After several months of seemingly endless visual and technical teases, the wraps have finally come off of the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer. Endowing it with more expressive styling and overall refinement, a plethora of new features plus greater comfort and best-in-class fuel economy, Ford has completely recast the fifth generation of its legendary SUV nameplate into a multifaceted on/off road warrior for the 21st century. The mission: to boost its appeal both to current owners, and perhaps more critically, to conquest buyers -- especially previous believers who have strayed from the Explorer fold during the past few years.

Rewriting the success story

Available in base, XLT and Limited trims, the 2011 Ford Explorer shares a number of meaningful visual and structural elements originally seen on the Explorer America concept vehicle displayed at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show. While retaining a number of classic Explorer design cues, the Gen V iteration complements bolder but aerodynamically sleeker bodywork with tasteful flourishes that play up its Ford family DNA as well as impart a unique character to the new package.

This is particularly evident in the more assertive front fascia and side sculpting set off by blackout and body-color pillar treatments that emphasize the Explorer's prominent greenhouse. As a final touch, the base model wraps 245/65 reduced-rolling-resistance tires on 17-inch steel wheels, the XLT steps up to 245/60 rubber on 18-inch aluminum rims and the Limited comes with 255/50 tires on 20-inch alloys.

Another trait the new Explorer shares with the one-off America exercise is its car-like unitized construction. Adopting architectural elements from the Taurus/Flex platform, this fundamental departure from the previous body-on-frame configuration helped trim almost 100 pounds from the new Explorer's curb weight and saw its basic configuration change from rear- to front-drive. Although it remains mid-size, Ford engineers did juggle the 2011 Explorer's key dimensions a bit, trimming 0.9-inch of wheelbase, adding 3.7 inches in length and expanding its track spec to 67.0 inches -- stance-enhancing gains of 6.1 inches up front and 5.2 inches at the rear. At 8.2 inches, the new Explorer's ground clearance has only been reduced by 0.1 inch over the 2010 model. Combined with the new, fully independent suspension and an array of dynamic assists including AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and Ford's new Curve Control feature, this 2011 recipe promises to endow the new Explorer with unprecedented levels of competence and comfort. In addition to playing a key role in the functionality of Curve Control, the Explorer's new EPAS (Electric Power Assist Steering) improves feel and precision while decreasing parasitic drag on the system, which in turn helps boost fuel efficiency.

Elevating the refinement index

Inside, the 2011 Ford Explorer seats seven in a far quieter and even-more-attractive cabin environment that used premium European SUVs like the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 to establish its quality and fit/finish benchmarks. Soft touch surfaces abound and the upscale ambiance is properly complemented by more legible instrumentation, intuitive control layouts and a host of enhanced standard features. Even the base Explorer comes with a full range of power assists, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering column topped with a multifunction wheel, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with media hub, air conditioning with air-filtration system, keyless remote entry, four 12V powerpoints and numerous storage bins and cubbies.

Stepping up to XLT richens the 2011 Ford Explorer's feature mix with items like SIRIUS Satellite Radio, leather and metallic-look accent bits, SecuriCode keyless entry pad, and a reverse-sensing system. At the fully leather-lined Limited level, things get ramped up another notch with power front seats, power-adjustable pedals, dual-zone auto climate control, 12-speaker Sony premium audio system with HD Radio, Ford SYNC, a rearview camera and 110V AC power outlet. It also includes the new MyFord Touch comprehensive driver-connect technology with an 8.0-inch LCD color screen in the center console plus a pair of 4.2-inch driver-configurable multifunction displays in the instrument cluster. As ever, multiple packages and individual options allow buyers a good deal of personalization potential, particularly at XLT and Limited levels.

Although the Explorer's 2011 remake does yield gains in headroom and shoulder room, legroom has decreased slightly in all three rows. So too has maximum cargo space, which dips from 83.7 to 80.7 cu ft with both the 60/40 second row and 50/50 third row benches folded flat.

Ti-VCT and EcoBoost technology yield unprecedented MPG

In an effort to achieve Ford's goal of creating "new expectations for SUV fuel efficiency and performance," the engineering team completely rethought the 2011 Explorer's powertrain choices. The V6 and V8 used in 2010 give way to a pair of new motivators, both fitted with Ford's Ti-VCT (Twin independent variable camshaft timing) -- and paired with new six-speed automatic transmissions. The base 3.5-liter V6 makes 290 horsepower -- same as the outgoing 5.0-liter V8 -- and 255 lb-ft of torque; however, its EPA fuel economy ratings are projected to be 20 percent better than those of the outgoing V6.

The 2011's optional engine is an even more efficient 2.0-liter four that utilizes Ford's trick turbocharged/direct-injected EcoBoost technology. It cranks out 220 horses and 250 lb-ft of twist -- 10 more ponies and only four fewer torque units than the old V6 -- and is expected to offer 30 percent better in fuel economy. This EcoBoost alternative will only be available on front-drive Explorer models and cuts the maximum towing capacity from 5,000 to 2,000 lb. But for many of today's SUV buyers, it's likely to prove a viable and very attractive option.

Terrain management adds a new measure of competence

Recognizing that the average 2011 Explorer is destined to spend most of its time on road, Ford chose to pass on a dual-range transfer case in favor of an available "intelligent" four-wheel-drive system that incorporates a trick terrain management system capable of optimizing vehicle response in all types of driving environments and surface conditions. Similar to the system pioneered by Land Rover, terrain management is designed to provide a far more user-friendly 4WD solution for those who do choose to carry on when the pavement ends -- as well up driver confidence in any type of compromised traction condition. It offers unique programming for four distinct situations (normal/mud-and-ruts/sand/snow) that are quickly and easily selectable by simply turning a knob on the center console that in turn engages a unique set of optimized settings for engine calibration, throttle command, transmission shift schedule and traction/stability control. While all 2011 Explorers will come with Hill Start Assist, opting for 4WD also adds Hill Descent Control, which has been borrowed from Ford's best-selling F-Series pickup.

As a final touch, the 2011 Ford Explorer complements its formidable selection of driver assists and safety features with several new enhancements. Passengers in the second row seat benefit from an additional measure of protection -- as well a comfort -- thanks to the world's first application of standard inflatable rear seatbelts which can spread impact forces over five times as large an area as their conventional counterparts. New Explorer safety options include Ford's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) and adaptive cruise control with collision warning and brake support.

The 2011 Ford Explorer is scheduled to arrive in dealers this winter. Although official EPA numbers won’t be released until closer to on-sale day, Ford has confirmed that Explorer pricing will start at $28,995 for the base model -- $1,000 below the least-expensive 2010 model -- with the XLT opening at $32,995 and the Limited beginning at $37,995. No final word on the price premium the EcoBoost engine will command, but a Ford source indicated that it will be fairly modest. While not likely to dominate the mid-size SUV market like it did in 2000 when its record 445,000 units accounted for 13.1 percent of the automaker’s total U.S. sales, the all-new 2011 Explorer seems well prepared to reassert itself as a major presence in the segment.

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