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2011 Ford Explorer
Incremental change is out the window. For the Explorer, this is revolution
By Malcolm Gunn

2011 Ford ExplorerIf you think that traditional sport utility vehicles are pass, you likely won't get an argument from Ford. In fact, the Blue Oval automaker is breathing new life into its storied off-roader-style Explorer by turning it into a stylish and fuel-efficient wagon that's more in step with the times.

You have to admire Ford's tenacity in sticking with the 21-year-old Explorer nameplate. The company has steadfastly refused to abandon what it obviously thinks is a perfectly good handle, especially in light of the obvious product overlap with the Edge- and Flex-wagon superstars.

Compared to these two, the new Explorer appears to be a more deliberate attempt at an off-roader. However, the new vehicle, which arrives in early calendar 2011, brings nothing from the previous sport ute that received its last makeover for the 2006 model year. The vehicle's traditional body-on-frame construction has yielded to unitized (frameless) architecture that's common to most passenger cars. Although there's no ladder frame underneath tying the vehicle together, it's still rugged enough to tackle all but the roughest terrain and trailer up to 2,275 kilograms (5,000 pounds) in the process. Additionally, the new "Ex" is nearly 50 kilograms lighter than the truck-ish 2010 edition.

2011 Ford ExplorerHowever, you'll likely think twice before risking damage to this pretty piece of eye candy by trying it out some path etched into a canyon wall. The three-bar grille attached to a rounded nose is reminiscent of the Taurus sedan, while the extra wide doors and slanted roof pillars contain traces of classic Explorer heritage. And in case you actually do decide to go where others fear to tread, the Explorer's ample ground clearance  and available 20-inch rubber should help you arrive unscathed.

The interior (also car-like) provides room for up to seven passengers, just like the Flex, or six when the second-row bench is replaced by optional lounge chairs. The front seats are separated by a large arm rest and floor console with lots of what-have-you storage space. In back, both the second and third rows fold flat for maximum storage, but fall short of the amount offered in the previous Explorer as well as that of many competitors.

The only other discordant note is a steering wheel that appears to contain more buttons and switchgear than you'd find on most control panels, and could prove distracting if drivers are not sufficiently versed in their operation.

2011 Ford ExplorerThose paying the fuel tab will be pleased with the new Ex's thrifty engine choices connected to six-speed automatic transmissions. Ford states that the base 290-horsepower 3.5-litre V6's as-yet-undisclosed city/highway rating beats that of the outgoing model's 210-horsepower V6 by more than 20 per cent. Just as impressive is the optional turbocharged 237-horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that apparently gets 30-per-cent better fuel economy than the previous V6.

For venturing off-road, you'll need to the stick with the V6, which can be ordered with Ford's "terrain management" four-wheel-drive system. The driver simply adjusts a console-mounted knob to Normal, Mud, Sand or Snow settings and the AWD adjusts the front-rear torque bias accordingly.

The base Explorer includes most of the expected trappings for this class of vehicle, along with hill-start assist (keeps you from rolling backward while stopped on an incline), four 12-volt powerpoints to charge up your electronic gear and a tilt/telescoping steering column.

The mid-range XLT adds a coded keyless entry pad, back-up warning system, automatic headlamps and heated outside mirrors, while the Limited provides dual-zone climate control, 10-way power driver's seat, power-adjustable pedals, rear-view camera, push-button start and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The Limited's list bristles with goodies such as a navigation system, heated-and-cooled leather seats, blind-spot warning system and power liftgate, to name just a few.

At an expected base price of about $31,500, the ground-breaking Explorer appears to be the right product at the right time for Ford, not to mention right on the money for wagon lovers of every stripe.

What you should know: 2011 Ford Explorer

Type: Four-door front- /four-wheel-drive tall wagon
Engines (hp): 3.5-liter DOHC V6 (290); 2.0-liter DOHC I4, turbo-charged (237)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Market position: Ford's flagship wagon fully modernized with a fuel-efficient engine range in an attempt to gain greater traction with its shifting customer base. But is there too much overlap with the Edge and Flex? How will you choose?
Points: A styling a knockout; Storage space skimpy relative to competition; Fuel-miser four-cylinder limited to FWD models; Inflatable rear seat belts a novel safety option; Should driver determine road conditions or should vehicle?; MyForddriver "nanny" system limits top speed and radio volume; great for parents of younger drivers.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 20/26 (2.0, est.)
Base price (incl. destination): $30,000 (est.)

By comparison:     

Hyundai Veracruz
Base price: $33,800
Comfortable, well-priced cruiser is a bit tight for third-row travelers.

Chevrolet Traverse
Base price: $37,000
A bit of a heavyweight, but offers spacious eight-passenger seating.

Mazda CX-9
Base price: $39,600
A sharp wagon with excellent road manners and a roomy interior.

Malcolm Gunn is an automotive writer based in Moncton, NB, and a regular contributor to CarTest!

Posted January 7, 2011. © CarTest.ca TM


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