Auto Review: A kinder, gentler Explorer

By Bill Heald - ReminderNews
Feature Article - posted Thu., Aug. 18, 2011
- Contributed Photo

If there’s any single vehicle that can perfectly illustrate the evolution of the mid-size sport utility vehicle, it’s the incredibly popular Ford Explorer. When it first appeared on the scene in 1990 to replace the rather long-in-the-tooth Ford Bronco II, it was instrumental in the transformation from SUVs being associated with sportsmen into a new role formerly occupied by station wagons and minivans.

It started as a truck-based SUV, to be sure, but over time, the Explorer has wandered toward the crossover realm and now has embraced it completely with the all-new 2011 version. Gone are the truck-based frame, standard rear-wheel drive and rugged persona of the past, and in its place is an ultra-contemporary vehicle designed to haul you and your family in comfort through any kind of weather. Or, as Ford puts it, “The 2011 Explorer has been redefined to raise customer expectations of what an SUV can be – with best-in-class fuel economy, improved driving dynamics, state-of-the-art technology and world-class craftsmanship.”

Our test Explorer was powered by a new 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 290 horsepower and comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission, and this combo boasts a claimed 25-percent increase in fuel economy over last year’s model. Another engine, a 2-liter Turbocharged EcoBoost Inline Four, promises a 30-percent increase in fuel economy when it arrives any day now. The all-wheel drive system on our Limited 4X4 is also new, and described by Ford thusly: “Replacing the traditional SUV transfer case, the new system takes the guesswork out of maximizing 4WD. Rather than employment of four-high, four-low and auto settings, the Explorer terrain management system is selectable by situation, including normal, mud, sand and snow.”

The 60 mph mark arrives in a quick 8 seconds, although midrange-passing acceleration was hampered by the automatic transmission’s reluctance to downshift quickly. Ride quality is another indication of how the truck roots have been jettisoned for more car-like civility, and handling is sound with good mid-corner stability. Braking is likewise good, and the new Explorer comes loaded with the latest in safety features. Our tester had an optional Collision Warning System that works in concert with Adaptive Cruise Control, which lets the vehicle apply the brakes if sensors deem a collision is imminent.

Inside, the Explorer proved to be roomy and civilized; even including the power-folding third row seats that were perfectly acceptable for adults. We also sampled the MyFord Touch screen-based control system that has both touch screen and voice-activated interaction elements to operate everything from climate control to the audio/communications interfaces.

All in all, the new Explorer is a more refined, roomier and technologically-advanced SUV than its predecessors, with only the small penalty of a loss of truck-like ruggedness. The 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD is EPA-rated 17 MPG city/23 highway and has a base price of $39,190. With options, our sticker came to $46,850.

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