So while perhaps the old Explorer had been a fine sport utility for the 20th century — it was exceedingly popular, after all — the arrival of the 21st century came to Ford’s attention. The company decided to reinvent the Explorer for a new era ( though it missed the millennium celebrations by about a decade).
The results of that reinvention are reaching dealerships this month. What consumers will find is a radically changed Explorer with an emphasis on ride and handling, better fuel economy and some new features that will, Ford says, improve safety. Buyers will also find lower towing limits and less off-road ability.
The least expensive model, the plain Explorer with front-wheel drive, is $28,995. Up a step is the XLT at $31,995 and then the Limited at $37,995. All-wheel drive is offered on all trim levels for an additional $2,000.
I tested an Explorer Limited with all-wheel drive and a sticker price of $44,565, including a $4,810 luxury option package.
With an overall length of 197.1 inches, the 2011 Explorer is 3.7 inches longer than the 2010 model; the wheelbase is about an inch shorter.
Ford has been trying to make its interiors not just practical but more visually appealing, and it certainly succeeded here. The cabin is relatively quiet and certainly comfortable — nothing trucky about it.
Three rows of seats are now standard on all Explorers, which can therefore accommodate six or seven people, depending on whether the second row consists of a bench or captain chairs.
There is 2.9 inches more legroom in the second row, making it quite acceptable for six-foot passengers. But 1.8 inches has been lost for the front seats and about 1.7 inches for the third row. The third row is still most easily reached and occupied by smaller children channeling their inner monkeys.
Ford says there is 2 more cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. At 15.6 cubic feet, the capacity is about the same as the trunk of a midsize sedan. With the third row folded down there’s about 44 cubic feet of space, similar to the old model’s capacity.
One thing that mystified me was the MyFordTouch system, which is standard on the Limited. It replaces simple knobs (MyFordKnob?) with controls centered on an eight-inch screen used — along with voice commands — for controlling functions like the climate control, navigation system and entertainment options. While I thought it was an overly complicated ergonomic setback, Ford representatives assured me that it was actually easier and simpler to use. They also provided a 52-page instruction book.
Even the entry-level Explorer comes with all the crucial safety equipment, from air bags for side-impact protection to electronic stability control.
WHEN, in the course of discussing the all-new Ford Explorer, Ford officials refer to the old one, it sounds like some kind of Blue Oval confessional. Forgive us, consumers. Its fuel economy was poor, its ride and handling weren’t great and, while it could handle some basic off-road feats, very few of you cared.
One interesting safety option — available early next year — will be inflatable rear safety belts. Compressed air inflates the shoulder belt in a crash so that the forces are distributed over an area five or six times as large as a regular belt, said Srinivasan Sundararajan, the technical leader at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.
Because the belts are already on the occupant’s chest, they inflate far more slowly than an air bag. Ford says that should be particularly beneficial for children or the elderly. The cost is expected to be about $195.
The Explorer’s most radical change is invisible. Gone is the durable truck frame that Ford boasted about for almost two decades; the Explorer now has carlike unibody construction, its underpinnings based on the same architecture used for the Taurus and Flex.
Thus, 2-wheel-drive Explorers are now driven by their front wheels. On previous generations, 2-wheel drive meant rear-wheel drive.
There wasn’t much debate about getting rid of the body-on-frame design, said Frank Davis, the executive director for North American product programs. “The body on frame historically has been compromising on ride,” he said. “It has been compromising on fuel economy as well.”
Ford came somewhat late to the decision to move away from a body-on-frame structure. Its main competitors began shifting to car-type construction years ago, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee has had a unibody since its introduction in 1992.
But the wait was worthwhile. On some challenging two-lane roads northwest of Detroit the Explorer handled remarkably well. Ford did a great job of calibrating the new electric power steering, giving it an impressive blend of weight, feel and predictability. The steering is as good as, or better than, the systems on many cars. It syncs up with the independent suspension to give the driver considerable confidence in the ability to not just travel quickly, but to react to surprises.
In case of a particularly nasty surprise, the Explorer has what Ford calls Curve Control. Maintaining control of the vehicle used to be a function of the driver, but Ford has properly concluded that some drivers are not altogether proficient at emergency maneuvers, so electronic intervention was warranted. At its core, Curve Control is an advanced version of electronic stability control. Stability control has been used to try to correct a skid if either the front or rear of the vehicle begins to slide out. Ford engineers say they have reworked the algorithm so the system doesn’t wait for a significant skid. Instead, if sensors indicate the vehicle is heading in a direction at odds with where the steering wheel is pointed — say, going wide on a sharp turn — it makes a more subtle adjustment, perhaps by applying a single rear brake, to nudge the vehicle back on course.
The Explorer also gets some help on turns by having additional power automatically shifted to the rear wheels. Normally, sensors would direct more power to the rear under hard acceleration. Now the computer also gets information from sensors that detect cornering. That pre-emptive shift in power can help the Explorer turn more sharply. It is a feature increasingly used by automakers including BMW and Porsche.
Meanwhile, the ride remains comfortable, and body motions are carefully and yet gently controlled. I also drove a 2011 Grand Cherokee on the same roads, and in contrast its ride often felt busy, with a lot of tight, sometimes jiggly movements. One particularly annoying movement on the Jeep was a side-to-side rocking that was virtually absent in the Explorer.
The Explorer’s previous engines — a 4-liter V-6 and 4.6-liter V-8 — are gone. Power now comes from a 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 290 horsepower at 6,500 revolutions per minute and 255 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 r.p.m.
Ford boasts that the new V-6 almost matches the horsepower of the old V-8, which is true. But the V-8 had more peak torque (315 lb. ft.).
Gas mileage is notably better. The highest federal rating for the previous Explorer was 15 miles per gallon in town and 21 on the highway with the V-8 and 2-wheel drive. The new 4-wheel-drive models are rated at 17/23 and the 2-wheel-drive versions at 17/25.
Early next year, Ford says it will offer a 2-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine with direct injection and turbocharging. Assembled in Spain, the engine will be rated at 237 horsepower at 5,500 r.p.m. and 250 lb. ft. of torque from 1,750 to 4,000 r.p.m. Although it will be less powerful, the EcoBoost will be the Explorer’s premium engine and will cost extra — how much more has not been announced.
A spokesman said Ford expected the EcoBoost’s fuel economy to be at least 5 percent better than that of the 3.5-liter V-6.
With either engine, the transmission is a 6-speed automatic, which can be manually shifted.
The engine and transmission make a reasonable team, providing adequate acceleration and civility despite an unloaded weight of 4,695 pounds.
Maximum towing capacity also dropped, to 5,000 pounds from 7,000. But Mr. Davis, the head of North American product programs, said Ford’s research showed that was enough for most owners.
The old Explorer also had a moderately serious off-road ability. Mr. Davis said Ford had determined that customers might want
to be able to reach a campsite, but do not care about extreme activities like rock crawling.
to be able to reach a campsite, but do not care about extreme activities like rock crawling.
This is a convenient discovery, because serious off-road rambling is much more of a challenge in a car-based crossover like the new Explorer. The ground clearance of the new model with all-wheel drive — about 8.2 inches — has barely changed. The Explorer no longer offers a low-range gearbox, useful in off-roading, but it does have a system called Terrain Management, which was developed for Land Rover when Ford owned that brand.
Using a knob on the console, the driver can switch out of the “normal” setting for hard surfaces and into settings for “snow,” “sand” or “mud or ruts.” That then changes how the powertrain, the electronic stability control and the traction control react to surface conditions.
During a drive in deep sand at Ford’s proving grounds in Michigan, the Explorer struggled with the Terrain Management on the “normal” setting. Switched to “sand,” the system allowed more wheelspin and the vehicle easily churned through.
It may have taken Ford a while to figure out the shifting market and to cross over to a new species of sport wagon. But the new model’s excellence on pavement, its safety equipment and its comforts are likely to match the needs of many families most of the time. The new Explorer may well be the new benchmark in its class.