A predicted storm moved in as I took the Explorer off road for a few miles of driving through deep puddles, mud, loose gravel and rocks. F new Explorer has a power-train setting for just that kind of surface, so it scampered right up the gravel and rocks that covered a steep hill without even a little tire slip. Remember when you had to get outside to turn a hub to put a vehicle in four-wheel driveord Motor Co.’s?
The tested Explorer also came with hill-descent control that worked well upon leaving the backwoods. It was weird in some ways to be coddled by the big Ford’s “Terrain Management” system, comfy seats and nice warm heater as Old Man Winter did his thing outdoors. Yes, very few owners will ever head off road, but if you do, the new Explorer seems ready to do just that — explore. Just remember, an SUV such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee will leave the Explorer far behind if the going gets real rugged off road.
Yet on paved roads, the Explorer lapped up the bumps, and was generally quiet aside from some road noise. The Sony audio system worked well, holding the satellite music channel even out in the very back 40. With some tweaking, the sound quality was good.
Up steep, but paved, mountain grades and along the interstate, the Explorer did its thing in a most comfortable manner. The big outside rearview mirrors were most welcome. Visibility was generally good over both shoulders and the V-6 engine was happy at 70 -75 mph on Interstates 70 and 68.
The 3.5-liter V-6 is good for 290 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 255 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. Ford also makes a four-cylinder available. But if you wish to do any kind of towing or need much power, this 4,695 pound rig really needs the six.
The test vehicle came with a six-speed automatic, and the total package was rated at 17-23 mpg of unleaded regular by the EPA. I got 18 mpg on my trip. It is important to remember that it will cost dearly to fill this puppy up at the pump, with a $70 fill-up not unusual with the rising costs of gasoline these days. How that would fit your budget, I leave to you …
In the Explorer, you get a rig that will haul up to seven people and tow 5,000 pounds, but that is down by about 2,000 pounds from the old model. With the second row of seats in the up position, you can haul 44 cubic feet of stuff. Fold the second row, and that increases to 81 cubic feet. Yet on a vehicle that is nearly 200 inches long, there is a real need for additional left-foot and leg room on the driver’s side.
The new Explorer is 6 inches longer than a Honda, 8 inches longer than the Toyota Venza and 7 inches longer than a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The tested XLT sits in the middle of the Explorer lineup, behind the Limited and ahead of the base model.
The instrument panel offers a wide variety of information, including a front and center speedometer that never washed out in sunshine. Punch the right combination of steering wheel-mounted buttons and you can add a small tach and a temperature gauge that was easy to confuse with the gas gauge needle right next to it.
Suffice to say there are a zillion other choices in the mind-boggling “My Ford” and “Sync” systems. My guess is that the average owner will get the dealer to punch up what they need and it will remain that way until the Explorer burps out its last mile.
Even if you are really into this type of electronic system, you could spend the better part of a half-day or more setting it all up. Ford says the “Sync” system now “recognizes more than 10,000 first-level commands.” I will cast my lot with “Consumer Reports,” which gave these systems two thumbs down. While it should be noted that I was able to manually set ventilation and audio systems, the trend among some auto makers is for less-complicated electronic systems.
The tested mid-lineup XLT model carried a bottom line of $39,100. Dealers will be more than glad to sell you an option-laden Explorer that will easily exceed the $50,000 mark.
Bottom line? The 2011 made-in-the-USA Explorer is a big improvement over the old model, given that it is now based on an automobile platform rather than the old body-on-frame truck approach. The ride is smooth out on the highway, the handling is good for this type of vehicle and it seemed well screwed together. Racking up some long days behind the wheel would not be a hard task.
If you want an all-American crossover, you should have the Explorer on your test drive list.
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