The redesigned Ford Explorer is back in the big time, after more than doubling U.S. sales this year and breaking back into the Top 20-selling models year to date, according to AutoData Corp. figures.
Granted, Ford Explorer sales, which are estimated at more than 130,000 for all of 2011, are a far cry from 2002. That may not seem like very long ago, but back then there were only two Harry Potter movies, and Ford Motor Co. sold a record 433,000 Ford Explorers. It seems sort of quaint in retrospect.
Mid-sized SUVs as a category fell out of favor when gas prices started climbing in 2004, and really dropped when gas spiked in 2008. Since then, the category is staging a comeback.
What’s changed is that iconic SUVs like the Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee (photo) have been redesigned and put on more car-like “unibody” platforms. The redesigned Ford Explorer debuted in late 2010 as a 2011 model.
The original SUVs like the earlier Ford Explorer had a body with the people- and cargo-hauling utility of a family station wagon, on top of the ladder-shaped frame of a pickup truck. They were rugged, but not surprisingly, drove like a truck and consumed gas like a truck.
Newer SUVs drive like a car and consume gas like a car. For the 2012 model year, Ford even offers a four-cylinder version of the Ford Explorer, which would have been major heresy back in 2002.
Granted, it’s a four-cylinder whose power gets a kick in the pants from turbocharging and from direct injection, a combination Ford calls EcoBoost. Ford says the net effect is power like a six-cylinder engine, with gas mileage like a stingier four-cylinder engine — an EPA-estimated 28 mpg on the highway.
For all of 2010, the Ford Explorer was the No. 3-selling midsized SUV, behind the Honda Pilot and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, according to AutoData. But the comeback had already begun, a year ago. Explorer sales were up 53 percent in December 2010.
The Ford Explorer was the No. 1-selling midsized SUV through November 2011, with sales of 121,832, a 141 percent increase. Ford Explorer sales in November were close to 13,000. At that rate, the Ford Explorer should easily pass 130,000 for the whole year.
That would put the Ford Explorer ahead of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is staging a comeback of its own. Jeep Grand Cherokee sales were 110,398 through November, up 54 percent. The Honda Pilot was No. 3 in the segment at 104,656, up 14 percent.
Thanks largely to those three models, the whole midsize SUV category improved 48 percent to 580,665 after 11 months of 2011. Light trucks as a category increased 12 percent after 11 months to about 5.9 million, accounting for about 51 percent of U.S. light-vehicle sales overall.
For many truck models, their underlying nature has changed with the times. But the truck category still dominates the U.S. market.