2011 Ford Explorer
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    2011 Ford Explorer Expert Review:Autoblog

    Don't Call It A Comeback...

    2011 Ford Explorer

    2011 Ford Explorer – Click above for high-res image gallery

    At least a few eyebrows were raised when Ford first let on that it was bringing the Explorer back in a radically different form for 2011 – but not all of the quizzical looks were for the same reasons.

    For one thing, the Explorer name had been seriously damaged because of the very public Firestone tire rollover controversy of the early 2000s, something that ostensibly made the 2011 model a prime candidate for a new name. In addition, early rumors had the Blue Oval transitioning the vehicle to a unibody chassis and away from the very body-on-frame architecture that helped establish it as the archetypal sport utility vehicle for two decades. It simply wasn't clear that a crossover-based vehicle would still be able to make an authentic claim to the same core values that helped the previous four iterations of Explorer sell millions of copies. Finally, Ford already had a very competent three-row CUV in its arsenal – the Flex. Were its dealers really looking for another one?

    And yet... here we are, with a spanking-new and very different sort of Explorer for 2011. Have Alan Mullaly and Co. made the right call? Click through the jump as we try to find out.



    Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL



    First, let's deal with the damaged brand issue: Since it's such a different product, why didn't Ford call the new Explorer something else? Dearborn researched the issue and found that the Explorer nameplate had more currency among consumers than any other model in the Blue Oval's lineup with the exception of the F-150 and Mustang – two monikers that have been around far longer than the Explorer. With 96-percent name recognition, 'Explorer' was simply too good of a title to pass up – even with substantial negative baggage stowed in its cargo bay.

    The real reason? Cost. According to industry expert Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics, establishing a new brand name in the eyes of buyers can cost hundreds of millions of dollars – particularly when done on a global basis. According to Hall, "VW learned this lesson the hard way when they attempted to switch from Jetta to Bora. It was estimated that the marketing costs were equal to the total sunk engineering costs of the car." Yipes.

    For the second issue, the transition to monocoque construction also came in response to customer feedback – specifically, the chief gripes of current Explorer owners centering around its subpar ride and handling, along with noise and vibration concerns and unsatisfactory fuel economy – the solutions to which all spelled C-U-V.

    2011 Ford Explorer side view2011 Ford Explorer front view2011 Ford Explorer rear view

    To drive home the Explorer's reinvention, Ford designers have wrapped the 2011 in muscular sheetmetal that makes the exit vehicle look as dated and dowdy as... well... it is. Using the D4 chassis shared with the Flex and Lincoln MKT limited Ford's designers somewhat, as the architecture's hard points dictated a high cowl and nose, and that naturally contributes to a slab-sided look. Ford has mitigated this through design tricks like prominent fender flares, deep-draw indented door panels and a clamshell hood.

    Ford's now trademark grille form has been given an update with a pair of slim chrome bands between the three bars, along with wraparound wing-shaped headlamps that give the Explorer a technical, modern appearance. An aggressively raked C-pillar and blacked-out B- and D-pillars imbue the profile with a sense of forward motion and cut visual weight. Out back, the story is more conventional, with a traditional one-piece liftgate and full-width chrome garnish bookended by taillights that echo the headlamps' wing form. With a lower and significantly wider form than the outgoing Explorer, this new fifth-generation model appears more masculine than most crossovers – doubtlessly an intentional tack, as Ford will continue to market this vehicle as an SUV, not a CUV.

    2011 Ford Explorer headlight2011 Ford Explorer grille badge2011 Ford Explorer wheel2011 Ford Explorer taillight

    In order to do that, Ford had to make sure there was some starch in the Explorer's trousers. For the moment, the sole powerplant offering is Ford's all-aluminum 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6, an engine that incorporates twin independent variable camshaft timing to realize a solid 290 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. For reference, that's the same horsepower figure as the 3.6-liter V6 in its archrival, the similarly crossoverfied 2011 Dodge Durango (the latter makes out with five additional pound-feet, albeit with 800 more revs on the counter).

    And while the Dodge gets by with an elderly five-speed automatic transmission, all Explorers receive a six-speed 'swapper. The XLT and Limited models even receive a +/- thumb rocker on the gearshift lever, but we'd have preferred a PRNDL gate and/or paddles. Of course, Dodge also offers a more powerful 5.7-liter Hemi V8, while Ford will go the other direction when a 2.0-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder goes on sale later in 2011, an engine that should deliver similar performance to the 3.5 (237 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 250 lb.-ft. from 1,750 rpm) with fuel economy that's better than the V6's already commendable 17 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway ratings (front-wheel drive).

    2011 Ford Explorer 3.5-liter V6 engine

    Thus far, we've had a couple of opportunities to sample the new Explorer – first at Ford's Romeo, Michigan proving grounds both on- and off-road, and secondly on the winding roads outside of Hell (yes, really) during a big roundup of nominees for North American Car and Truck of the Year. (Oh, and our photographer, Drew Phillips, took these photos at a media event in San Diego). Having experienced the Expy over a wide variety of conditions, it's impossible not to be struck by how well-rounded a package it truly is.

    When driven back-to-back with a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee on Ford's handling course, the Explorer was at once more composed, quieter and confidence-inspiring. Portions of the Blue Oval's circuit have been deliberately designed to upset a vehicle's balance, with mid-corner bumps, blind corners and whooping sections where the road quickly rises and falls. Admittedly, comparing the three-row Ford to the two-row Jeep is less-than-ideal (the new Durango was not yet on the market for testing), but given their somewhat different sizes and missions, it's impossible to ignore how much more settled the longer-wheelbase Ford felt across big road undulations, and indeed, how much quicker and keener its electric power steering system's turn-in felt (2.8 turns lock-to-lock vs. 3.67 does that sort of thing).

    2011 Ford Explorer sideview mirror2011 Ford Explorer door handle2011 Ford Explorer rear badge2011 Ford Explorer exhaust pipe

    A particular part of the course where the tarmac dropped away to the right immediately after cresting a ridge allowed for some sphincter-clenching moments at highway speeds. We experienced some disconcerting behavior in the Jeep when it unsettled a bit as we turned starboard to make the corner, as if the rear suspension was oscillating both vertically and somewhat laterally as well. Despite sounding like something out of a Victoria's Secret catalog, Ford's Curve Control technology repeatedly helped the same maneuver feel much less unnerving in the Explorer.

    Basically, Curve Control is a program that ties into the Explorer's stability and roll control hardware network that works to detect when a driver enters a corner too quickly. The system reacts by applying braking individually to all four corners as necessary – far more aggressively than ESC alone would. We were able to deliberately and more confidently take the same section of the circuit at higher (frankly inadvisable) speeds and not end up in the trees thanks to CC.

    2011 Ford Explorer off road2011 Ford Explorer off road

    The story was much the same on the bucolic country roads around Hell, where back-to-back drives against the Grand Cherokee again revealed a more agreeable ride and handling balance – even on 20-inch Hankook Optimo tires. The long and short of it is that this chassis has been very well-sorted, and it could probably deal quite handily with more power than what the 3.5 or the 2.0T will be able to dish out.

    All-in, Ford says it benchmarked premium 'utes like the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 for dynamics, and while we're not ready to put the Explorer in that company, we wouldn't turn down the chance for a back-to-back comparison drive, either.

    2011 Ford Explorer off road2011 Ford Explorer off road

    With the Explorer's transition to a unibody, improved on-road performance was all but a given – but how about off-road? Ford put us on a portion of its off-road course for back-to-back drives of an all-wheel-drive Explorer against a Toyota 4Runner. The battery of challenges included a couple of deeply rutted rails, a particularly steep hill descent and a dirt playpen of sorts. The body-on-frame Toyota is decidedly off-road oriented, and Ford officials we rode along with couldn't deny that both it and the Jeep are ultimately more capable for traversing hostile terrain – after all, both were designed with that functionality as a primary goal. But what surprised us was how well the skid-plate-free Explorer handled the course – and seemingly with much less drama.

    The secret? The Explorer's new Terrain Management rotary controller that allows the driver to pre-select the best powertrain performance parameters for a given terrain. Among those parameters that Terrain Management has its silicon hands on? Engine and throttle calibrations, transmission shift patterns and the stability and traction-control systems. The four modes on the center console-mounted dial consist of Normal, Mud and Ruts, Sand and Snow. If that sounds eerily similar to Land Rover's Terrain Response system, it should come as no surprise because the English marque was under the Blue Oval's control when the system was first developed.

    2011 Ford Explorer Terrain Management

    Throughout the challenge, the Explorer faithfully scrabbled everywhere the 4Runner did, but with notably less head-toss from its four-wheel independent suspension and indeed, fewer creaks from its body structure. There was even less teeth-gnashing during the hill descent, as the Ford's technology was both easier to summon (the Toyota requires a surprising amount of button and lever pushing to optimize it for downhill performance) and quieter in operation. Again, none of this is to deny that the 4Runner (or indeed, the Jeep we left back on the handling course) is ultimately more capable off-road than the Explorer, but we were struck by the surprising amount of capability that's built into the Ford – certainly plenty of capability for weekend woodsmen, beachgoers and ski holidays. Either way, when it comes time to pack up the weekend cottage and escape from the Dueling Banjos on a snaking dirt road, we'd take the Explorer every time.

    Speaking of cabins, the Explorer's is a fine one – so fine, in fact, that it not only feels several generations ahead of the interior in the outgoing model, it might just be best-in-class. Sporting an uncluttered look and high-quality, feel-good plastics, it's a pleasant place to be. Second row accommodations are similarly comfortable, but despite the Explorer's substantial footprint (it's 197.1-inches long, shadowing its predecessor by nearly four inches), the third row access and accommodations are competitive but won't thrill those used to minivans.

    2011 Ford Explorer interior2011 Ford Explorer front seats2011 Ford Explorer gauges2011 Ford Explorer cargo area

    We've recently come to expect top-drawer tech from Dearborn, and it's here in force, with an improved SYNC system vying for dashboard space with available niceties like MyFord Touch (tremendously powerful but still a bit fiddly) and Wi-Fi, along with a battery of available safety features like industry-first seatbelt airbags in the second row and a blind spot and cross-traffic detection system.

    One note: On uplevel models with the Sony stereo system like the Limited seen in our photos, all of the HVAC functions are operated via capacitive touch switches that look sleek but can be hard to locate by feel. Models without the premium audio share many similarities but enjoy a simpler rotary knob for fan speed. At least SYNC can also be used for voice-command temperature changes.

    2011 Ford Explorer climate controls2011 Ford Explorer navigation system2011 Ford Explorer stereo2011 Ford Explorer speakers and door locks

    With its transition to stressed skin construction and a smaller displacement engine, the Explorer has lost towing capacity – the 2010 could be outfitted to pull up to 7,115 pounds and the new one cries uncle at 5,000, though the 2011 also has trailer brake and sway control for added safety. For comparison's sake, a V8 Durango can actually haul substantially more at 7,400 pounds. Still, 5,000 pounds is more than enough to tote around a good-sized boat, and if you're really into towing huge loads, chances are you aren't looking at a mid-size sport utility anyhow.

    With three trims (base, XLT and Limited), pricing on Explorer ranges from $28,995 for a front-wheel-drive entry-level model to $39,995 for a limited AWD before options – numbers that put the Explorer right in the thick of the hunt.

    2011 Ford Explorer rear 3/4 view

    So, has Ford made the right bet by keeping the Explorer name for such a different vehicle? After some initial reluctance, we think so. First off, Ford has already shown that it can successfully market and reinvent a tarnished brand with the 2010 Taurus. Secondly, the new Explorer has been comprehensively improved in nearly every aspect of how most people actually use their vehicles, and it should be far more attractive to crossover buyers who would have never considered the 2010 model. With some six million Explorers built since 1990 and a truckload of returning buyers, Ford now has an excellent new model to sell them – buyers that might have otherwise been turned off by something as different as the Flex.

    There may have been a lot of arched eyebrows leading up to the 2011 Explorer, but after driving it, the only looks of surprise are likely to be accompanied by feelings of delight.



    Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

    All-new, reinvented, and better in every respect.

    Introduction

    The 2011 Ford Explorer is not only the beginning of a new generation, but of a new life. Ford calls it 100 percent reinvented, and it's the truth, and it's all good. 

    This reinvention of the venerable Ford Explorer is 4 inches longer, 5 inches wider, and makes the third row standard. Yet it's 100 pounds lighter. Its engine has 80 more horsepower and gets 25 percent better fuel mileage. Its price is $1100 lower than the previous model. 

    The 2011 Explorer pretty much blows its competition out of the water, with first-in-class EPA fuel mileage of 17 city/25 highway miles per gallon, first-in-class horsepower (tied with Jeep Grand Cherokee), first in cargo capacity and second-row legroom. Ford claims 10 segment exclusives, including some in safety, with optional inflatable rear seatbelts ($195) and standard curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory. 

    There are three Explorer models, Base, XLT and Limited. Each seats 7 passengers, and uses the new 3.5-liter V6 engine, 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, with a new 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2.0-liter turbocharged and ballyhooed EcoBoost direct-injection four-cylinder engine will be available later in the year. It has 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, gets one more mile per gallon, and likely won't cost any less. 

    The optional 4WD Terrain Management System uses no transfer case. The driver selects the terrain with a knob (Normal, Sand, Mud/Ruts, or Snow/Gravel), and the car does the rest, flawlessly. The system includes Hill Descent Control, which could save your life on an icy street. 

    The Explorer's width is evident in its confident stance spanning a 67-inch track, but its smooth styling cheats the eye. It has beefy but smooth proportions, with short overhangs and fluid lines that are 12 percent more aerodynamic than before. 

    The chassis is super rigid, using twice as much high-strength steel as the old. There's also some Boron steel whose strength is not only high, it's also thin and it bends more easily, to form the Explorer's front bumper beam, allowing the fenders to wrap gracefully and fade away at the corners. Such curves also help to transmit crash energy down and outside, away from the cabin. 

    There's a segment-leading 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, with the split rear rows folded, which they do at the touch of a button on each side, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever. There's outstanding second-row legroom of 39.8 inches, with good third-row space at 33.2 inches. 

    Ford's stated goal was to make the Explorer's interior look expensive, like the cabin of a BMW X5 or Audi Q7. They've succeeded, at least on the Explorer Limited, whose leather seats are perfect, both in bolstering and stiffness/softness. 

    The front seat elevates high. The Explorer will be a versatile family vehicle, so the seats have memory for the XLT and Limited, while the steering wheel and pedals adjust for different drivers in the family. The ratcheted headrests are great, because they meet safety standards but don't push your head down at the chin, an annoyance we've noted on some recent Ford models. 

    When the driver surveys his or her domain, it all looks satisfying, with a clean and slanted center stack using stylish satin-finish trim materials, with attractive climate vents and audio speakers. 

    The new 3.5-liter V6, a DOHC all-aluminum mill with variable cam timing, was first used in the Ford Edge. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, we found the power and acceleration to be smooth and responsive, with plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to 5th gear. 

    Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the new Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH results they hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. We found the new Explorer takes corners and undulations flat (without excessive leaning), and the speed-sensitive electric power steering enables it to turn relatively tight and quick. 

    We tested the Explorer off-road as well as on the highway. The Terrain Management System uses no transfer case. Even with all-season tires (as opposed to all-terrain tires which improve traction in snow, sand and mud), the Explorer blasted around a sand pit and traversed deep ditches and steep hills, no problem. It was the smoothest ride we've ever encountered over such terrain. 

    Two-thirds of all 6 million Explorers sold over the last 20 years are still on the road, says Ford. The Explorer vehicle engineering team took prototypes of the new model over towering Colorado passes, buried them in deep sand in the California desert, carved through snow in Minnesota and Northern Michigan, traversed mud bogs in Alabama, and logged countless development miles at Arizona and Michigan proving grounds. 

    All three 2011 Explorer models seat seven passengers. Initially, all use the new 3.5-liter V6 engine with new 6-speed automatic transmission. The 2.4-liter turbocharged and ballyhooed EcoBoost motor will be available later in the year. It has nearly as much horsepower and similar as the V6, and gets better fuel mileage, but likely won't cost any less. 

    Lineup

    The 2011 Ford Explorer comes in three models: Explorer, Explorer XLT, and Explorer Limited. 

    The Explorer ($28,995) comes standard with cloth seats with 6-way power driver including lumbar and recline; 60/40 split rear and 50/50 third row; tilt/telescoping steering wheel with controls; 6-speaker AM/FM/CD MP3 sound system, air filtration, speed-sensitive wipers, power windows, power locks, power seats, overhead console, cargo hooks, four 12-volt outlets, privacy glass, LED taillamps, halogen projector-beam headlamps, folding sideview mirrors, roof rails, hill start assist, 175-amp alternator, 17-inch steel wheels with wheel covers. 

    The 4WD Terrain Management System ($2000) is optional. 

    The Explorer XLT ($31,995) adds upgraded cloth seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, 18-inch painted aluminum wheels, automatic headlamps, heated sideview mirrors with LED turn signals and security approach lamps, backup and perimeter warning beepers, and 400-watt Sony sound system. 

    Explorer Limited ($37,995) adds leather seats, SelectShift manual mode for the 6-speed automatic transmission, 20-inch painted aluminum wheels, power folding sideview mirrors, ambient lighting, adjustable pedals with memory, cargo net, dual zone climate control, 10-way power driver seat, rearview camera, remote start, 110-volt outlet, push-button start, garage door opener, and last but not least MyFord Touch driver connect technology. Second-row captain's chairs are available. 

    Options include a power liftgate ($495), navigation ($795), and a Tow Package ($570) that includes trailer sway control that works with the stability camera, and a backup zoom camera that can guide your ball precisely to the hitch. 

    Safety features are headlined by the new curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory. Also standard are first-row airbags, side seat airbags, and side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; tire pressure monitoring system, and front ratcheting headrests. Optional safety equipment includes inflatable rear seatbelts ($195), blind spot system with cross-traffic alert ($495), adaptive cruise control, and collision warning with brake support. 

    Walkaround

    The 2011 Explorer is a looker. It truly looks 100 percent reinvented, Ford's motto for the car. And it is a car; we can stop saying truck for almost every SUV now, and maybe even stop saying crossover, because they've just about all crossed over. The body-on-frame structure is just for pickups again, with virtually every manufacturer building their SUVs with unibody structures because they're stiffer, and with today's high-strength steels, they can be made lighter while still having a ride and handling that's firm. 

    The reinvented Explorer uses twice as much of that steel as the old, and throws in Boron steel because its strength is not only high, it's also thin so bends more easily, to form the Explorer's chassis curves, in particular the front bumper beam, allowing the fenders to wrap gracefully and fade away at the corners. Such curves also help to transmit crash energy down and outside, away from the cabin. 

    The Explorer is 4 inches longer and 5 inches wider than before, and its width is evident in its confident stance, but its smooth styling cheats the eye. It has beefy but smooth proportions, with short overhangs and fluid lines that are 12 percent more aerodynamic than before. Details such as the liftgate spoiler lip and flexible lower front air dam (black) were tweaked in the wind tunnel. Beautiful and headlamps complement the graceful fenders and transform the inherently square nose; the amber indicators sweep back like narrow wings, atop the tidy projector beam. 

    Rear taillamps are LED, and also look good. Black rockers on the sides allegedly lift the eye, but do they? We still like body-colored better. 

    The hood looks short from the side but long when looking straight down it; it's got two parallel humps and a scoop in the center, smoother than it sounds. 

    The window outline is clean, bold and symmetrical, with blackened A-, B-, and D-pillars, and with body-colored C-pillars that slant down and back and impart forward motion to the vehicle. With the dark privacy glass, from the shoulders up, in white at least, the Explorer looks like a sleek and powerful yacht. The fender flares are inspired by the Mustang, body sides follow the lines of the Taurus, and new three-bar grille strikes clearly of Range Rover (formerly in the family). The plastic grille is gray on the Base, body-colored on the XLT (the best looking), and satin-coated on the Limited. 

    Wheels are 17-inch steel with wheel covers on the Base, 10-spoke 18-inch painted aluminum on the XLT (best looking), and 20-inch painted aluminum with spokes like flower petals on the Limited. There are optional 20-inch polished aluminum wheels with spokes like shriveling flower petals; no wait, the spokes now look like crab pincers, no, make that a dentist's tooth extractor tool. 

    There's a rich shiny beautiful brownish color called Golden Bronze Metallic that we swear we've seen on Range Rovers, only it looks even better on the Explorer. 

    Interior

    Where to start? There's so much that's good. 

    Let's start with size. There's a segment-leading 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, with the split rear rows folded, which they do like magic at the touch of a button on each side, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever; and outstanding second-row legroom of 39.8 inches, with good third-row space at 33.2 inches. Two kids will be happy in the third row, with that legroom to squirm and their own cupholders and bins. Because the doors swing wide and open easily, and because the second-row seat flips forward in a heartbeat, reaching the rear row, even for adults, is an easy climb. 

    Ford's goal was to make the Explorer's interior look expensive, like a BMW X5 or Audi Q7 they say. They've succeeded, at least on the Limited, although 40k-ish is expensive enough to warrant looking it. The Limited's leather seats are perfect (optional on the XLT), both in bolstering and stiffness/softness. Heated on XLT, heated and cooled with perforated leather on Limited. We haven't seen the cloth upholstery. 

    The front seat elevates high, which is good because the hood looks long from the driver's seat. The Explorer will be a versatile family vehicle, so the seats have memory for the XLT and Limited, while the steering wheel and pedals adjust for different drivers in the family. The ratcheted headrests are great, because they meet safety standards but don't push your head down at the chin. It's a problem with other vehicles that Ford solves with ratchets. 

    When the driver surveys his or her domain, it all looks satisfying, with a clean and slanted center stack using stylish satin-finish trim materials, with attractive climate vents and audio speakers. The doors have metal speaker grilles, and curve into the dash panel. There's a big glovebox with shelf, leather grab handles and armrests, and long door pockets with space for a bottle. 

    One reason we like the Base model is its relatively simple 4.2-inch LCD screen, and it doesn't come with the MyFord Touch driver connect technology, and neither does the XLT, at least not standard. MyFord Touch uses two driver-configurable LCD cluster screens, and already our driving is distracted. It's a cluster screen, all right; there are more screens than gauges, coming in four quadrants and colors: yellow for phone, red for audio, blue for climate and red for navigation. You have to scroll through a lot of stuff to get information, for example engine temperature, and even after you figure it all out, it will take your focus off the road to perpetually configure. 

    MyFord Touch uses an 8-inch color touch screen in the center stack to do the configuring. According to Ford, it replaces many of the traditional vehicle buttons, knobs and gauges with clear, colorful LCD screens and five-way buttons. The screens can be personalized to display information relevant to each individual driver using a simple button click, voice command or touch screen tap. We beg to differ with two words in that description: clear, and simple. 

    The voice command is also problematic. At the introduction in San Diego, we drove for the morning with a Ford representative, and for the afternoon with a fellow automotive journalist having a clear radio voice, and Voice Command didn't work for any of the three of us. Well, less than half the time. 

    We said, 'Climate,' and it replied, 'Climb in.' We said, 'Seventy-two degrees,' and it replied, 'Eighty-two degrees.' We repeated, slowly and with careful articulation, and it stuck to its 82 degrees. We said, 'Sixty-five degrees,' and it replied, 'Fifty-six degrees is not a valid temperature.' It got frustrated with us (maybe it just didn't like our smart-mouthing it), and once told us in no uncertain terms, 'Say yes or no.' We are not making this up. And there's more; it wasn't just a war over temperature, it was a war over everything. It got worse before it got better. We wanted POIs and it demanded we give it an address for navigation. 

    We stopped talking to her. If you run out to your Explorer to escape a demanding spouse, you better know where you want to go and how to get there, or you'll be in the same boat. 

    There's a pleasant and satisfying little blip sound (ah, that's more like it), when you make positive contact with a function on the touch screen, for example the climate system, for which you can use a button. Still, the touch screen doesn't work as well as the buttons, at least not for us. 

    In short, we are not fans of the voice commands or MyFord Touch, but we like the rest of the Explorer cabin. 

    Driving Impression

    The new 3.5-liter V6, a DOHC all-aluminum mill with variable cam timing, was first used in the Ford Edge; called Ti-VCT, it's been pumped up to 290 horsepower in the Explorer, with 255 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, we found the power and acceleration to be smooth and responsive, with plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to fifth gear. 

    One virtue of the engine is its efficiency and, combined with the reduced weight and improved aerodynamics, the Explorer's fuel mileage is EPA rated at 17 City and 25 Highway miles per gallon. We drove nearly 200 miles in the Explorer, mostly at about 60 mph on casual two-lanes with about a dozen freeway miles running uphill to 80 mph, and averaged about 17 mpg. Before we got on the throttle on the freeway, we saw a 20-mpg average. 

    Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the new Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) results they hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. It takes corners and undulations flat, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering enables it to turn relatively tight and quick. 

    The front suspension uses short and long arms with a fat 32mm stabilizer bar. Engineers gave the rear suspension a name, SR1, because for each wheel movement, the shock absorbers are tuned to make the same motion in the same cadence, which they say eliminates undesirable ride motions. It must be true because we felt no undesirable motions when we drove the Explorer. 

    Not even off-road. Our introduction included seat time on an off-road course, and we've never tested anything off road that absorbed deep ruts and huge humps so smoothly. We're talking 10 mph here. It was as if the Explorer had a few extra feet of travel in the suspension. 

    The main object of the off-road driving was to test the electronic Terrain Management System, which uses no transfer case; saves weight, and that helps fuel mileage. Even with all-season tires (as opposed to all-terrain tires which improve traction in snow, sand and mud), the Explorer blasted around a sand pit no problem. Never fear going to the beach and exploring. Have a family picnic atop the far dune. 

    There are four modes to the system, which the driver sets with a knob behind the shift lever. In the Normal mode, on dry pavement, the vehicle runs at about a 90/10 bias in front-wheel drive, and torque shifts to the rear as needed. This is what you'll use most of the time, rain or shine. 

    The Snow/Gravel mode allows less wheelspin, provides conservative throttle control, and enables earlier transmission upshifts. This should help stabilize handling, making it easier to control, though you'll still need to exercise care when slowing down. 

    The Sand mode provides more aggressive throttle, holds the transmission in gear longer, and desensitizes traction control. Because, unlike in snow, to make progress in sand you need wheelspin. 

    Mud/Ruts allows torque as throttle increases. Stability control is desensitized to help maintain momentum over soft or uneven surfaces. 

    Terrain Management also includes Hill Descent Control, which proved itself on a steep downhill on the off-road course, holding the Explorer's speed to 4 mph without driver input. It's proven itself in many vehicles we've tested, including many Land Rovers. On an icy hill, it could save your life or at least help you avoid crashing and damaging your vehicle. If you think you'll need this feature, it's worth learning how to use it most effectively. 

    The Explorer will tow 5000 pounds when equipped with the tow package, a spendy option, but it includes things you might wonder how you lived without. There's trailer sway control, which works with the stability control, and is another thing that could save your life. There's also a rearview camera with zoom, which will guide you to position the hitch ball directly under the trailer hitch cap, and make you feel like an astronaut docking his spacecraft. 

    Summary

    The all-new 2011 Ford Explorer is worth the wait. It's improved in every area, while costing $1100 less than before. In the Base model, you get a totally equipped, state-of-the-art, powerful 7-seat SUV that gets an EPA-rated 25 mpg on the highway, for about $33,000, a deal that can't be beat. 

    Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Ford Explorer near La Jolla, California. 

    Model Lineup

    Ford Explorer ($28,995); XLT ($31,995); Limited ($37,995). 

    Assembled In

    Chicago. 

    Options As Tested

    Comfort package with leather upholstery, Voice-activated navigation system, MyFord Touch driver connect package, Blind spot information system, SelectShift transmission, Trailer tow package. 

    Model Tested

    Ford Explorer XLT 4WD ($31,995). 

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    Read 2011 Ford Explorer Base 4dr FWD reviews from auto industry experts to gain insight on the Ford Explorer's drivability, comfort, power and performance.
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