The Ford Explorer dominated the SUV market in the 1990s, but lost most of its ground by the middle of this decade. The redesigned, carlike 2011 model may make it popular again.
The new three-row Explorer is larger, but lighter. It shares underpinnings with the Ford Taurus and Flex and trades its rear-drive layout for front-drive, while its trucklike body-on-frame construction gives way to a unit-body platform. Four-wheel drive continues to be available.
The old Explorer’s trucky dynamics are gone. So is the V-8, replaced by a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. It works with a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, which can be shifted manually. There are lowered initial gears for better off-the-line acceleration and higher gearing for better efficiency at lower engine rpm when cruising.
The new Explorer is fast off the line. It does 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds, besides providing quick 65-75 mph passing. This also is an easy high-speed highway cruiser.
Estimated fuel economy is 17 mpg in the city, 25 mpg highways with two-wheel drive and 17 and 23 mpg with a four-wheel drive system similar to the Range Rover system.
Coming later this year is Ford’s turbocharged 2-liter EcoBoost engine with 237 horsepower and almost as much torque as that delivered by the V-6. The automaker says no fuel economy figures are available.
The four-wheel-drive system has easily used driver selectable Normal, Mud, Sand and Snow settings, besides Hill Descent Control for descending steep inclines.
I found the four-wheel-drive Explorer has exceptional off-road abilities at Ford’s Michigan Romeo Proving Grounds. It easily handled punishing, muddy off-road terrain that almost made me think twice about tackling such rough stuff. And it deftly made its way down an incline that looked as if it would put it on its roof.
Trim levels for the Chicago-made Explorer V-6 are Base, XLT and Limited. List prices range from $28,190 to $39,190, excluding an $805 freight charge.
Base model items include cruise control, tilt/telescoping wheel and power door locks and windows with a one-touch-down feature for the driver. The XLT adds such items as heated side mirrors with LED signal indicators and a reverse sensing system.
The top-dog Limited has adjustable pedals, dual-zone electronic temperature control, rearview camera, remote-start system with an engine start/stop button and MyFord Touchdriver connect technology.
All versions are packed with safety features. They include the industry’s first inflatable seat belts for second-row occupants, particularly children or older adults more vulnerable to head, chest and neck injuries. The inflatable belts spread impact forces across more area than conventional belts. Ford says they’re also more comfortables.
The Explorer’s stiff unibody structure, which allows a road noise reduction, is accompanied by a suite of active and passive safety features and technologies. Besides the usual regular and side curtain air bags, the Explorer has an advanced Curve control system. It senses when a driver enters a turn too quickly and applies brake pressure to stabilize the vehicle.
The electric power steering is precise, but somewhat heavy. A definite plus is the Explorer’s turning diameter, which is tighter for better maneuvering. Optional active park assist technology scans for a suitable spot, calculates the trajectory and steers the Explorer. The driver continues to control brake and throttle inputs, but the system steers the vehicle throughout the parking maneuver.
Other extras include a powerfold third seat that looks so magical it must be seen to be fully appreciated, a dual-panel moonroof, power tailgate, adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled front seats, voice-activated navigation and a handy blind spot monitor system.
But desirable options cause prices to rapidly escalate. The bottom line price of a Limited I tested jumped from $39,190 to $43,850, excluding the $850 freight charge, and it didn’t have some key (spell costly) options..
The new Explorer nearly rides like a big car, but drives like a smaller car. The brakes felt touchy when cold on a test Explorer Limited, but there was no such reaction after a mile or so of driving.
The Explorer isn’t very hard to enter or leave. Occupants sit high, and the front occupants face a huge windshield — fortunately accompanied by big sun visors. Gauges can be easily read, but the console shifter gets in the way when a driver uses one of the deep dual cupholders. A nice touch in an Explorer Limited was lit red rings around the rims of the front cupholders so they can easily be seen at night.
The quiet interior is a high point, being swatched in rich-looking, soft-touch materials Front seats offer nice support, although more lateral support for the upper back would be appreciated. As with the exterior, interior fit and finish of my test Explorers was flawless.
There are many interior storage areas, including door pockets and a deep, covered front console bin.
While front room is good, a six-footer in the second row will find leg space tight behind the driver. There’s no such problem on the second-row passenger side, and even the middle of the second-row seat is comfortable. But the third row is best left to children, supple teens or shorter adults.
The deep cargo area is fairly roomy, even with the third-row seat in its normal upright position. It greatly increases the cargo area when folded forward.
The new Explorer is so upscale I didn’t expect to find an old-fashioned hood prop rod, instead of hydraulic struts.
With new vehicles such as the Explorer, Ford should continue to be on a roll.
Dan Jedlicka is the former automotive writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. To read more of his new and classic car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.