Ford Breaks Traditions with Reinvention of Once Bestselling ExplorerBy Karl Brauer July 19, 2010
After a 20-year run using the same basic formula that shot it to the top of the sales charts, the Ford Explorer is going in a completely new direction for the 2011 model year.
Ford provides details to the media this week, with public release of that information allowed in a couple weeks. But we already know the all-new 2011 Explorer that arrives in dealerships later this year will break most of its long-standing traditions.
And another institution likely to be broken is the Explorer's once-bestselling status. Even if the new one is wildly successful, it likely will never achieve the sales levels its predecessor delivered.
For two decades, the Explorer offered on a truck-based body-on-frame platform 2- and 4-door body styles, rear- and four-wheel drive, V6 and V8 engines and enough off-road capability to serve the tiny fraction of owners who actually took them off road.
The big news for the 2011 model is its shift to unibody construction to reduce weight, boost mileage and give the Explorer more car-like ride and handling characteristic.Given the success of the so-called crossover market - SUV-like vehicles that ride on car instead of truck architectures -- it makes sense to evolve the Explorer in an effort to keep pace with today's utility buyers' tastes.
Edmunds.com's analysis of the SUV market shows the category remains strong. It has and continues to account for a hefty fifth to a fourth of all vehicles sold in the United States. However, within segment, a dramatic shift in consumer preference has occurred.
From 2002 to 2010, sales of compact and midsize crossovers - vehicles like the Ford Edge and Ford Escape - have doubled their representation in the SUV segment. At the same time, sales of traditional large and midsize SUVs - like the Ford Explorer - are down by two thirds. In fact, crossovers have outsold traditional SUVs since 2006.
A look at Explorer sales within Ford's own lineup tells the story. Edmunds.com's analysis shows that in 2005, the Explorer accounted for 9 percent of Ford's total vehicle sales; its little brother the Escape captured only 7 percent. Along the way to 2010, the Escape began outselling the Explorer. So far in 2010, the Escape represented 12 percent of all Ford sales; the Explorer a mere 4 percent.
In addition to a shift in consumer preference, automakers will be forced to consider following Ford's example with the Explorer's emphasis on improving fuel-efficiency; new 2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards will require a 35.5 miles per gallon average for most automakers' fleets. Indeed, the just-introduced 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee continues to ride on a unibody platform, and rumors suggest General Motors Co.'s next Chevrolet Tahoe and/or Cadillac Escalade will go this route.
King of the Hill Tumbles
The Explorer was considered one of the granddaddy's of SUVs, along with the Grand Cherokee. At its height of popularity (1996-2002), Ford was selling close to half-a-million Explorers a year; it averaged 420,000 units annually between 1996 and 2002, according to Edmunds.com's analysis.
That number took a precipitous drop after an unfortunate combination of events, kicked off by the Firestone-tire firestorm of late 2000 and culminating in the fuel-price spikes of 2005.
In fact, sales of the Explorer, which once owned more than 40 percent of its SUV segment, dropped even more dramatically than the rest of the declining category.
By 2006, Explorer sales had dropped to less than 180,000 a year, though it was still Ford's second-best selling vehicle. In 2007 the Ford Escape surpassed Explorer sales, and in 2009 the Blue Oval moved just 52,000 Explorers, or just more than 10 percent of its sales during the model's peak years.
Return to Half-a-Million Annual Sales? Probably Not
Expecting half-a-million sales for the new Explorer is unrealistic, and Ford knows it. Between established players in the segment (Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, among others) and with competition from within Ford's own showroom (Edge, Flex) the Explorer is entering one of the most competitive and crowded market segments.
But the name still holds sway with a large number of midsize utility shoppers, and Explorer consideration levels have been rising on the Edmunds.com pricing pages in anticipation of the all-new model.
"With that much residual goodwill from the Explorer's glory years, along with a substantially evolved 2011 model, it's possible Ford will turn many of these shoppers into buyers," says Edmunds.com's Senior Analyst Ivan Drury.
Explorer's Facebook Strip Tease
In addition to Explorer's strong brand name, Ford has torn a chapter from its successful pre-sale promotion of the Ford Fiesta by doing some pre-promotion of the upcoming Explorer.
The automaker has a Ford Explorer Facebook page that has been displaying and disseminating to fans sneak peek photos and product hints of the upcoming Explorer model. That, along with publication of spy photos, speculative articles and general buzz on the new model, may explain why Edmunds.com detected an uptick in consumer consideration of the Explorer in recent months. Consideration is an indication of promotion and marketing and may or may not result in purchases.
Smaller Engines, Bigger Power
Ford's stated intent with shifting the Explorer to a car-based platform and dramatically boosting fuel efficiency is to make fuel economy a reason to buy the Explorer rather than to reject it, as has been happening with the current model.
The present-day 2-wheel drive Explorer manages a mere 14 city/20 highway mpg rating. But, in addition to revamping the body architecture, Ford is reconfiguring the drivetrains in the new one. Breaking a tradition started in 1996, the 2011 model will not be available with a V8. Instead, Ford will utilize its 2-liter, four-cylinder Ecoboost engine as the powerplant while offering the company's 3.5-liter V6 as an upgrade.
Ford confirmed Monday that the optional Ecoboost engine will achieve 30 percent better fuel economy than the current V6 model.
"Explorer owners told us they want capability with convenience, and improved fuel economy without compromised performance," said Mark Fields, Ford's President of the Americas in Monday's press release.
While a 4-cylinder hardly seems capable of powering a modern crossover, the Ecoboost version is expected to offer around 230 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque. (Ford has not confirmed these specs.) That compares to 150 horsepower the V6 in the original 1991 Explorer offered, and that engine didn't provide the 19-plus mpg city rating Ford is claiming for the Explorer's standard 2.0-liter drivetrain.
The 3.5-liter (non-Ecoboost) V6 will feature variable valve-timing technology and is projected to make around 285 horsepower. Ford confirmed Monday the new Explorer's V6 will get 20 percent better fuel economy than the current one. The twin-turbo Ecoboost version of this engine could be introduced post launch, as Ford did with the Flex.
Both engines will drive the front wheels on two-wheel drive models, though all-wheel drive will be available as well.
Don't Write-Off its Off-Road Powers
We hear "unibody" and "front-wheel drive" and assume we should add "pavement only" to the 2011 Explorer's pedigree. But thanks to a lingering relationship with Land Rover the new Explorer is going to offer an advanced, Range-Rover-like "Terrain Management System" with multiple settings for various driving conditions.
It will also include the same Hill Descent Control system found on Ford's full-size truck line. This combination of features and technology should maintain a viable level of off-road ability in the new Explorer.
Some Things Never Change
While much of the 2011 Ford Explorer will be all-new, some of the vehicle's favored traits will remain. It will still offer three rows of seating. It will still provide an elevated seating position and highly flexible interior to accommodate both people and cargo hauling. And early spy photos suggest styling that should again split the difference between a rugged off-road utility vehicle and a tall suburban station wagon.
In addition, Ford's continued focus on safety and technology will be reflected in the industry's first use of airbag-inflatable seat belts for second-row Explorer passengers, along with a collision warning system and hands-free access to entertainment and other information via the new MyFord Touch system.
"We believe we've hit the mark with the next-generation Explorer," said Fields in Monday's press release. "It has the potential to change perceptions of what a modern SUV is all about."
Edmunds.com's Ivan Drury and Jeremy Acevedo provided the analysis and graphics for this post.
Photos from Ford Explorer's Facebook page