2011 Ford Explorer aims to be rugged while boosting mileage

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
ALPINE, Calif. — Is it time to give the SUV another chance? Ford Motor thinks so.
Instead of running away from the label, Ford is embracing it for its redesign of the Explorer family hauler, the vehicle that pioneered the SUV trend.

Ford (F), which says more than nine in 10 car shoppers recognize the Explorer brand, wants people to think of the new car-based model as being capable and rugged as the old truck-based one — just an SUV that gets better gas mileage.

Most other automakers, as SUVs became rolling symbols for fuel excess, have ditched the SUV label and call their new, lighter designs crossovers, as in a cross between a family car and an SUV.

But Ford has no qualms about Explorer, on sale this month at a starting price of $28,995.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ford Explorer through the years
MORE ON FORD: Stock quote and Wikinvest commentary

“It’s an SUV,” says Amy Marentic, a Ford marketing manager, during a press preview in this town east of San Diego. “It absolutely delivers as a traditional Explorer SUV.”

Think of it as SUV 2.0. Twenty years after the first Explorer, Marentic says Ford knows what today’s buyers of family haulers want and don’t want, and the new vehicle takes the lessons into account.

More miles per gallon? Sure. Big towing power? Sorry, few owners ever used it.

It’s an interesting tack for Ford considering how Explorer sales have declined. Introduced in 1990 and once synonymous with the label SUV, Explorer sales peaked in 2000 at 445,157. They’ve slid ever since, hurt first by a debacle involving rollover accidents that led to a massive tire recall, then later as gas prices spiked above $4 a gallon in 2008. Explorer sales bottomed at 52,190 last year and have rebounded only to about 58,000 this year.

Chrysler Group and General Motors, fellow members of the Detroit 3 that was awash in profits during the SUV boom in the 1990s, also have evolved their utility vehicles in ways aimed at making them more practical.

The changeover goes to the most basic levels. Even though Ford still considers it an SUV, the Explorer went from a separate body mounted on a truck frame to a unibody — a single chassis-body unit that saves weight and fuel. For Explorer, the savings is not quite 200 pounds, which sounds paltry considering the new Explorer weighs 4,509 pounds even for the front-wheel-drive version. But the new one also is 5 inches wider and 4 inches longer than the outgoing model.

Chrysler just turned its Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango into unibody vehicles as well.

GM’s larger SUV-style vehicles, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave, went through the same exercise.

Ford’s hope is that potential buyers see the original SUV as having been reinvented with:

•Better gas mileage. The new Explorer gets 25 miles a gallon on the highway, 17 city with its 3.5-liter V-6 engine, 5 mpg more on the highway than the outgoing model. A V-8 is no longer offered and an even thriftier turbocharged four-cylinder engine is coming soon as an option. And Ford announced Monday that all its gas-engine vehicles, such as Explorer, will be getting systems that shut off the engine at stoplights, then restart when the driver presses the accelerator.

•More useful all-wheel drive. Ford says its studies show many Explorer owners didn’t know when to use the old four-wheel-drive settings such as four-low and four-high. So the new Explorer has a computerized all-wheel-drive system with a dial that drivers twist depending on the road surface: normal, sand, mud and snow.

It’s no off-road 4×4 system, but Ford surveys show 83% of current owners never drive their vehicles off pavement. As such, while Chrysler advertises its Grand Cherokee for Jeep-like rock-crawling capabilities, Explorer won’t go there.

Interestingly, while Explorers rarely go off-road, Marentic says that when prospective buyers were asked what feature they’d like added to the Explorer, the most-mentioned was skid plates to protect the underside from rocks and hazards.

•Just enough tow capability. In switching to a unibody, Explorer lost 2,100 pounds of towing capability. But Ford says it doesn’t matter for most owners. Its surveys show 80% of current Explorer owners don’t tow, and only 0.4% of those who do tow have trailers or boats weighing more than 5,000 pounds, its new towing limit.

•More creature comforts. Ford has given its flagship family hauler more interior space, a quiet and carlike ride and an array of features including its in-car connectivity system, MyFord Touch, which allows voice-command operation of the audio, navigation, climate and other controls.

One thing is for sure different about the new Explorer: Ford never wants to face the rollover problem again. In addition to full electronic safety systems, the new model is wider than previous versions, adding to stability, and it has a slightly lower center of gravity, says Don Ufford, Ford’s chief vehicle engineer.

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