2011 Ford Explorer Review

2011 Ford Explorer - Explorers brings the bacon back to Chicago.


If this next-generation, 2011 Ford Explorer hand-picked a theme song for marketing purposes, it just might be 'Sweet Home Chicago.'

Ford Motor Company invested upwards of $400 million during the past year to re-energize Chicago's south side assembly facility and welcome the totally revamped 2011 Explorer. The plant and region benefited nicely from 1,200 job openings created upon Explorer's transfer to the Windy City, plus spinoff opportunities for local and national suppliers.

Opened in 1924, Ford's sprawling Torrance Avenue plant is the longest, continuously running assembly facility in the Blue Oval's North American portfolio. Since November, the highly flexible plant has run two 10-hour shifts to accommodate its new tenant.  In addition to the five-door Explorer, Ford's Taurus sedan and similarly styled Lincoln MKS share line time. Prior to relocation, Explorer assembly took place near the Indiana-Kentucky boarder in Louisville.

Ford purposely took its sweet time in its new Chicago home when launching Explorer late last year to minimize potential start-up issues. The meticulous launch incorporated Ford's "Quality Operating System" (QOS) enveloping an employee training program and dialed up efforts to catch the smallest miscues.  Persistence paid dividends as Explorer earned the coveted, journalistically-based "2011 North American Truck of the Year" award at this year's Detroit Auto Show.

The 2011 version is a complete departure from Explorer's storied 1990 arrival.  It's a whole new animal, based on the Taurus car platform rather than Ford Ranger underpinnings. A smoother, car-like, front-drive design replaces rear-drive.  Side running boards have vanished thanks to a lower step-in height; yet, ground clearance remains identical at eight inches. Don't think Explorer compromised comfort or usability.  The 2011 version is three inches longer and five inches wider while trimming weight.  Once inside, the 2011 Explorer offers more head and shoulder room. Explorer has transformed itself from an off-road sport utility into a three-row crossover.

Three trims are offered: Base, XLT and up-level Limited. Ford's tested, 3.5-liter V-6 engine delivering 290 horses comes standard while an in-line four-cylinder EcoBoost engine combining direct gas injection with turbocharging and 240 horsepower is now optional in all trims. Both are mated to fuel-friendly, six-speed automatic transmissions.

All-wheel-drive Explorers exchange a heavy-duty, four-high/four-low transfer case for a standard 'terrain management system.' Drivers select from four settings (normal, mud, sand, snow) via a twist dial between the front buckets to best manage current under-tire situations through engine management calibrations. Explorer does all the calculations; drivers need not fuss. Also tied into this technology is hill descent control easing braking anxiety if descending a steep incline under 20 miles per hour. Only six-cylinder Explorers are available with all-wheel drive. Front- drive comes with both engines.

Expect 17 miles per gallon city and 23 mpg highway with Explorer's updated V-6. The outgoing 2010 model's bulkier 4.0-liter V-6 generated 14/20 mpg respectively.  The 2.0-liter EcoBoost became available in August with fuel estimates of 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, topping mileage of most three-row competitors dependent on V-6 engines. A cap less fuel tank holds 18.6 gallons of regular, unleaded petro.  This design allows fuel nozzles to penetrate a self-sealing barrier when starting and finishing the fueling process, negating concerns about cap malfunctions.

Our Limited, all-wheel-drive V-6 tester started at $39,190. Options included a power/navigation group (voice activated, in-dash nav screen, power lift gate, power third-row seat, upgraded seating, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise)- $4,910; platinum tri-coat paint- $495; trailer tow package- $570 and $805 destination charge for a $45,160 bottom line after application of a $810 navigation option group discount. The lowest-priced Base front-drive V-6 starts at $28,995.

Seven seats come standard while 40/40 second-row captain's chairs are optional. Rear side doors swing open wide enough for decent entry into both back rows.  To access row three, 60/40 second-row backs fold flat onto cushions, allowing the entire unit to tilt forward, opening a decent aisle to third-row seats. Bolted to the floor, second-row seats do not leave the vehicle.  Both second and third rows incorporate round ceiling vents for proper circulation. Row three is best left for pre-teens and younger siblings, although in a pinch, able-bodied adults could adapt. Head rests fold forward, out of rear-view mirror eyeshot if seats are prone but unoccupied. Third-row headroom and comfort are not as generous as with GM's trio of large, Lansing, Michigan-built crossovers (Traverse, Acadia, Enclave).

Explorer now offers an industry first; inflatable second-row seat belts. This budding technology helps reduce head and neck injuries by spreading out crash force during impacts.  If called upon, two outboard belts inflate in milliseconds from the shoulder down to the waist to a bratwurst-like shape. Belts incorporate a softer weave, appeasing small children and 'seasoned adults' who tend to occupy the second row in greater numbers.  Standard safety nuances include side seat air bags, dual front air bags, side curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Also standard is curve control, keeping Explorer on road during overly aggressive entry ramp turns.  The system reduces engine power and automatically applies four-wheel braking, reducing vehicle speed by 10 miles per hour in one second.

The Limited Trim's optional, radar-driven cruise control provided useful during a visit to the Wisconsin Dells. Once engaged via buttons on the three-spoke tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, Explorer automatically slows and speeds up depending on the action of the vehicle ahead on the highway. This technology, once only the property of luxury vehicles, has arrived to the mainstream. This system works in tandem with a collision warning system helping slow the vehicle during imminent crash situations. Also optional is a cross traffic blind spot warning, alerting drivers to moving vehicles hidden from view when pulling out of crowded parking lots.

Ford's invested mightily with in-vehicle telematics with mixed results.  More than one shotgun-riding guest shared comments concerning the in-dash navigation. A simple "Map" button (within the animation or outside the screen) would help summon the often-used screen.  Below, a flat, smooth, touch-sensitive panel (similar to Smartphones or microwave oven face plates), incorporates an array of tiny temperature-related icons, difficult to summon with a quick glance.

Upon request, Ford offers in-dealer clinics to familiarize owners with MyFord Touch (a second-generation version of Sync) and standard MyKey parental-control technologies. Sync's voice interface allows drivers to control audio, ventilation, navigation and participating portable cell phones through vocal commands.  MyFord Touch is standard in Limited trims as is push-button start, two-tone leather heated front buckets and dual-zone climate controls.

Our Limited included optional, 50/50 split third-row seating with a power fold option.  From the open hatch area, side buttons power backs flat.  For more usable cargo space, command the folded unit to power backward into a shallow ravine.

Explorer borrows family style cues from Taurus with perforated, horizontal grille cross bars and central blue oval logo. Hawkeye-shaped headlight housing flanks the hardware. Dual exhausts come standard.  Side-view mirrors (in XLT and Limited editions) smartly incorporate secondary blinker bands alerting those nearby of future lane intentions. The power lift gate's (optional in XLT and Limited) generous opening provides enough clearance for those six-feet two-inches or shorter.  A temporary spare tire resides under third-row seating

The ride is very un SUV like now that Explorer incorporates a car-like platform; smooth and unchoppy. When equipped with towing package, V-6 Explorers cart up to 5,000 pounds, better-than-average for uni-body-built chassis.  

This past June, Ford announced (in Chicago) a $100 million laser inspection technology investment, ensuring better body fits and wind noise reduction.  Seal gap tests measure minute spaces between doors and frames with spring-loaded gauges and hand-held Laser wands. The Chicago Assembly Plant is one of three facilities worldwide to incorporate this technology, benefitting the 2012 Taurus, MKS and Explorer.

2011 Ford Explorer

Overall length: 197.1 inches

Overall height:  71.0 inches

Wheelbase:  112.6 inches

Engine:  3.5-liter V-6

Horsepower: 290

Price as tested:  $45,160

Fuel economy:  17 mpg city, 23 mpg hwy.

Powertrain limited warranty: Five years/60,000 miles

Curb weight: 4,695 pounds.

Assembly:  Chicago, Illinois

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.