New car-based Taurus platform for better ride, handling, and mileage than old truck based unit. Excellent amenities, such as power liftgate, power third row seats, curve control and active park assist. New optional ($195) inflatable air bag-like safety belts. MINUSES:
Needs to overcome stigma of previous model.
Once thought to have a nasty desire to roll over on its own, the Ford Explorer came this close to joining Edsel among the ranks of extinct nameplates.
First introduced in 1991, Explorer went on to sell more than 6 million units and become the leading SUV sold industry wide---until rollover charges prompted a tailspin and sales plummeted from 400,000 units plus in 2000 to a dismal 50,000 in 2010.
To atone for past sins, Ford turned to a host of sophisticated electronics for 2011 to win back consumer confidence---as well as lost sales.
How to relieve fears over rollovers? Ford installed Curve Control in the 2011 Explorer, a system that senses when entering a curve or turn too fast and automatically applies braking and eases back the throttle to reduce speed by 10 m.p.h. per second to keep the wheels side down.
Even though many insisted the Firestone radials were the cause of rollover complaints, not the SUV itself, there were lots of glum faces over another Explorer shortcoming---mileage.
So for 2011, Ford responded by dropping the 292 h.p. 4.6 liter V-8 that obtained 14 m.p.g. city/19 m.p.g. highway, as well as the base 4 liter V-6 that was rated even lower at 13/19.
Ford now offers a choice of a 3.5 liter V-6 that at 290 h.p. is only 2 h.p. shy of the old V-8, or a new 2 liter, 237 h.p. twin turbo EcoBoost four cylinder as the option for those wanting optimum fuel economy. The former 4.6 liter V-8 is no longer offered since a V-8 is no longer in Explorer plans.
We tested Explorer with the 3.5 liter teamed nwith 6-speed automatic that's is rated at 17 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway, a vast improvement, and roughly 20 percent better mileage than the former 4 liter V-6.
Explorer is offered with the choice of engines and a choice of front or all wheel drive, and in base, XLT or top of the line Limited trim. We tested Explorer Limited with the 3.5 V-6. While best to determine mileage over an extended period, not just a week, Explorer didn't seem to have the unquenchable thirst for fuel it had in the past. We didn't have to rent space at the pump.
Another former Explorer gripe is that the truck based SUV had the ride and handling of a pickup, which it was based on, not a sedan, which it wasn't. So for 2011 Ford offers an Explorer based on the same platform as the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS sedans. Ride and handling problem solved.
The Explorer Limited tested came with AWD. The machine was both smooth and quiet, and as nimble to maneuver into and out of the passing lane or into and out of the parking space at the mall as a Taurus or MKS.
No worries about jarring those in the cabin when passing over every tar mark in the road. And handling has improved significantly with more sure footed maneuvering without top heavy lean on twisty roads.
The old Explorer was rough, the new one is refined.
While being car-based helps ride and handling, there's one drawback. The car-based Explorer can tow about 5,000 pounds, about 2,000 pounds less than the truck-based model, yet a small sacrifice to pay for better ride and handling and overall refinement.
Of course, building Explorer off the Taurus/MKS platform serves another purpose as well. It allows Ford to fill its Torrence Avenue plant in Chicago with product to ensure the assembly line busy and guard against downtime and layoffs.
With Explorer, Taurus, MKS, and soon a new Ford police interceptor version of both Taurus and Explorer slated for Torrence Avenue, the plant should enjoy prosperity it hasn't experienced since the Taurus it assembled was the industry's top selling car in the mid-'90s.
Another major change for Explorer is the addition of an option that takes the misery out of a task that annoys most drivers---having to parallel park.
Explorer has been given the same active park assistance option offered in the Lincoln MKS and Ford Taurus sedans and Lincoln MKT and Ford Flex crossovers. The system will also be offered in the next generation Ford Focus sedan for 2012.
With Active Park Assist, when you need to parallel park just push a button low in the dash to the left of the steering wheel to activate the system. Cruise the street slowly and when a large enough spot between two vehicles is found the system beeps out an alert to stop, lift hands off the wheel, let the car back into the space, and once there the driver then brakes, straightens the wheel, pulls forward and the chore is done.
Sadly, the test vehicle didn't have the option, but we've experienced it in Ford sedans previously and it's a blast to play with around town.
The system is one feature in a $4,000 rapid spec package. While fun to play with, can't remember the last time we had to parallel park, so it's a neat option that solves a problem, but in reality won't be used as much as the power liftgate or power third row seats, other features that are part of the $4,000 option package.
When approaching the vehicle with arms loaded with gear or groceries, the ability to simply press the key fob and have the tailgate swing open is a huge advantage.
Power third row seats save stress on the back and bruises to the knuckles. Press the cargo wall button and one or both third row seat backs fold flat, flip, and hide in the cargo floor for huge hauling or massive storage capacity. Yank a lever and second row seat backs fold flat for even more space if needed.
The cabin is cozy, seats well cushioned, and all controls easy to see and use.
One problem is third row headrests. When the seat's in use and the headrests up, they block vision out the rear window. If in use and flipped down, resting your back against them feels like resting on bricks.
A nice touch is the optional $1,595 dual panel moon roof that incorporates a slide open glass panel over the front seat and a fixed glass panel over the second row. The large glass panels allow pleasant viewing of the scenery and make the cabin feel open and spacious. For those with kids, you can opt for a
$1,995 rear seat DVD entertainment system.
Though stability control is standard, it's nice to have the AWD, which comes with a dial setting for driving on clear pavement, snow, mud, or sand by adjusting throttle action and transmission shift points to make for easier going. There's also hill descent control to prevent the SUV from rolling too quickly down a steep incline.
And that's not all Explorer offers.
There's also My Key, which allows Mom and Dad to program not only the top speed, but radio volume level when the teens are given the key, and MyFord Touch, which uses touch or voice commands for climate, audio and navigation systems to keep drivers focused on the road ahead, not dials or levers in the instrument panel.
Explorer boasts an industry first with a most unique safety feature, inflatable rear seat safety belts that are bigger and wider than regular safety belts. The larger size means they inflate across a larger area of the body to spread the force of the impact to protect against injury. Inflatable belts are in the second row only because front row occupants already have air bags.
The belts, a $195 option, won't deploy unless fastened in the belt buckle, so if occupants don't fasten, the belt won't deploy and the medical bill could well exceed the $195 spent on the belts. The belts weren't on the test vehicle.
There's also blind spot alert which flashes an orange light in the rear view mirrors to signal a vehicle is approaching along either side; cross traffic alert to signal when vehicles are approaching behind when backing out of the driveway or parking space; and an SOS post-crash alert system so that in the event of an accident with an airbag deployment, the vehicle automatically dials the emergency operator to send help. There's no subscription charge for this SYNC-based service.
The base 2011 Explorer starts at $28,900. The Limited AWD model tested starts at $38,190. Standard equipment includes dual-zone temperature control, leather trimmed heated power seats, rear view camera, remote start, 110-volt outlet, SYNC voice-activated communications and entertainment system, push-button start, adjustable pedals, and power windows, mirrors, and locks.
Limited comes with a second row bench seat, or for $750 you can replace the three place bench with a pair of bucket seats and put a floor console ($100) between the buckets. Hmm. That's $850 to loose the ability to cart one passenger!
Ford spared nothing to give Explorer a second chance. Explorer has undergone a major transformation and upgrade, enough to earn North American Truck of the Year honors from the 50 members of the automotive media who do the judging, this scribe included.
Awards give an automaker bragging rights, but what counts most is the vote by consumers, who do so by writing a check for the downpayment. 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD Wheelbase:
112.6 inches Length:
197.1 inches Engine:
3.5 liter, 290 h.p., V-6. Transmission
: 6-speed automatic. Mileage:
17 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway.Base price:
$38,190. Price as equipped:
Add $4,000 for rapid spec package 302A with voice activated navi, power liftgate, power third row seat, active park assist, adaptive cruise control, rain sensing wipers, blind spot monitoring, HID headlamps, $395 red candy metallic paint, $750 second row captain's chairs, $1,595 dual panel moon roof, $1,995 rear seat DVD entertainment system, $100 second row floor console, $570 towing package, $135 rear cargo shade, $120 roof rack, $185 mud guards, and $805 freight.