value, and a few they might not even have dreamed of,” said Mark Fields, Ford president of The Americas. “We’re proud to introduce the new Explorer to customers and fans around the world today and pleased to begin a whole new era that blends strong SUV fuel economy and performance.”

Ford designers and engineers gave journalists an early look at the all-new 2011 Explorer that is being launched today in unique fashion: Full, frontal Facebook assault followed by reveal events in strategic markets in North America.

“The new Explorer simply does everything well,” said Derrick Kuzak, group vice president, Global Product Development. “It raises the bar for ride and handling on the road and transforms the off-road experience. It’s the hands-down winner for towing capability and ease. All this capability – and three rows of seating – with amazing fuel economy will make Explorer the absolute right choice for families with a sense of adventure.”

As Kuzak and his team pulled the fabric back to reveal the new Explorer my first thoughts went immediately to feelings of familiarity. I had seen this design somewhere before, but where? Then it hit me – this was the LRX concept Land Rover had shown a couple of years ago at the Detroit Auto Show. A slightly raking roofline that seems to join a rising shoulder line at the back of the profile, a spoiler overhang above the rear glass and modern front end styling complete with dimples in the crossmembers. When asked about the resemblance, Ford simply answered “Well, we did used to own Land Rover.”

The 2011 Ford Explorer breaks from SUV tradition in that gone is the ladder frame platform and with it any semblance of an eight cylinder engine. This new rig is unibody design with subframes under the front and rear independent suspensions and a choice of V-6 or first-ever EcoBoost I-4 motors backed by six-speed automatic transmissions. Fear not leadfoots, as the new 3.5-liter six delivers nearly the same power as the outgoing eight (and 35 percent better mileage) and the miserly EcoBoost four-banger is turbocharged and cranks out more power than the outgoing six while kicking in fuel economy similar to, in Ford’s words, a Camry V-6.

Also rocking Land Rover familiarity is a new Terrain Management System, one Ford claims as their own but did admit the engineer over the Explorer application is the same engineer that brought similar technology to Land Rover last decade. Drivers choose from one of four settings in the Explorer system: sand, snow, mud and normal.
Designers managed to shed a few pounds from Explorer with new materials such as an aluminum hood, and engine demands have been reduced through new electric power assisted steering and variable-displacement air conditioning compressor systems.

Safety technology abounds in the new model as it sees new technologies such as blind spot and cross traffic warning systems as well as the industry-first use of an inflatable second row safety belt. A new Curve Control system will help keep drivers on their intended paths when the road bends and collision warning with brake support should help when something gets in your way.

When it came time to address build quality, the Explorer team chose German luxury brand Audi as its benchmark for fit and finish, styling and materials. The new models on display for us inside the design center did not disappoint. Attention to detail is obvious and well executed.

The new ride will be built in the Chicago Assembly plant on the same line that rolls off Taurus and Lincoln MKS. The 2011 model Explorer is longer and wider than its predecessor which should equate to better road characteristics, especially given the four wheel independent suspension. It will seat seven in three rows, the last of which stows flat into the cargo floor in back.

Technology takes a front seat inside Explorer, literally, thanks to new instrument panels and console clusters. MyFordTouch debuts on the 2011 Explorer (and the 2011 Ford Edge). Via the next generation of SYNC, MyFordTouch connects drivers with their vehicles, incorporating nearly all comfort and convenience technologies at your fingertips or available on demand (thanks to enhanced voice recognition technology that now accepts nearly 10,000 commands).

Some of these system improvements include more direct, first-level commands such as “call” or “find”, quicker and easier entry and search and the use of aliases whereby users can access the same function with different phrases such as “warmer” and “increase temperature.”

Of course no pricing information is available yet as models won’t be reaching dealerships until late fall this year. And it also goes without saying that the real proof is in the pudding. My first impression of the 2011 Ford Explorer was positive and I eagerly anticipate quality seat time with the new ride. Until then, happy Ford Explorer Day!

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