Ninety-six percent of people polled by Ford know the name Explorer, says company president Mark Fields. And Ford expects the glory of its all-new 2011 Ford Explorer to dig those last few heads from the sand.
In lieu of a traditional auto show unveiling, the Dearborn automaker is conducting a massive digital, in-your-Facebook assault to reveal its completely redesigned midsize SUV. The 2011 Explorer has traded in its body-on-frame design for unibody construction, is 30 percent more fuel-efficient than the outgoing V6 model and offers numerous safety and technology advances, some of which are world-first achievements.
Grows Longer, Not Taller
At 197.1 inches, the seven-passenger 2011 Ford Explorer is nearly 4 inches longer in overall length, but its wheelbase is actually an inch shorter than the 2010 model. Five inches have been added to the width, increasing shoulder and hiproom by more than 2 inches, a relief for those who find the current cabin slightly cramped. Overall height is approximately 2 inches shorter, although the new Explorer retains the same functional 8 inches of ground clearance.
Ford says that any midsize SUV with three rows of seating is among the Explorer's competition, but admits that the popular Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander are squarely in its sights. Measuring 8 inches longer than the Highlander and 6 inches longer than the Pilot, the Explorer is now closer in length to the noticeably bigger Chevrolet Traverse, which measures 205 inches. But with maximum cargo capacity cut by more than 5 cubic feet to 80.7, the new Explorer offers the least amount of space among its primary competition.
Curb weight has not yet been officially announced, but a Ford engineer confirms the new V6 Explorer is just 100 pounds lighter than the old V8 4WD model. Not exactly a major reduction when the V8 SUV weighs over 4,700 pounds.
Ford has already sampled success with its turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine launched last year in the 2010 Ford Flex, and continues to persuade consumers that V8 power can come with V6 fuel-efficiency. The new Explorer takes that strategy one step farther, with the introduction of the optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost inline-4 rated at 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. Available on front-wheel-drive models only in any trim level, the new 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine will also be offered later this summer in the redesigned 2011 Ford Edge.
Official EPA ratings have not yet been issued, but Ford expects the new turbocharged all-aluminum DOHC power plant to return 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. That's a substantial jump over the outgoing entry-level Explorer 4.0-liter V6, which was good for a trucky 14/20 mpg.
The standard 2011 Ford Explorer engine is a new 3.5-liter V6 Ti-VCT (twin independent variable camshaft timing) available in either front-wheel- or four-wheel-drive Explorers in any trim level. The new V6 is good for 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, and is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the current V8.
Two different six-speed automatics — one unique to each engine — are the only transmission options. Tow ratings top out at 2,000 pounds for the EcoBoost engine, and up to 5,000 pounds for V6-equipped Explorers.
Ford's new Terrain Management System offers shift-on-the-fly settings clearly described by real-world conditions: Sand, Snow, Mud and Everyday. Activating the four-wheel-drive system is as simple as turning the dial on the lower center console. Terrain Management is paired with Hill Descent Control, which provides engine braking while descending steep inclines.
The suspension design remains relatively unchanged. A short- and long-arm setup is used up front with progressive coil springs and a 32mm stabilizer bar. The independent rear suspension was changed to an SR1 setup that puts the shocks in a 1:1 ratio with the wheel movements, a feature that Ford says allows for more precise tuning.
Inflatable second-row seatbelts, a first for the automotive industry, highlight the 2011 Ford Explorer's passive safety improvements. Outboard second-row belts inflate to spread impact five times wider than conventional seatbelts, helping to reduce pressure across the neck and chest, an obvious benefit for small children.
Active safety systems now include Ford's Curve Control, a system designed to enhance braking if the SUV exhibits signs of excessive speed while turning. Ford says the new system can reduce speed by 10 mph in 1 second. Collision Warning with brake support is a similar feature. When the driver abruptly lifts off the accelerator pedal, it starts to apply the brakes immediately, even before the driver can begin to react.
Ford's BLIS (Blind Spot Information System) is now expanded to include a cross-traffic alert, which is especially important when attempting to back out of crowded parking lots.
MyKey, a programmable safety feature first introduced as standard equipment on the 2010 Ford Focus, will be included on all 2011 Ford Explorers. It allows parental control of various vehicle functions such as speed and radio volume.
MyTechnology for the Masses
Ford's new MyFord Touch driver connect technology works with Sync to keep drivers both informed and connected. Ten-thousand voice commands are preprogrammed, allowing drivers to make phone calls, play music and find restaurants and stores from behind the wheel. Simply saying, "I'm hungry" or "Find shoe store" is enough information for the system to start providing destinations.
A 4.2-inch LCD MyFord Touch display screen comes standard on the base Explorer, along with MyKey and a fairly common list of features like power accessories, cruise control and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Midlevel XLT models add a reverse sensing system, automatic headlights, manual shift capability for the transmission and heated side mirrors. The top-of-the-line Limited models get a features list that includes a back-up camera, ambient interior lighting, remote start and a larger 8-inch screen for the MyFord Touch system.
Functional Good Looks
Beyond the 2011 Ford Explorer's new Taurus-like face is a more slippery design. Aiding the increase in fuel economy is a reduced coefficient of drag that's now 0.35, down from 0.40, which translates into a 12 percent improvement in aerodynamics. The Explorer logged more than 260 hours in the wind tunnel until engineers were satisfied with the final result.
A quick glance in the cabin shows Ford gave the Explorer's interior special consideration. Moray Callum, executive director for North America Design, says "unexpected elegance of the interior" is one of the Explorer's strengths, and that the "metal speaker grilles match the level of the Sony stereo quality." The result is such an impressive improvement over the current Explorer, one would never guess the new cabin contains 25 percent recycled material.
Cost of Economy
After months of teaser photos and now the release of details and technical specs, you'll still need to wait a few more months to find out how the 2011 Ford Explorer performs on and off the road. Production doesn't begin until November, with an on-sale date likely to be early next year. Only then will you know how much the fuel-saving technology will actually cost you.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.