By LARRY PRINTZ The Virginian-Pilot
Publication: The Day
Look. Now look again.
You can be forgiven if you momentarily mistook the 2011 Ford Explorer for a Land Rover. Many onlookers during my weeklong test drive made the same mistake. You could be forgiven for thinking that Ford is putting on airs, but that’s not the case.
Ford, which once owned Land Rover, is applying the technology it engineered for that make on Fords. The results have transformed the Explorer from the model that helped sport utility vehicles curry favor among suburbanites during the past two decades.
Ford hasn’t eliminated the advantages of an SUV: the utility, the high driving position and the ability to go anywhere at any time. But the company redefined that last part. The all-weather capability of the Explorer was employed for navigating the commute from the home cul-de-sac to the office park cul-de-sac. Drivers rarely – if ever – used it for hard-core off-road activities such as slogging through mud or scampering over boulders. That’s what Jeeps are for. As fuel economy became more of an issue, the Explorer’s truck-based platform and its off-road agility seemed more a liability than an asset.
So on the Explorer for 2011, Ford scrapped the truck chassis and is using the corporate car platform that underpins the Ford Taurus, Ford Flex, Lincoln MKS and Lincoln MKT
There are tradeoffs.
The new model is almost four inches longer and more than 5 inches wider than previously, but height shrinks a little over an inch. Despite the extra length and width, cargo space falls by 5 cubic feet when the second and third rows are folded. But the extra girth explains why this car-based vehicle weighs about the same as the old truck-based model.
Unlike last year, when buyers could choose between rear-wheel or four-wheel-drive models, this year’s Explorer can be had with front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive.
The base engine is a 290-horsepower double-overhead-cam V6, which gives up only 2 horsepower to last year’s V8. Torque is significantly lower, at 255 foot-pounds, than the V8’s 315 rating. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard. Towing is rated at 5,000 pounds, down from 7,115 pounds. Later in the model year, Ford will introduce a more fuel-efficient model with a 237-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive.
The 2011 Explorer’s all-wheel-drive system lacks the ability to lock the system into four-wheel-drive high or low. Instead, the rear wheels receive power only when the front wheels are slipping.
Despite being as heavy as last year’s truck-based model, the car-based Explorer’s fuel economy has improved by 21 percent. Whereas a 2010 V8 four-wheel-drive Explorer would return a dismal 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway, a 2011 V6 all-wheel-drive model returns 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway this year. Almost 600 miles of mixed highway and city driving returned a very respectable 19.4 mpg.
Still, this vehicle’s girth can be felt – and that’s good and bad. The Explorer has a reassuringly solid feel that’s very car-like. It stays put when navigating corners, and feels very predictable. It’s downright comfy. But its wide body and significant weight make it feel burly. Despite its athletic look, it doesn’t feel athletic. That said, it lacks the unrefined nature of a truck-based SUV.
Augmenting this Ford’s newfound manners is a terrain management system similar to the one used on Land Rover and featuring four traction modes: normal, mud, sand and snow. Drivers select the mode by turning a dial on the center console. The system includes Hill Descent Control, which provides engine braking when descending a hill.
The Explorer also is the first vehicle to use Curve Control, a new safety feature that senses when a driver is taking a curve too quickly. The system compares how quickly the vehicle is turning with how quickly the driver is trying to turn. If there’s an issue, the system reduces engine power and applies the brakes, seamlessly slowing the vehicle by up to 10 mph in one second.
Keeping this car under control is easy, but mastering some of its controls takes some time.
Inside, the instrument panel is similar to the one used on the 2011 Ford Edge, and features an 8-inch touch screen that controls the audio system, Bluetooth phone, climate controls and navigation. Some of the functions also are located below the screen on a touch-sensitive panel.
At times, the system took a long time before responding to a request. Using voice commands was worse; it responded to my voice only half of the time.
The Explorer has changed dramatically for 2011, shedding its outdated truck image for one of a high-tech family cruiser. With three rows, handsome styling and the assurance of foul weather traction, the Explorer will continue to find friends in America’s suburban subdivisions.
-Engine: 3.5-liter V6
-Wheelbase: 112.6 inches
-Length: 197.1 inches
-Weight: 4,695 pounds
-Cargo space: 21-80.7 cubic feet
-Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
-EPA rating (city/highway): 17/23 mpg
-Fuel consumption: 19.4 mpg
-Fuel type: Regular
-Base price, base model: $28,995
-Base price, test model: $37,190
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