Ford Explorer — The crossover that could capture the market

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Ford Explorer is the archetype of the modern mid-sized sport utility vehicle. The truck-based body-on-frame Explorer was an instant hit in 1991 replacing the smaller Ford Bronco II truck, and it became the industry standard for the booming SUV market during the last decade of the 20th Century. Like the Chrysler minivans in the ’80s, it was the pattern from which dozens of rival models were designed.

The Explorer, indeed, was instrumental in turning the SUV from a special-interest segment into one of the most popular vehicle types on the road with more than six million sold through 2010.

Its stranglehold on the mid-sized SUV segment was loosened in the now infamous tire crisis of 2000 when an unusually high rate of tire failures led to rollover incidents. The Explorer survived the rollover fiasco, but was reduced to playing second fiddle in the SUV ranks in the mid-2000s when car-based crossovers came into vogue because of better build quality, improved handling and superior gas mileage.

The Explorer soldiered on, but sales have slipped in recent years. Explorer’s 2010 sales were around 55,000, a far cry from its heyday when sales neared a half million a year.

Ford has done a 180-degree turn with the new fifth-generation 2011 Explorer. The iconic Ford leaves its body-on-frame roots and takes on an entirely new personality as a unibody crossover based on the Taurus sedan platform.

If you are among the near 90-percent of six million Explorer owners who never took your vehicle off-road you will love the new Explorer that provides a nearly flawless on-road experience.

If you are among the near three-percent that used your Explorer for real off-road trekking and rock climbing you’ll need to look elsewhere — probably finding what you need at your local Jeep outlet.

If you’re a Ford marketing exec that wants to promote the new Explorer as a SUV (like the previous body-on- frame Explorer), you need to stop smoking whatever you’re smoking. Missing is the low gearing, skid plates, ground clearance and river fording ability. Of course Ford is entitled to call it whatever they want.

A reality check says that the new Explorer is a crossover, and it’s a darn good one. Plenty of multi-configuration seating in three rows, off-pavement prowess that benefits from an all-terrain system similar to the one developed by Ford for the Land Rover brand that now belongs to Indian auto maker Tata, and lots of Ford’s excellent technology.

We found the Explorer has a delightful on-road persona with ample power and a smooth, comfortable ride. It also ate up miles of challenging twists and turns on a mountain road course that showed off outstanding road-holding capability. In all likelihood Explorer will easily handle what 99-percent of its owners will demand.

The all-wheel drive system includes a handy Terrain Management System controlled by a big knob on the center console. The knob can be rotated through four settings including normal, mud/ruts, sand, and snow. Each setting tailors the engine, transmission, traction control, and antilock brakes to suit the situation including a through the woods romp to grandma’s house; plowing through a patch of desert sand; slogging through some mud and muck; and able to conquer snowy conditions of northern climes to get you to work or the kids to school.

Powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 delivering 290 horses and 255 pound-feet of torque matched to a six-speed automatic (select shift option on upper trim levels) and offered in front-wheel or four-wheel drive there seems to be more than plenty of oomph to move this very good looking beast around.

For comparison purposes, the Explorer has been measured at 8.3 seconds from 0-to-60 and 16.3 seconds at 86.6 miles per hour in the quarter mile. Those numbers are very competitive with other “large” mid-sized crossovers.

Towing capacity is rated at an excellent 5,000 pounds and it comes with a trailer sway control package. There is plenty of capability with hill start assist and hill descent controls (AWD), electronic stability control with roll stability and curve control (to correct under or over steer problems), tire monitoring, and tons of other safety, comfort and tech functional items. Standard on the up level Limited is MyFord Touch and Sync — the voice activated entertainment, navigation, phone, and climate system technology.

Regarding MyFord Touch, as noted by Consumer Reports and previously reported by us, the technology which is intriguing can also be a distraction. The cluttered and hard to read touchscreen with its finicky climate, navigation and audio controls can force the driver to take his/her eyes off the road to accomplish a task. 

On the other side of the equation there are easy to read information windows on either side of the speedometer that mimic the touchscreen and are accessible by left and right side steering wheel controls that quickly become intuitive. Then there are the 10,000 voice commands that can access MyTouch via Sync. They too can be a bit frustrating but nevertheless an easily learned tool. We will grudgingly admit that living with MyTouch will become intuitive in time and some training at the dealership could prove invaluable. But the bottom line remains – what once were simple tasks have become complicated.

Styling inside and out is modern and eye-catching. The exterior is captivating with a lower, sleeker and wider stance than the outgoing Explorer. And its clamshell hood is a reminder to the bond it still shares with the Land Rover. Inside the dashboard is modern with excellent use of polished aluminum trim pieces and the gauges are easy to read.

The Explorer is comfortable with nicely designed front seats and decent room for rear-seat passengers. Space behind the third row is a useable 21cubic feet and cargo capacity with all seats folded is a generous 80.7 cubic feet.

There are three trim levels with the well-equipped base Explorer starting at $29,800 including destination. The mid-level XLT starts at $32,800 and the top line Limited begins at $38,800. Options can run prices up rapidly. All-wheel drive runs $2,000 across the lineup. Our all-wheel drive test vehicles priced out at $40,800.

Ford has done nothing short of a remarkable job transforming the Explorer into a modern crossover.

Base price: $29,800; as driven, $40,800
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 290 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 255 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/2
Wheelbase: 112.6 inches
Length: 197.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,695 pounds
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 21 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 80.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 23 mpg highway, 17mpg city
0-60: 8.3 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Kia Sorento

The Good:
• Excellent road manners
• Loaded with safety features
• Spacious, well-done interior

The Bad:
• Not a rock climber

The Ugly:
• Pricey with options