The 2011 Ford Explorer was one of the most eagerly awaited new vehicles of the past decade. Ford did extensive market research before starting their re-design, since the Explorer has a 96% name recognition in North America, on par with brand icons like Ford’s own Mustang and F150. With the SUV segment currently at 32% of industry sales (and growing faster than the other segments), Ford simply could not afford to get the new Explorer wrong. Focus group after focus group told them what the Explorer needed and what it didn’t need to have, and the results surprised more than a few people.
First and foremost, current Explorer owners wanted better fuel economy, followed by better vehicle dynamics. What works well off-road (body on ladder frame, huge ground clearance, lots of suspension articulation), doesn’t work well on road, where a high center of gravity is the enemy of handling. From the start, Ford defined the mission of redesigning the Explorer as a “no compromise” venue: it would have to get better fuel economy, it would have to give improved on-road performance and it would still need to have genuine off road capability. Critics were skeptical, and panned the Explorer’s unibody construction as “unworthy”, while lamenting the lack of an available V8 and a towing capacity of just 5,000 pounds.
Here are the facts that Ford gathered in their focus groups: only 17% of current Explorer owners take their trucks off road, and this “off-roading” generally consists of driving fire roads or well established trails. Eighty five percent don’t use their Explorer to tow, either because they have another tow vehicle or they have no need to tow. Explorer owners who use their trucks to tow more than 5,000 pounds number just 0.4% of owners. With those numbers in mind, it’s clear that the new Ford Explorer is aimed at the vast majority of people who want a roadworthy midsize SUV, but still need the ability to go off-road on occasion. I got to spend a day driving a 3.5 liter V6 Explorer both on road and off, and I’m here to tell you that Ford really did their homework on this one.
Ford’s on-road segment led us through some of the best mountain roads that San Diego has to offer. On road, the Explorer drives more like a big sedan than an SUV, thanks in part to the truck’s wider stance and lower center of gravity. I pushed the truck reasonably hard through corners, and it never did anything to surprise me. My drive partner, Ricardo Rodriguez, was another ex-racer; he pushed the truck even harder than I did, with zero drama. In fact, it almost makes me wonder how hard you’d need to push the 2011 Ford Explorer to even activate the Curve Control or Roll Stability Control; harder than a pair of ex-racer motor journalists, and that’s saying a lot.
Interior fit and finish was superb, even in more basic trim levels. The Explorer XLT I drove had cloth seats, but these make much more sense than leather in a vehicle that’s destined to get dirty hauling kids, dogs and the other trappings of life. Visibility from behind the wheel is excellent, and the Explorer still rides high enough that you have a commanding view of the road. Aerodynamics were clearly improved over earlier models, as there was very little noticeable wind noise. I’m also guessing that Ford increased the sound-deadening insulation in the new Explorer, because it was as quiet as a luxury SUV on the highway; they’ve doubled the use of high strength steel in the new truck to address noise, vibration, harshness (NVH) concerns, and it really shows behind the wheel. If you’re considering buying one, let me say up front that the 12 speaker Sony sound system is a must-have option; the sound quality was better than my home system, which consists of a Yamaha amp driving Paradigm tower speakers. Buy one, and you’ll find excuses just to spend time behind the wheel listening to your favorite playlist.
Powering the 2011 Explorer is Ford’s all new 3.5 liter V6. It’s good for 290 horsepower and 255 ft lb of torque, an increase of 80 horsepower and 45 ft lb of torque over last year’s 4.0 liter V6. It’s also 25% more fuel efficient, and now gets 25 MPG on the highway (as compared to 20 with the 4.0 liter V6). It’s a superb engine choice for the Explorer, as the truck pulled reasonably hard from any speed and never felt like the engine was working particularly hard. I didn’t measure fuel economy, but we used less than a quarter tank of gas in three hours worth of driving, so I’m inclined to believe the EPA’s numbers. After the initial launch, Ford will also offer an EcoBoost four cylinder turbo motor as an option for the Explorer; this motor will get better fuel economy (though it hasn’t yet been EPA rated) and will still produce 237 horsepower and 250 ft lb of torque. I haven’t driven the EcoBoost motor, but I’d personally be more than happy with the 3.5 liter V6. All 2011 Explorers come with a six speed automatic transmission.
One of the big changes to the 4wd models is the elimination of 4wd High and 4wd Low modes. Consumers found the differences confusing, and rarely used 4wd Low. For 2011, Ford has adopted a “Terrain Management System” similar to that used by Land Rover. Drivers can select from one of four modes: Normal, Mud & Ruts, Sand and Snow. The Terrain Management System also includes a Hill Descent Control, which automatically maintains vehicle speed at a pre-set level (up to 20 MPH) without driver input.
In Normal mode, torque is biased to the front wheels, with the rear wheel receiving power based on wheel slip. In Mud & Ruts mode, the motor is allowed to rev, providing sufficient torque in lower gears to throw mud from the tires’ treads; upshifts are minimized, and stability control is also reduced to maintain vehicle momentum. In Sand mode, throttle response is maximized, upshifts are delayed and traction control is minimized to allow wheel spin. Finally, Snow mode minimizes wheel spin and throttle response, maximizes traction control and prompts quick upshifts.
Here’s the real question: does the Terrain Management System work, and does the new Explorer really go off-road? The answer is yes, the Terrain Management System makes a huge difference in the various modes, and the Explorer retains a surprising amount of off-road capability. To demonstrate the Explorer’s capabilities to journalists, Ford created an off-road loop specifically designed to highlight the Explorer’s off-road chops. The course contained suspension-eating ruts, multi-terrain descents, a steep (probably 30 or 35 degree) dirt hill climb, a mud pit and a separate sand pit. We were encouraged to drive the loop as many times as we wanted to, and were told to leave the truck in “Mud & Ruts” mode. It worked exceptionally well for the type of terrain encountered on the course, and the sand pit was used to demonstrate the differences between “Sand” mode and “Snow” mode. To be honest, there were sections of the course that would have prompted me to think twice about trying them in my own FJ Cruiser. Some of the descents would have had me shifting to 4wd Low and leaving the truck in 1st gear; Ford’s Hill Descent Control took all of the guesswork out of driving steep downgrades, which is exactly what the Ford engineers intended.
In the sand pit, there was a dramatic difference between “Snow” mode and “Sand” mode. In Snow mode, the truck upshifted quickly and did everything it could to prevent oversteer and counter my attempts at rooster-tailing sand. The Explorer simply plowed through, with absolutely zero drama, exactly what you’d want if driving in snow. In Sand mode, however, the Explorer pegged the fun-meter, throwing the tail wide in corners while spraying impressive rooster tails of sand. Clearly, there is a huge difference between thew two modes.
I came away impressed at how capable the new Explorer is off road. It did things that I’d never have considered possible, and it did them with zero drama on mud-and-snow rated street tires (not dedicated off-road tires). It’s not the truck to buy if you’re a hard core off-roader, and the new Explorer has as much chance of conquering the Rubicon Trail as I do of winning a Pulitzer Prize. If boldly going where no man has gone before with three of your friends is your thing, then the Jeep Cherokee is a better choice. The Cherokee isn’t as good on-road as the new Explorer, so here’s the question you really need to ask yourself: is hardcore off-roading and rock crawling something I’m really going to do with my brand new $35,000 truck, or are my off-road needs limited to the occasional logging trail or fire road? If you pick the latter response, you’ll be happier with the 2011 Ford Explorer. Go drive one when they hit dealer lots in early 2011.