Ford Motor’s redesigned, 2011 Explorer SUV is now a crossover, not a truck-based SUV, as its predecessor was, but don’t think of the new one as any kind of wimp.
Our Explorer test vehicle, given a hard look in this week’s Test Drive column, boasted surprising off-road and bad-road prowess, harnessed by a big, fat knob on the console. It controls what’s called Terrain Management System. You select among four positions and the electronics retune the engine, transmission, traction control and anti-lock brakes to best suit your choice.
It performed well and lent some credibility to Ford’s plan to market market Explorer as an SUV, straight-up, not as a
crossover, which it is. It meets the definition for a crossover — an SUV that’s built atop a carlike chassis using unibody construction rather than truck-style body-on-frame construction.
Ford thinks the SUV moniker is more appealing. In consumer clinics, Ford says, seven in 10 identified the Explorer as an SUV, while the same proportion called the smaller Ford Edge clearly a crossover.
Half said the big, long Ford Flex was a wagon. And eight of 10 called the rival Honda Pilot an SUV (which is what Honda was intended with the squarish styling).
How that terrain knob works its magic:
The terrain-tailoring knob idea’s not new. Jeep Grand Cherokee has it. As do Land Rover’s goat-footed machines. Land Rover was owned by Ford, so any overlap of clever drivetrain systems is strictly intended. Rover and ex-Ford brand Jaguar now are a single company — JLR — owned by Indian conglomerate Tata.
Here’s how the Explorer setup operates:
Normal is for regular driving, sending most of the
power forward and shifting power to the rear
wheels when conditions require.
Mud/ruts is one click away and changes how the
transmission shifts for better control in those conditions.
Sand is an amped-up version of mud/ruts mode, holding lower gears even longer so you don’t lose momentum as you would if the gearbox switched up to a higher gear. We can vouch for how fast even a good off-roader can sink to the rocker panels in sand if you let it slow slightly or choose too high a gear ratio.
If it’s wet sand, you might prefer the mud/ruts
setting, Ford says.
Snow setting tries to avoid traction-killing wheelspin by favoring higher gears, upshifting as soon as possible, opposite the sand setting. It’s a high-tech throwback to Ford’s then-amazing three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission of the late 1950s and ’60s, which had a second-gear-start setting for winter work. (Most automatics were two-speed boxes at the time).
A button in the middle of the Explorer’s terrain knob is the
hill descent control. It eases you downhill without requiring you to do anything but steer.
— James R. Healey/Drive On