Reinventing the success formula
Completely redesigned to better focus on the wants and needs of today's increasingly sophisticated buyers, the 2011 Ford Explorer shares little but its name with a vehicle that ushered in the modern SUV era when it arrived as a 1991 replacement for the Bronco II. Still mid-size, the fifth-generation Explorer now straddles the line between a traditional sport utility and contemporary crossover by having made the leap from body-on-frame to unitized design. That transition yields a four-door/seven-passenger package which is significantly lighter yet stronger and hugely more fuel-efficient than the 2010 Explorer. Equally important, it also provides greater comfort and refinement plus state-of-the-art technology and safety features. Available in base/XLT/Limited trims, front- or four-wheel drive and offering a standard V6 engine, the 2011 Ford Explorer will face off against key rivals like the Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Acadia, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner.
A market-driven makeover
Recognizing that typical SUV owners spend far more of their driving time on rather than off road, Ford engineers chose to rebalance the Explorer's design equation in a way that emphasizes ease of daily operation and overall economy while retaining solid trail-running and towing capabilities that remain requisites of the genre. Now underpinned by platform architecture also used in the Ford Taurus sedan, the 2011 Explorer exhibits a decidedly more car-like character. That fundamental revamp is most clearly evidenced in key areas like improved vehicle dynamics and class-leading fuel efficiency as well as in better isolation from wind and road noise in its far-more-refined passenger compartment. Given today's increased emphasis on interconnectivity, the changeover also allowed the 2011 Explorer to benefit from the new MyFord and MyFord Touch systems.
May be your favorite if:
Buyers seeking a versatile mid-size vehicle that merges the most desirable functional elements of an SUV and a crossover with exceptional style, comfort, connectivity and segment-leading fuel economy will find plenty to praise about the 2011 Ford Explorer lineup.
May not be your favorite if:
Hard-core off-roaders are still apt to prefer conventional body-on-frame vehicles like the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner -- or unit-body alternatives like the Dodge Durango Jeep Grand Cherokee that offer a dual-range 4WD system. Anyone needing to tow more than 5,000 pounds or wanting a rear-seat DVD entertainment system also should look elsewhere.
Form that facilitates function
While its basic shape and scale carry over, all-new sheetmetal endows the fully recast 2011 Explorer with a cleaner and classier appearance that also nets an outstanding 12-percent improvement in its aero numbers. Slightly longer and lower with significantly wider track dimensions, it backs a more assertive stance with prominent body sculpting complemented by a rakish C-pillar treatment and blackout A-, B- and D-pillars that further emphasize the newfound visual flair. Slicker front and rear fascia designs are set off by new, higher-profile headlamp and taillamp fitments while the smartly flared fenderwells on the base, XLT and Limited trims are suitably filled by 245/65, 245/60 and 255/50 tires on 17-inch steel wheels, 18-inch aluminum rims and 20-inch alloys, respectively.
That same kind of fundamental yet finely-focused change can be seen inside the new Explorer, as well, where a complete cabin remake places significantly greater emphasis on style, comfort and occupant accommodation. It starts with upgraded materials, first-rate fit/finish, lots more soft-touch surfaces and premium trim elements. The new instrument package with its MyFord Connect displays plus a media hub, four 12V powerpoints and multiple stow cubbies are standard in even the base model, while nicely formed front buckets team with an adult-friendly 60/40 second-row bench and an adult-accepting 50/50 fold-down third tier across the lineup. Pop the large, one-piece liftgate and you can easily load 15.7 cu ft of cargo in the Explorer's rear bay with all seats up -- or 80.7 cu ft with both rear rows folded flat.
What you get for about $29,000
In addition to its standard 290-horsepower V6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission and seating for seven, the impressive feature set on a base 2011 Explorer starts with a full range of power assists, dual 4.2-inch MyFord LCD information displays, an owner-programmable MyKey, six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with media hub, tilt/telescoping steering column, multi-function steering wheel, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless remote, rear privacy glass and roof rails. Safety items include AdvanceTrak with supplemental Roll Stability Control and Curve Control functions, Hill Start Assist, antilock brakes, front/front-side/side-curtain airbags and a rollover sensor. The minimal option list for the base Explorer is headed by four-wheel drive with multi-mode Terrain Management System and Hill Descent Control, SIRIUS Satellite Radio and a trailer-tow prep package.
What you get for about $32,000-$38,000
Stepping up to an Explorer XLT brings a host of exterior and interior enhancements including auto headlamps, fog lights, 18-inch wheel/tire upgrade, a reverse-sensing camera with zoom feature, premium cloth upholstery, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, SecuriCode entry pad and the SelectShift transmission feature plus the ability to add a broader range of extras including the Driver Connect Package (MyFord Touch with SYNC, premium audio system with USB/SD/RCA connectors, dual-zone auto climate control and rear-view camera) and a Comfort Package that brings all that plus heated leather seats as well as single options including a voice-activated navigation system, dual-panel power moonroof, power liftgate, inflatable second-row outboard seatbelts, Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) and four-wheel drive.
The Limited raises its formidable equipment ante to XLT plus both packages but gains a dedicated Sony premium audio system with HD radio. It also offers a Luxury Seating Package (perforated leather trim, heated/cooled front buckets, power folding third-row seat, power lift gate and navigation system) -- with or without a second group upgrade that adds BLIS, adaptive cruiser control, HID headlamps and rain-sensing wipers---and shares the XLT's selection of single-option items.
Features of note
My Ford Touch
This latest and most capable version of Ford's driver connect technology is standard on the Explorer Limited and available on the XLT. It utilizes an even more advanced and expansive version of the automaker's SYNC voice-command system to allow and recognize an even broader range of input commands for the audio, navigation, climate control and phone systems.
A world-exclusive, this standard safety enhancement senses when the Explorer is entering a given corner too quickly and automatically engages throttle and braking intervention to help keep it on the desired driving path.
Enthusiasm with economy
The 2011 Explorer comes standard with Ford's new high-tech Ti-VCT (twin-independent variable camshaft timing) V6 engine makes a stout 290 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. In addition to boasting 80 more ponies than the 4.0-liter six it replaces---and just two less than the current 4.6-liter V8---this super-efficient motivator is 25 percent more fuel efficient. Backed by a six-speed automatic transmission that features manual-style SelectShift capability in XLT and Limited models, it earns 17/25 mpg city/highway EPA numbers in front-drive Explorers and 17/23 mpg ratings in the 4WD versions. This slick six will send the Explorer from 0-60 mph in about 8.0 seconds and allow it to pull up to a 5,000-pound trailer.
"Some time next year," Ford will offer the Explorer with an optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that combines turbocharging, direct injection and variable valve timing to churn out 237 ponies and 250 lb-ft of twist. While it will only be available in front-drive models, Ford projects this lighter-duty but even-more-efficient alternative will offer 30-percent better fuel economy that the old V6.
Taking it to the streets -- and trails
For all of the noteworthy changes Ford wrought on the 2011 Explorer, the transformation in its dynamic character is arguably the most profound. Moving to a unit-body configuration endows this SUV/crossover with a far smoother, more compliant yet better-controlled ride. Match that with a bounty of standard computer-controlled handling aids, impressively weighted electrically-boosted power steering, capable anti-lock disc brakes and its world-exclusive Curve Control system and the new Explorer takes on any travel assignment with newfound confidence that belies its scale. Although ground clearance is a fairly modest 7.6 inches, our off-road experience in a four-wheel-drive variant proved conclusively that the new Terrain Management system will help ensure the average Explorer owner successful access -- and egress -- when venturing into unpaved territory, as well. Factor in outstanding fuel economy, exceptional cabin comfort, user-focused functionality plus class-leading connectivity, and the 2011 Explorer emerges as a most accommodating travelmate for its driver and passengers, alike.
KBB Value Analysis
A well-conceived, well-executed package, the 2011 Ford Explorer rolls onto the scene with everything required to reassert itself as a major force in the mid-size SUV/crossover market. Backing an extensive roster of must-have features with competitive pricing and best-in-class fuel economy is a formula that should put it in good stead with respect to all of its key rivals -- including the critical area of retaining value over time, where KBB projects this new Ford will maintain better-than-average residuals. More intensive class warfare makes it unlikely that the 2011 Explorer will come close to matching the sales magic of the original that racked up some 450,000 units in 1991. However, this 21st century variant will definitely command a far larger share of the available limelight than the vehicle it replaces.