For the first time in its 20-year history, the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle is changing into a softer SUV with an underlying platform that's used by a car for a smoother ride.
One of Ford Motor Co.'s most popular vehicles, the Explorer also looks less truckish for 2011, with new styling that's more like a crossover SUV than an upright, squared-off truck.
There are many new Explorer features, too, including inflatable rear seatbelts that are a first in a production vehicle. They're a $120 option, available later in the model year.
Perhaps most notable is the new Explorer's V-6, which is standard, and generates 290 horsepower, just two horses less than what a previous Explorer's V-8 delivered.
Yet, with computer management of the six-cylinder engine, plus six-speed automatic transmission, the 2011 Explorer has a commendable fuel mileage rating from the federal government of 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.
A turbocharged, four-cylinder engine promises better gasoline efficiency and is due later in the model year.
2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD
- BASE PRICE: $28,190 for base, 2WD model; $30,190 for base 4WD model; $31,190 for XLT 2WD; $33,190 for XLT 4WD.
- AS TESTED: $37,290.
- TYPE: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger, mid-size sport utility vehicle.
- ENGINE: 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 with Ti-VCT.
- MILEAGE: 17 mpg (city), 25 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: NA.
- LENGTH: 197.1 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 112.6 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 4,695 pounds.
- BUILT AT: Chicago.
- OPTIONS: Rapid spec package 202A (includes power-adjustable front seats and leather-trimmed seats) $2,500; navigation system $795.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $805.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, has gone up only $595 from the 2010 Explorer -- to $28,995 for a base, two-wheel drive 2011 Explorer with V-6. The lowest starting retail price for a four-wheel drive, 2011 Explorer with V-6 is $30,995. Pricing for the 2-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder Explorer hasn't been announced.
Explorer competitors include the 2011 Kia Sorento, which has a starting retail price of $26,190 with V-6 and $23,190 with naturally aspirated four cylinder, and the 2011 Chevrolet Traverse, which starts at $29,999 with V-6.
The Explorer, which debuted in 1991, switches to a car-like platform and unibody construction to attract consumers who have turned increasingly to the so-called crossover SUVs to get away from the truckish ride of early truck-based SUVs and to get better fuel mileage.
The new Explorer's platform has its roots in the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS cars.
I could tell immediately that the test Explorer XLT 4WD rode more smoothly than earlier Explorers. Even on uneven surfaces, the ride was less bouncy, less harsh and more compliant than in earlier models.
The body and mass of the vehicle feels more buttoned down through curves and turns, though at more than 4,600 pounds, the test Explorer still had a lot of weight.
Engineers used more high-strength steel in the new Explorer, which makes the body stiffer and easier to manage. This steel construction also helps the suspension tuning be more precise for better driving dynamics, and it shows in the 2011 Explorer.
The test vehicle's electric power-assisted steering -- which helps save gas -- had good on-center feel and was comfortable.
With the exception of some road noise from the tires and a bit of wind noise from around the outside mirrors, the interior was quite quiet, and everyone rides high over the pavement as there's 8 inches of ground clearance.
The 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 with twin independent, variable camshaft timing sounded strong and delivered power in a steady, predictable fashion without straining. But the automatic transmission seemed to hunt for the best gear when I was driving through mountain twisties.
Torque peaks at a decent 255 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and with optional tow package, towing capacity is a hearty 5,000 pounds.
Note that the Explorer's horsepower is more than the 276 from the Sorento V-6, the 281 in the Traverse, and the 250 in the Honda Pilot. The V-6-powered Sorento, which is about a foot shorter in length and a bit narrower than the new Explorer, has higher government fuel economy, though, at 20/26 mpg.
The Explorer doesn't have a low-range transfer case anymore for rugged off-roading, but electronically-controlled four-wheel drive with three driving modes -- for sand, snow and normal -- will fit the bill for nearly all prospective buyers.
The Explorer doesn't scrimp on interior room. The new, 16.4-foot-long Explorer is some 5 inches wider and nearly 4 inches longer in overall length than its predecessor and feels roomy.
With nearly 40 inches of legroom in the second row, I could extend my legs while sitting behind the driver. In the third row, there's nearly 38 inches of legroom and my knees did not touch the second-row seatbacks. Additionally, because the second-row seats can slide forward and back on tracks, passengers can adjust and share legroom to accommodate everyone.
Mothers will appreciate that the Explorer's second row can slide quite close to the back of the front row, for easier reach to babies in car seats.
All buyers will like the powered seatbacks that make stowing third-row seats easy. The cargo floor is flat and totals 80.7 cubic feet when second- and third-row seats are folded down.
Ford offers its Sync voice-command system in the new Explorer, and there are new features that work with it, including TeleNav that uses a handy, 16-gigabyte SD card to store maps, addresses and landmarks.
Ford officials say people recognize the newly styled vehicle is an Explorer, but I didn't.
The rounded shape and grille work seem like a cross between the Ford Edge and Ford Flex, and I wonder how the similarly-sized Edge will fare in showrooms next to the new Explorer.
All Explorers come with the usual standard safety features including curtain air bags, antilock brakes and stability and traction control.
Inflatable, tube-like structures deploy from the optional rear inflatable shoulder belts, and are designed to better distribute crash forces across the body. With traditional belts, small-sized passengers and elderly can suffer seatbelt injuries from the concentration of crash forces at the belts.