Thumbs Up: A great all-weather road trip ride, priced right.
Thumbs Down: Touch panel controls are too sensitive.
Buy This Truck If: You want a comfortable and capable ride for everything but hard core off-roading.
My first time behind the wheel of a 2011 Ford Explorer came in San Diego, at Ford’s press launch for the all-new midsize SUV. Ford really wanted to impress us with two things: first, the new Explorer was far better on-road than the last generation, and next, despite its unibody construction, the 2011 Explorer was still rather capable off-road. After a morning spent driving canyons outside of San Diego, followed by an afternoon playing in the dirt and sand, I was a believer. The new Explorer was indeed a huge improvement over the previous generation on pavement, yet it still had genuine off-road credibility. Granted, you won’t be traversing the Amazon or vacationing on the Rubicon Trail in a 2011 Explorer, but it’s more than capable of a day at the beach, a winter drive to your remote cabin or even a run through the occasionally muddy creek bed. The only thing I wouldn’t want to try in the Explorer is hardcore rock crawling, but to be fair I wouldn’t try that in my stock FJ Cruiser, either.
Ford was banking that the revised Explorer would bring new buyers to the brand without driving away loyalists, and for the most part they succeeded. Sure, I’ve gotten feedback from previous Explorer fans who hate the re-design, but as soon as I ask them about specifics (like, “How often did you go off-roading, or tow heavy loads?”) they get strangely silent. Unlike the last generation, the new Explorer won’t tow more than 5,000 pounds, and it may have lost a some amount of off road capability; those compromises aside, the new truck has more power from its V6, gets better fuel economy and is more pleasant to drive. In anyone’s mind, that should be proof enough of improvement to the brand.
A lot of the criticism I’ve heard to date is in regards to the exterior styling, which looks too “soft” for some and too much like the Edge for others. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Explorer’s new look, and you can definitely see the styling cues borrowed from (then) sister company Land Rover. In fact, the front end looks suspiciously like a Range Rover Evoque, which has received universal praise for its good looks, so I guess you can’t please everyone. The net result of the exterior changes to the Explorer is a more aerodynamic vehicle with a quieter interior, and far less of a “box on box on box” appearance.
If the exterior of the new Explorer has you on the fence, the interior should be all you need to convince yourself that the reborn Explorer is worth shopping. Front seats are wide and comfortable, and the driver’s seats features power adjustments for tilt, height, seatback angle and lumbar support. Front seat passengers make do with adjustments for height, tilt, lumbar support and seat back angle, at least in mid-grade XLT models. The leather seems particularly stout, and front seats are heated as long as you check the option box next to “Comfort Package”.
Rear seats feature an adjustable seatback, and offer plenty of head room and leg room. Two adults could go cross-country in the back of the Explorer, but I wouldn’t want to stuff three back there for more than cross-town trips. Rear seats aren’t heated, but that doesn’t really surprise me given the trucks sub-$40k pricing. For maximum cargo versatility or easy access to the third row seats, the second row seats tumble forward.
Unlike a lot of other mid-size SUVs, the third row seats in the Explorer are big enough for two adults. You won’t be stuffing linebackers or NBA centers back there, but the accommodations are comfortable enough that most others won’t complain. When you need more cargo space, the third row seats fold down to fit in a well at the back of the hatch, and upscale Explorer trim levels feature power folding seats (trick, but not really needed).
Ford spent a lot of effort to redesign the switch gear in the Explorer, and that focus really shows. Compare the interior of the Explorer to the interior of the Mustang and you’ll see what I mean. The Mustang is going for “retro”, but somehow only achieves “low rent”, like the accountants stripped a couple hundred dollars out of the Mustang’s switch gear. The Explorer, on the other hand, really does feel like a premium vehicle, almost like you should be paying more for the truck than the number on the window sticker. I love the variable instrumentation (part of the “Driver Connect” package), which allows the driver to set up the display to show a variety of information. Want to see fuel economy information in detail, and don’t care about the tach? That’s configurable. Want to see the tach and the temp gauge? No problem. Want to scroll through audio presets, or get turn by turn directions? No problem, you just configure the right side of the display.
I’m a huge fan of Ford’s MyFord Touch / Synch infotainment system and think it really is the best in the business. The color coded layout keeps things simple: red is for audio, blue is for climate, yellow is for phone or information and green is for navigation. The display is simple and intuitive to configure for the information you need, and Ford gives just enough redundant controls below the Synch screen to keep audio and HVAC tasks simple. If I had a complaint at all, it’s that the touch sensitive controls are too sensitive; rest your hand on the bottom of the touch screen display, and you’re likely to activate the four way flashers. Hit a bump while turning up the heat, and suddenly you’ve selected “Max A/C”. That’s hardly a deal breaker, but any new buyer should spend an afternoon getting familiar with the Synch system’s capabilities and the center stack layout.
My XLT tester came with Ford’s superb 3.5 liter V6 and their six-speed Selectshift automatic transmission. The engine is good for 290 horsepower and 255 ft lb of torque, which gives the Explorer decent acceleration and passing power. Zero to sixty comes up in just under 8.4 seconds, which is on par with other 4wd SUVs in the class. Fuel economy is estimated at 17 MPG city and 25 MPG highway, but I wasn’t able to get better than 21.3 MPG on a long highway trip. Better mileage probably requires you to keep speeds below 65 miles per hour, not recommended when attempting to navigate interstate highways in south Florida.
Although I didn’t have opportunity to use it this time around, my XLT 4WD tester came with Ford’s Terrain Management system, which really is impressive when the pavement ends. I had ample opportunity to use the hill descent control, snow mode and sand mode at the Explorer’s launch, and I can tell you that the various modes do make a distinct difference in traction. The best part is that drivers don’t have to know what variables are being changed, they just rotate the knob to match the terrain being navigated. This makes off-roading a whole lot easier than in the old days, when drivers had to manually choose between 4WD high / 4WD low and locked or open differentials.
There isn’t much I can tell you about driving the Explorer that I haven’t already mentioned. The interior is impressive for its quiet, which is more on par with a luxury sedan than with a 4WD SUV. The ride is more akin to a big sedan than a truck, and there’s surprisingly little body roll in corners (especially compared to a Jeep Grand Cherokee). Brakes do a good job of scrubbing off speed, and you get the impression that towing 5,000 pounds (the properly equipped Explorer’s new limit) could be done with very little drama.
My Explorer XLT 4WD tester had a base sticker price of $33,995.00, including a destination charge of $805. Options on my tester included the $2,850 Rapid Spec 202A Package (Driver Connect package with two color LCD instrument displays, 8” touch screen monitor, 5-way steering wheel controls, media hub, Synch voice activated communications, electrochromatic rearview mirror, premium audio system, rearview camera, dual zone climate control, Comfort Package, leather seating, heated front seats, adjustable head restraints), the $570 Trailer Tow Package (Class III hitch, 4/7 pin trailer wiring harness, tow and haul transmission modes, engine oil cooler, tire mobility kit, engine braking in tow mode, trailer sway control, trailer brake controller wiring), the $495 Blind Spot Information System and the $795 Voice Activated Navigation system for a total sticker price of $38,705. That makes it a relative bargain compared to others in the class, since a comparable Dodge Durango would sticker for $41,740 and a comparable Jeep Grand Cherokee would top out at $42,185.