Test Drive: All-new 2011 Ford Explorer makes a statement

By James R. Healey, USA TODAY
ROMEO, Mich. — Ford Motor has taken the Taurus sedan chassis and V-6 engine and turned it into the basis for a brilliant combination of on-road graciousness and off-road grit, called Explorer.
That’s the impression from a day driving the 2011 Explorer at Ford’s test track here — pavement, off-road, sand — and on roads nearby. And time at home in Virginia, in the snow, commuting and running errands.

No longer a truck-based SUV as Explorer was for 20 years, the new iteration is a largish crossover SUV of the sort that’s drawing buyers today. Sized between the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and the General Motors full-size crossover trio — GMC Acadia/Chevrolet Traverse/Buick Enclave — Explorer is big enough inside for a credible third row of seats, as in the GMers, but without quite the exterior bulk of the GM vehicles. Nor does it have as much cargo space inside as the GM crossovers.

Explorer is significantly bigger than Ford’s two-row, five-passenger Edge crossover, and carries some 600 pounds more cargo and passengers, so it shouldn’t pirate Edge sales.

In fact, the crossover Explorer will tote up to 103 pounds more than the former truck-based Explorer, now discontinued, though the new one tows about 2,100 pounds less.

The only things that stood out as issues or errors on the new vehicle were the dreadful, pock-marked grille styling carried over from the Taurus, and the way Ford loves to force-feed you more electronic gadgetry than you need or probably want. Even so, it might wind up being pick o’ the litter.

Outstanding:

•Drivetrain. The V-6 engine is used in Taurus and a number of other Ford Motor vehicles, but felt much more responsive in Explorer. Pleasing song, smooth personality, snappy-shifting six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode. Quite agreeable whether jumping up to highway speed, cruising or burbling through villages.

•Interior. The first and second rows were roomy, comfy. And the second row moved out of the way easily for access to the way-back.

Explorer is the first to use Ford’s adjustable head restraints (aka headrests). You can adjust them not only up/down, but also fore/aft, which is a huge improvement in comfort.

Many auto head restraints today feel lousy because they jam the back of your head. Federal safety regs require them to sit quite close, or to be rigged with an “active” system that tilts them forward if the vehicle’s hit from behind.

Ford’s new solution is marvelous.

Explorer also offers optional inflatable second-row safety belts. The tube that inflates around the belts in a crash helps spread out the force.

•Steering. As badly as some steering systems seem to be executed nowadays, it’s worth calling attention to a setup that feels right. Ford uses electric power assist, which saves fuel by not putting as much drag on the engine. Felt just-so in Explorer.

•Terrain Management System. We expected a dumbed-down, dorkish replacement for a real off-road system — the kind with a two-speed transfer case with four-wheel high and four-wheel low modes as you find in true boonies-mobiles.

To our surprise, it seemed intelligently designed, easy to understand, quick and handy to use. And it doesn’t add several hundred pounds of weight, as a two-speed transfer case does.

It’s controlled by a fat knob on the center console. You rotate the knob among four settings to tailor the engine, transmission, traction control and anti-lock brakes to suit the situation. The four settings are normal (for regular driving), mud/ruts, sand (sort of mud/ruts on steroids) and snow.

The Land Rover off-roaders have similar, if more sophisticated, terrain management setups. Ford used to own Land Rover, so similarity is no surprise.

An EcoBoost four-cylinder will be available later in front-drive versions. EcoBoost is Ford’s name for a combination of turbocharging and gasoline direct injection (GDI). The idea is to use a small-displacement engine for fuel economy but have additional power at the ready via turbocharging.

GDI technology boosts both mileage and power by injecting the gas directly into the cylinder at the instant it’s needed. Also, fuel stays cooler in a GDI system, so burns better and produces more energy.

GDI can be a tad noisy, though the Ford GDI engines we’ve tested haven’t had that problem.

You’ll see the Explorer marketed as an SUV, not a crossover. Ford found that people liked the SUV/Explorer connection and assumed that such a vehicle would be more capable, more confidence-inspiring than something called a crossover.

By any name or description, the new Explorer easily deserves to be at or near the top of an SUV (or crossover) shopping list.

ABOUT THE 2011 FORD EXPLORER

•What? Full remake of the popular SUV. It’s now a crossover, atop a modified version of the Ford Taurus chassis. It’s a full-size, six- or seven-passenger, crossover SUV available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). It offers a V-6 engine and, later, an EcoBoost four-cylinder on FWD models.

•When? On sale this month.

•Where? Made in Chicago, using V-6 engine built at Lima, Ohio. Four-cylinder to be built at Valencia, Spain.

•Why? Still a market for the right kind of big SUV.

•How much? Base, $28,995 including $805 shipping. XLT, $31,995. Limited, $37,995. AWD, add $2,000.

•Who’ll buy? Moms, dads, adventuresome couples.

•Instead of what?Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Veracruz, Ford hopes.

•How powerful? 3.5-liter V-6 rated 290 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, 255 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000. Later option on FWD models: 2-liter, turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder rated 237 hp at 5,500 rpm, 250 lbs.-ft. at 1,750. All models use six-speed automatic transmission.

•How big? About 13 inches longer, 3 inches wider and 400 lbs. heavier than Ford Edge; 8 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower, 200 lbs. lighter than Chevy Traverse. Explorer is 197.1 inches long, 90.2 in. wide including mirrors, 70.4 (FWD) or 71 (AWD) in. tall on a 112.6-in. wheelbase.

Weighs 4,509 (FWD) or 4,695 (AWD) lbs.

Passenger space, 151.7 cubic feet. Cargo space, 21 cu. ft. behind the third row, 43.8 cu. ft. behind second row with third row folded, 80.7 cu. ft. behind front seat with second and third rows folded.

Tows 5,000 (V-6) or 2,000 (four-cylinder) lbs. V-6 carries 1,599 (FWD) or 1,555 (AWD) of people, cargo and accessories. Four-cylinder payload not yet determined.

•How thirsty? V-6 rated 17 mpg in town, 23 (AWD) or 25 (FWD) on the highway, 19 (AWD) or 20 (FWD) in combined city/highway driving.

Trip computer in V-6 AWD test car registered 18.6 mpg (5.38 gallons per 100 miles) in mix of highway and suburban driving.

Burns regular, holds 18.6 gallons.

•Overall: Excellent.

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