Ford has been cranking out Explorers for two decades, selling over 6 million in that time. There were ups and downs, but Explorer was the best-selling SUV in the US for many of those 20 years. Now, a completely redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer arrives to recapture the magic. The 2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD carries a base price of $33,190 ($36,315 as tested) with a 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Ford has completely revamped the Explorer for 2011. The only similarities between the outgoing Explorer and the new one are the name and big blue Ford oval. The old Explorer was a traditional, body-on-frame SUV, with rugged construction and off-roading pretentions. The new Explorer is a crossover vehicle built on a car platform, with a frameless unibody and decidedly less rugged looks and build. In some ways, the new Explorer has more in common with the old Taurus X/Freestyle than it does with the old Explorer. It's a sign of the times. Ford couldn't just drop the Explorer name, but it couldn't justify keeping a heavy, inefficient old-fashioned SUV in the lineup.
Forgetting about comparisons between old and new, let's just look at what's in front of us, shall we? Explorer is a very good-looking crossover vehicle. Ford fitted it with a very bold three-bar grille. The top and bottom horizontal bars are perforated like a cheese grater, and the middle grille wears the Ford emblem. The lines of the top grille extend to include the headlamp assemblies, which wrap around the top corners of the vehicle's front end, forming a superhero-like mask that is quite striking and attractive. The line continues around the vehicle, defining the shoulder line beneath the side windows and meeting up with the top of the tail lamp assembly, giving the whole vehicle a grounded, comprehensive look from every angle. Modest (for a Ford) wheel arches frame the wheels (17" on Base, 18" on XLT and 20" on Limited). Explorer shares a common design feel with the Edge and Flex, a modern, assertive design that succeeds on its own terms.
In the Driver’s Seat
Explorer's dash is miles better than before. Ford has finally figured out how to beat the game when it comes to seams and gaps -- simply eliminate them. Instead of putting together three or four pieces to form the main part of the dash, one elaborate piece is form-fitted to house the entire instrument panel and center stack. The result is a clean, smooth dash. Nice.
The center stack houses Ford's pride and joy -- an 8" color LCD touch-screen that provides access to MyFord Touch, Ford's driver advanced driver interface. MyFord Touch is standard on the Limited trim level; optional as part of a package ($1,750) on XLT and Base models. My test vehicle had the optional package, and I could write a whole review just on its capabilities. Suffice it to say that MyFord Touch, along with Microsoft SYNC, is one of the most advanced interfaces available today. It's easy to control your vehicle's settings, audio controls, navigation options and communications systems with traditional knobs and buttons and with sophisticated voice control.
Explorer's second row is roomy and comfortable, and a standard third row of seats is standard. All three rows are big enough for adults, for a total capacity of seven. Explorer can carry 21.0 cubic feet of luggage behind the third row, or 80.7 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded flat. One advantage of the unibody over body-on-frame construction is that the seats fold into the floor. The seats fold easily, and the cargo space is incredibly flexible and useable.
On the Road
There's just one engine choice for the new Explorer, a 3.5-liter V6 that cranks out 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. That's more output than the old Explorer used to get out of its 4.0-liter V6 (254 hp/210 lb-ft). There's a new transmission, a 6-speed automatic, and a choice of either front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. 4WD models get hill descent control, front recovery hooks and a new Terrain Management System, which looks a lot like Land Rover's Terrain Response, but does not have the heavy-duty "Rock Crawl" mode.
I would have expected the new Explorer to be lighter than the old Explorer, but it's actually a little heavier (4,695 vs. 4,628 for 4WD models). The extra zip in the engine helps the new vehicle accelerate better, and climb grades more assertively than before. The difference in construction also seems to have resulted in a lower center of gravity. Explorer feels very solid and planted, and does a great job of flattening out the curves as you bend it around the road. I bumped the Explorer along some dirt roads, not a real off-road test, but I was impressed with its composure and lack of squeaks and squawks. My passengers praised the comfort in the second row, though I found the driver's seat very uncomfortable on longer rides. There just wasn't enough thigh support, and the footbox constricted my legs into an uncomfortable position. Your fit may be different, but Explorer and I didn't get along very well.
I'm torn about the new Explorer. I am almost as much of a tech head as I am a gear head, and the level of technology that you can cram into the dash of an Explorer is astonishing. MyFord Touch is impressive, intoxicating and gives great hope for the future of the human/vehicle interface. The interior of the Explorer is flexible and roomy, nearly minivan-like in its utility. I even like the exterior. I'd compare it favorably with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, one of my favorite new crossovers. I'm concerned that Ford is slicing up the crossover segment too thinly, with the Escape, Edge, Flex and Explorer all competing for attention.
If you're considering a new Ford Explorer, there's plenty of competition in the mid-size three-row crossover field. Honda's Pilot got a makeover for 2010, and it was a good one. GM's Lambda platform, the Buick Enclave/Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia, add a bit of bulk. The Kia Sorento is available with a third row, as is the Mitsubishi Outlander, but neither offers comfortable seating for adults back there. Toyota's Highlander can be ordered with a third row and a hybrid gas/electric engine, which ups the ante a bit.
If you're attached to the Explorer nameplate, this new Explorer will challenge your expectations. It's not the rough and ready Explorer of old. It's something new, different and honestly better than before. The challenge for Explorer is not between the old and new, it's between the new and its current competition. It will be a battle, and I wouldn't bet against the all-new Ford Explorer.