When Ford execs announced that the company would revamp its lineup, switching from a product line consisting of mostly trucks to one where the majority of vehicles sold are cars, some wondered how this would be possible. Ford's solution is to transform trucks into cars, or, more accurately, into crossovers. Using a car-based unibody platform rather than a truck frame allows for better on-road driving dynamics and often numerous other efficiency improvements. The usual down sides are reduced utility, like true off-road capability and towing capacity.
Based on the same architecture as the Taurus and Flex, the Explorer makes huge improvements in fuel economy, up 20 percent from last year's model. This is due in part to a new EcoBoost 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 237-hp at 5500 rpm and 250 ft-lbs of torque from 1700 to 4000 rpm. A V6 engine is also offered, with 3.5-liters of displacement and 290-hp with 255 ft-lbs of torque. Both engines get a 6-speed automatic transmission. V6 models also come with Ford's new intelligent 4WD system with a terrain management system that allows the driver to use a simple console-mounted dial to choose between settings for snow, sand, mud and a normal mode. There's also a hill descent mode. This should help pacify most potential buyers looking for SUV capability.
As for the other supposed drawback of a crossover, well, the V6-equipped Explorer is rated to tow 5,000 lbs. While that's not that close to the 7,100-plus lbs. the old V8 Explorer was rated at, it's 1,500 lbs more than the old V6 model.
As for interior room, there's a three-row setup and while we've yet to sit in the new Explorer (later today), sized like the Flex third-row room should be adequate. And even with all seven-seats used, there's still a solid amount of space for groceries – with a total of 80.7 cubic feet of space with 2nd and 3rd row seats down. The first two rows also gain head room over the previous model.
Along with the new EcoBoost motor, innovations on the new 2011 Explorer include a seatbelt airbag on the outboard second row seats. This system expands the size of the seatbelt in an accident while providing some added cushioning – particularly important for smaller second-row passengers (ie. your kids). Other safety features include Roll Stability Control, Curve Control (essentially a more potent form of stability control) and an emergency braking feature that will slow or even stop the car if an impact is deemed unavoidable. Another technology highlight is a cross-traffic alert system that uses the onboard radar system to look sideways to let you know if there's oncoming traffic when pulling out of a tight parking spot. And let's not forged Ford's MyFord Touch driver interface system.
With impressive new sheetmetal that actually gives the 2011 Explorer a more truck-like appearance, there's some worry that a third crossover (joining the Flex and Edge) in Ford's lineup could hurt the existing models. That may be true, but Explorer sales are almost certain to return to record pres-recession and pre $4.00 a gallon levels. The reason? Simple, Ford has rejuvenated the Explorer. Most people who owned one didn't need the truck capability and they're sure to be impressed by the added on-road functionality of the new Explorer, not to mention the improved style, features and interior trim. As for those who do need more truck-like functionality, Ford's intelligent 4WD system and impressive (for a crossover) tow rating should keep a significant number of truck-lovers (though not all) coming back.
More: 2011 Ford Explorer Gains EcoBoost Engine and Car-Based Platform, Keeps SUV Look