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2012 Ford Explorer
Keeping a famous brand from biting the dust means a whole new approach to the modern-day "off-roader"
By Malcolm Gunn
How does a vehicle that was once the darling of suburbia go from hero to zero? You need to know the answer to that question before trying to revive it.
Ford says the one key reason that the Explorer sport utility vehicle fell out of favour is fuel economy, the very same issue that has ravaged the coveted and highly profitable sport utility ranks in the past couple of years.
If it's not the price of fuel, it's not knowing what it will cost tomorrow. That uncertainty has buyers cutting their losses and heading for the relative safety of more fuel-efficient vehicles, which are generally smaller because weight (and therefore size) are the enemy of economy. They're getting out of sport utes.
The Explorer, like many others, lost out by virtue of not changing with the times and buyer needs. So, how could the Explorer brand of chunky and thirsty offroaders be successfully transformed into a model citizen without losing all its Explorer-ness?
Clearly, any attempt at resurrection would begin with a relatively blank computer screen to meet new goals of fuel economy.
As it turns out, there was no new magic engine, but rather a raft of changes that led to claimed 22-per-cent improvement over the previous model while boosting horsepower by nearly 40 per cent.
The new Explorer ditches the previous 210-horsepower 4.0-litre V6 for a 290-horsepower 3.5-litre V6 and a new six-speed automatic transmission. Improved aerodynamics, electric power steering, a slight weight savings and a drastically changed 4x4 system all contribute to the fuel savings. A turbocharged four-cylinder engine will be available on front-wheel-drive versions. That's right, a front-wheel-drive Explorer - with a claimed fuel-economy improvement of 30 per cent over the old 4.0 - which is what Ford has deemed must happen to kick-start the brand.
But what about the off-road part? Clearly, if hard-core off-roading was crucial to a large percentage of Explorer afficionados - and not two per cent as indicated by Ford - then sales likely wouldn't have declined so dramatically in the first place. What apparently really matters is general driving safety and security in more common situations/seasons with the occasional foray through deep mud, sand or snow. These are situations that register with most drivers.
So, rather than the usual low- /high-range two-speed transfer case, the 2011 Explorer has four driver-selectable settings (from snow to sand) based on conditions. They're controlled by sensors providing wheel-slip and steering-input information to the on-board computer to provide the best traction and safety. The two-speed transfer case is gone, but the Explorer can still tow 5,000 pounds or 2,270 kilograms. Now, that feels like a bit of a stretch here in the rolling hills of Quebec where the Explorer's V6 seems to be constantly working hard to make the grade, so to speak.
Trying out all four surface settings on Ford's impromptu dynamic handling winter course, located in the confines of a snow-packed municipal airport, showed the dramatic differences in the programs.
Stacking the deck in the Explorer's favour, however, was the fact that all vehicles on the course were fitted with Continental's best winter tires, so there was no way to evaluate the standard equipment. More critical, however, no competitive vehicles were offered for evaluation, which would have shown any weaknesses/advantages to the Explorer's setup in identical driving conditions.
The programming of the standard setting will likely keep you out of serious trouble, for the most part, while the winter/snow setting simply did not allow the Explorer to be flung out of control at the low to moderate speeds attained on the winter handling course. It was quite impressive on its own, in these circumstances, on this day and on these tires.
So, the new Explorer might not be the cliff-climber that the previous model was, but in the interest of acceptance, the 2011 model cuts a much wider swath.
Adding to this is an extremely quiet cabin - easily the match of any car - which is the result of the fanatical quest to eliminate any and all air leaks.
"Typically, we would pump air into or evacuate air out of the vehicle, and then listen for air coming in or out, and that's how we detect the issues," says Jason Griffin, air leakage noise, vibration and harshness engineer.
"But recently we devised a method where we can heat the air, so when we blow air out of the cabin with our vacuum, a hot spot appears on the camera pointing to the leak in the sheet metal."
Quieter equals wider acceptance as does a super-smooth highway ride with the tires making subtle thumps over expansion joints rather that feeling like they're trying to tear out yours kidneys, which was the case with many old-school sport-utes.
The Explorer is still a big, heavy vehicle (similar in weight to the previous model) with a high centre of gravity and you can expect the body to lean in the turns, but nothing really offensive or scary. It's a long way away from - as in better than - the previous Explorer.
Regardless of how it drives, likely a key deciding factor for buyers will be the highly detailed cabin with its tight seams and lack of plastic. Contrasting silvery bits and a fantastic high-resolution driver information centre make all the difference here and would be at home in any German-engineered luxury sedan.
Three rows of seating makes Explorer the obvious choice over the Edge and the larger Flex is stylistically different enough that there's really no overlap.
So, the Explorer appeals to a broader audience by trading a few things it did great for many things it does much better than before with an eye to fuel efficiency, style, quality and everyday functionality. It's really on the right path - pavement, snowy roads and mud and sand - for a modern era.
Jeff Melnychuk is Wheelbase Media's managing editor. You can reach Wheelbase on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.
Malcolm Gunn is an automotive writer based in Moncton, NB, and a regular contributor to CarTest!
Posted April 3, 2011. © CarTest.ca TM