Driven: 2011 Ford Explorer

By Brandon Turkus

December 16, 2010

 —Alpine, California

The Ford Explorer helped to start the SUV trend way back in 1990, and along the way it has gone from sales leader, to public disgrace, to also-ran SUV. It has sold in the millions and has been exported to over 90 different countries in its lifetime. With 96 percent nameplate recognition, the only Ford products that are more well known are the Mustang and the F-150, both of which have been on sale continuously for 26 and 42 more years, respectively. To say the Explorer is important to Ford’s business plan is an understatement of mammoth proportions.

So when it came time to redesign it, Ford had clear goals in mind. Better fuel economy and better driving dynamics were two of the main reasons people were saying no to SUVs. It seemed the path was clear; make it more efficient, and better to drive. But the Blue Oval did a lot more than just that. With the switch from body-on-frame to unibody, the Explorer has transformed itself from old-school SUV to new-school CUV.

If you are walking up to the Explorer for the first time, you might be surprised at its size. The designers used some clever visual tricks to make this model look smaller than the 2010 edition, but don’t let that fool you. This model boasts the same eight inches of ground clearance as the previous generation, but is almost two inches shorter, thanks to its high beltline and narrow greenhouse. The 2011 is also some four inches longer with a one-inch shorter wheelbase. It sees a six-inch increase in width, with subsequent six-inch increases in the front and rear track. The increases in track and decreases in wheelbase might seem rather small, but both play a major role in how the vehicle drives. The wider the track, the more stable the vehicle will be, while a shorter wheelbase will make the vehicle willing to rotate and offer a more car-like experience.

Ford made quite the departure from the established design of past Explorers. The traditional two-box shape is still there, but it has been tweaked with a more aerodynamic front fascia and a large rear spoiler. Aero changes like this are part of the reason the 2011 model boasts a twelve percent bump in aerodynamic efficiency, which in turn increases fuel economy and improves NVH. Ford’s three-bar front grille is still there, while the body color C-pillar is inspired by past Explorers. The interior sees a similar refresh.

Benchmarking the interiors of the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 was a bold step for Ford to take, but it has really paid off in the attractiveness and overall logic of the Explorer’s cabin. Everything is where it needs to be. The fancy touch-capacitive HVAC controls, the eight-inch nav screen, and the center cluster with its analog speedometer and two digital displays are all great pieces to work with. The steering wheel is just the right size and thickness, and we were particularly impressed with the comfortable but supportive seats. After roughly four hours of total seat time, we had little in the way of complaint.

While the cabin is nice to look at, it doesn’t always feel nice. Some of the plastics, notably around the center stack and console feel a bit on the cheap side, and some of the fits just didn’t seem quite as snug as they should have been. Of course, these are things we noticed thanks to the comparisons Ford made with BMW and Audi. Looking at these cabins against its primary competitors (Toyota 4Runner, Chevrolet Traverse, and Jeep Grand Cherokee/Dodge Durango), the Explorer comes off looking pretty good. Looks aren’t everything though, so Ford went to work in the powertrain department.

Gone are the 4.0-liter V-6 and 4.6-liter V-8, having been replaced by a standard 3.5-liter V-6. The new 3.5 generates 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, which is a considerable improvement on the old 4.0 liter’s 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It does lose out a bit to the V-8 though, which boasts 292 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. This loss of power should be tolerable though, based on savings at the pump; the new 3.5 liter gets seventeen miles per gallon in the city, and in front-wheel-drive trim will hit 25 mpg on the highway (4x4 models get 23 mpg on the highway), compared to the fourteen and nineteen mpg ratings on the old V-8. If you want more economy, a 2.0-liter EcoBoost  will be available in mid-2011.

A big contributor to those mileage ratings is the standard six-speed automatic. Low initial gearing guarantees quick off-the-line acceleration, while the high end is geared towards fuel economy. A SelectShift manumatic mode is available on XLT and Limited trims, and features a plus/minus toggle switch on the driver’s side of the gearlever. While we would prefer a traditional push up/pull down setup for shifts (or better yet, steering wheel-mounted paddles), the plus/minus buttons work just fine for occasional use.

Despite the loss of a V-8, the V-6 Explorer should have no problems towing. According to Ford, the 5000-pound payload rating on the 2011 models is adequate for almost 99 percent of buyers. That other one percent generally has a dedicated towing vehicle. But enough with the brochure figures, how does it stack up in the real world?

The actual driving portion of our trip took place at an animal rescue called Lions, Tigers, and Bears, based about an hour-and-a-half from our Del Mar staging point. The initial drive route consisted of general suburban commuting, followed by some nice twisting two-lane canyon roads, and finally a jaunt down the interstate. This varied drive route gave us a taste of just how well the Explorer would perform in its intended role of family hauler.

The Explorer proved impressive in these circumstances. The pairing of the 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic did everything we asked, with the gearbox swiftly dropping cogs and the V-6 generating plenty of grunt for highway passing maneuvers. We got a nice taste of the V-6 engine note, but only at the upper reaches of the rev range—not that we were expecting aural fireworks from a vehicle in this class.

The Explorer kept us nicely isolated from rough roads. Although we still felt imperfections, the truck-like crashiness we had found in past models simply wasn’t there. Chalk up another point for unibody construction. We also found little to complain about with the front-rear or lateral damping.

Then there is the NVH control. Thanks to that slippery body and more than a bit of sound deadening, the Explorer is plenty quiet. There was some road noise, but we suspect that it was largely due to the twenty-inch wheels of our Limited trim test vehicle. XLT-trimmed Explorers come with standard eighteens, which figure to be a degree quieter.

While the general commute in the Explorer was useful, we wanted the in-depth stuff. One of the activities that the Ford PR folks had set up for us was a back-to-back drive on a quite challenging piece of road that wound through the deserts a few miles from the animal preserve. We were supplied with a Jeep Grand Cherokees for one leg, and then we hopped in the Ford and repeated the trip. It should be noted that the Jeep isn’t the intended target here, but rather its platform mate, the less off-road oriented Dodge Durango. Seeing how the Dodge isn’t quite available yet, we had to make do with the Pentastar-equipped Jeeps.

As we proceeded through a small village area, we headed up a hill that featured a spattering of houses, and began to re-familiarize ourselves with the Grand Cherokee. After a quick turn, we headed into a downhill area that featured several short straights that lead in to tight, near 90-degree turns. We zipped down the hill, with dusty drops on one side and rock faces on the other, eventually getting to the end point where we hopped in the Explorer.

With a Ford engineer riding shotgun, we proceeded back up the hill towards the village area. The first real turn we hit was a gutwrencher that reminded us of a miniaturized version of Spa-Francorchamps’ Eau Rouge corner. As the road headed downhill, we passed over a thin drainage gate that spanned the width of the road (just to screw up the balance a bit), then quickly proceed uphill into a left hander that quickly curved back to the right. As we approached, our engineer told us to “gun it”. As we nailed the throttle and entered the turn, understeer piled on, but was quickly and unobtrusively mitigated by Ford’s Curve Control. This system can reduce engine torque and apply four-wheel braking to cut vehicle speed by up to ten miles per hour in one second. We are familiar with this sort of technology, but what was really striking was how it went about its work without disrupting the driving experience. Curve Control simply offered a gentle tugging of the reigns when we were getting close to troubling speeds, followed by good, old-fashioned unassisted driving.

We have talked about Ford’s electronic power-assisted steering systems before, as it’s arguably one of the best EPAS systems on the market. It still doesn’t feel as good as a traditional hydraulic setup (call us old fashioned), but it avoids feeling overboosted or artificially heavy. There are few CUVs on the market that with steering this communicative. You know what’s going on between road and tire, and you can really feel how much grip you have when pushing the car, which is a rarity in this kind of system.

As we ran around the dusty roads, we reveled in the Explorer’s balance. Body roll was kept in check, despite how hard we were going into corners, there was little of the squatting and diving one would expect under hard braking or acceleration in a vehicle of this size. There was also a surprising amount of feedback through the suspension. After our quiet drive to the preserve, we had anticipated a more subdued character from the Ford’s chassis. Instead, it happily relayed sensations to us through the seat of our pants. Imagine that, a fun-to-drive crossover!

What really struck us about our drive was just how car-like the whole experience was. At times, it felt like we were in a lifted, seven-passenger Fusion. Compared to the more traditional Jeep, the Explorer just felt better to throw around on those roads. It felt more connected and more willing to be pushed. There was just a greater sense of control. If the people wanted car-like driving dynamics in an SUV wrapper—and there are, we call them “crossover buyers”—it seems as though Ford has got a product for them.

That goes for the off-road bits as well. Back at the animal preserve, Ford built a short off-road course that was meant to emulate the most extreme conditions that the average buyer might put their vehicle through. Equipped with hill descent control, and a Terrain Management System (it’s essentially the same thing as Land Rover’s Terrain Response System, minus the rock crawl setting), we tackled some steep downhill grades and some well-worn paths before reaching a mud pit that we were meant to ford. The goal with TMS was to make sure the Explorer’s off-road prowess was as accessible as possible to the general buyer. Using a series of pictographs on a knob, the four-wheel drive can be quickly optimized for certain conditions. (Check out Rex Roy’s story on the Explorer in Dubai for more info.)

If Ford’s goal was to reinvent the Explorer, we’d call it a success. The Blue Oval has successfully melded the attributes of many different vehicle types together to form yet another coherent product. Featuring the fuel economy of a crossover, the driving dynamics of a family sedan, the towing ability from a small truck, the family transporting traits of a minivan, the creature comforts of something from the luxury class, and a little sports car zest, Ford has created a genuinely good vehicle that can fill a huge variety of roles. With an EcoBoost model on the way in mid-2011, things only look to get better for Explorer buyers.

2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4x4

Engine: V-6, 3.5 liter, 24v
Output: 290 hp/255 lb-ft
Weight: 4695 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Towing Capacity: 5000 lb
Base Price: $37,190
On Sale: January 2011