Just two years ago, fast-rising gas prices and a severely shaken economy seemed to spell doom for a large segment of the SUV market—a segment that included Ford’s once iconic mid-size Explorer.
Regardless of outside circumstances, the Explorer had fallen on hard times. Seemingly neglected by the brand as it focused on the five-seat Edge and the boxy Flex crossover, the Explorer seemed headed to the great junkyard in the sky.
Instead of letting it slide into oblivion, however, Ford decided to give the Explorer a thorough redesign. Now riding on a unibody structure, the 2011 Explorer drops the V-8 and makes the previously optional third-row seat standard.
It also moves the Explorer to front-wheel drive with an available all-wheel drive system that has a Terrain Management System that can be adjusted depending on varying road conditions.
The new Explorer is stylishly sculpted, with a handsome grille and a purposeful stance. It’s conservative without being bland and boring like the previous model. It’s easy on the eyes in the same way that a cute Hollywood starlet is as she moves across the screen.
It also looks smaller than it at actually is—it looks fairly svelte for a mid-size SUV. It’s not as sporty as the rival Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it’s close. It does come across as slicker than the admittedly handsome redesigned Dodge Durango.
There’s plenty of head and legroom for tall drivers, and the second-row seat is more than acceptable. The third is tight for all but children, and cargo space with the third row up is limited.
The big news is the addition of the MyFordTouch system, which mostly does with away with knobs and buttons in favor of a more iPod-like setup. It also integrates the navigation system into the gauges, which are customizable. Ford’s Sync multimedia system is also improved.
There are two engines available: A standard 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 290 horsepower, and later in the year, an optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder that will make 237 horsepower. Fuel economy hasn’t been certified on the four-cylinder yet, but the V-6 is rated at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.
Acceleration isn’t great—there’s about 4,600 lb to haul around here, and it shows. Not to mention that it takes the transmission a beat or two before downshifting—I swear I could’ve played a Led Zeppelin medley during the that time.
Perhaps the biggest improvement from the previous generation is in the ride—the 2011 Explorer has a car-like ride that’s highly compliant and comfortable on the freeway. The unibody construction gets credit for that.
Handling is a mixed bag. The Explorer is buttoned-down, with relatively damped body roll, and it takes a set nicely, but again, its mass is more than a little noticeable. A canyon carver it ain’t, but it holds its own when pushed. Steering feel is accurate and precise—it feels nicely dialed-in for an electric power-assisted unit. I don’t expect most Explorer buyers to hustle it on a twisty road—Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lots seem to be the natural environment for these vehicles—but those who do will be pleasantly surprised.
Noise is well-muffled, with very little wind/road/tire noise coming through to the cabin.
Ford will readily admit that the Explorer isn’t an off-road basher like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but thanks in part to the Terrain Management System, it can hold its own on a pretty challenging off-road course.
Those who tow will note that the Explorer can tow up to 5,000 lbs, and it offers features like trailer-sway control and a zoom feature on the rearview camera that can be used to make hooking up a trailer easier.
There are other high-tech features available on the Explorer, such as a collision-warning system, a capless fuel filler, a “curve control” system that automatically slows the vehicle when a corner is taken too quickly, a blind-spot alert system, a hill-descent control system, a cross-traffic alert system, adaptive cruise control, and a media hub that can be used to turn the Explorer into a mobile wi-fi hotspot.
Explorer comes in three flavors: Base ($28,995), XLT ($31,995), and top-dog Limited ($37,995).
The natural expectation is that the Explorer will compete with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the vote here is that Explorer makes a better comparison to the Dodge Durango, also redesigned for 2011.
No matter what it’s pitted against, the Explorer will do well, thanks to the improved interior and exterior styling, the car-like ride, and the available technological features.
This isn’t the same Explorer that helped ignite the SUV craze 20 years ago. Instead, it’s a vehicle well-positioned to succeed in today’s much-changed SUV market.