The 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD is nothing less than a reinvention of one of the Blue Oval's best-known brands. Now a car-based crossover utility vehicle rather than a converted pickup truck, the Explorer goes down the road like a tall, heavy car. It has reassuring brakes, decent acceleration, a chassis that rides well over bumpy roads yet encourages you to load up the tires in corners, and is quiet and refined.
Also the new Explorer has a sophisticated man/machine interface, some new safety technologies and is supremely practical. Every example has standard third-row seating and can accommodate six or seven passengers and plenty of luggage. And if you choose an all-wheel-drive model, the Explorer has surprisingly good off-road suds to go with its on-road skills.
The Ford Explorer invented the sport-utility market as we know it in the United States. And now that same market — so much larger, so much more mature and so dominated by car-based crossovers and not trucks — has reinvented the 2011 Ford Explorer.
The 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD shares its underpinnings with other crossover-type vehicles in the Dearborn lineup such as the Ford Flex and Taurus and the Lincoln MKT. It's a front-wheel-drive vehicle in base form, while a four-wheel-drive system is a $2,000 option across the model range. It is the first Explorer to use carlike unitary construction rather than a separate, truck-style chassis. The new Explorer is also bigger than the vehicle it replaces in some key dimensions. At 197.1 inches overall, it's 3.7 inches longer, while it's 78.9 inches across, some 5.2 inches wider. It's still heavy at 4,872 pounds, but Ford claims that the new Explorer is actually lighter than the old one, though it's difficult to pin down by how much.
Under its hood, the Limited model has a 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque compared with the old Explorer's 4.6-liter V8 that made 292 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque. The V6 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. As a result of the smaller engine, better aerodynamics and lighter weight, the EPA gas mileage has improved from 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway to 17 and 23 mpg, respectively.
At the test track, the new 2011 Ford Explorer is certainly faster than the old one, recording a 0-60-mph time of 8.3 seconds with the traction control engaged, about a half-second quicker than the last V8 model we tested. The standing quarter-mile takes 16.3 seconds with a trap speed of 86.6 mph with the stability control engaged, which is certainly competitive with most of its rivals among three-row crossovers. The engine does a good job but becomes a bit thrashy at the top end, as our test-driver notes.
In every other regard, the Explorer performs solidly. It takes 122 feet to stop from 60 mph to zero, with no drama or anomalies and then pulls 0.77g on the skid pad. It breezes through the Edmunds slalom at 58.5 mph, and it feels exceptionally composed and confident during this maneuver, although its ultimate speed is regulated by an intrusive stability control system.
The only area that the old Explorer outperforms the new is in towing. The old vehicle could haul 7,115 pounds properly outfitted, but the new Explorer Limited will tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds.
When it comes to driving in the real world, the 2011 Ford Explorer is a vast improvement on the outgoing model. Whether it's equipped with optional second-row bucket seats or a bench, there is more leg- and headroom in the first two rows. It has similar interior space to the Honda Pilot, one of its chief rivals, but teenagers on their way to a soccer game will be happier (or less annoyed) with the third row in the Ford.
The Explorer's highway ride is particularly impressive. It's supple yet there's no float, and tire impacts are muted over all but the harshest of bumps. For a crossover, the Explorer is exceptionally quiet, recording just 65 decibels at 70 mph, a figure that shames some very expensive luxury cars.
The Ford Explorer Limited comes well equipped, with leather seats, a 12-speaker stereo, a rear back-up camera, power-adjustable pedals and 20-inch wheels and tires as standard. Pony up $4,000 for the "Rapid Spec package 302A," and a whole array of technological and entertainment features is added, including: Ford's excellent touchscreen navigation system; heated and cooled front seats; a power-folding third-row seat; adaptive cruise control with collision warning; rain-sensing wipers; a blind-spot warning system; and active parking assist. Be forewarned, though, because it's possible to beat the $50,000 mark at the Explorer's bottom line if you opt for items like a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a dual-panel sunroof.
The 2011 Ford Explorer is very easy to live with and operate. The instrument panel is configurable, allowing you to add information about the four-wheel-drive system, a tachometer, or a fuel gauge alongside the large central speedometer in the instrument cluster. There's plenty of luggage room inside the Explorer, with a total of 81 cubic feet behind the front seats and 44 cubic feet behind the second row.
Our tester was equipped with the optional four-wheel-drive system that incorporates a four-position "Terrain Management System" and a hill descent feature. The Terrain Management System uses different throttle, transmission and traction control strategies to tackle slippery surfaces, and can be optimized for normal highway use, mud and ruts, snow and sand. The system isn't designed for long drives into the wilderness, but will ensure that owners will easily get to their lakeside cabins or their favorite ski resorts in adverse conditions.
Overall, it's apparent that Ford is high on safety with its SUVs, a byproduct of the Explorer/Firestone fiasco in the early 2000s. The Explorer comes with front and side airbags for the front-seat passengers and curtain airbags for all rows. Innovative second-row seatbelts with integrated airbags — to spread the load in the event of an accident — are a $195 option. The Explorer also has what Ford calls "Curve Control," a more advanced stability system that applies the brakes if the electronics predict that it's straying off the blacktop while cornering.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Ford Explorer Limited looks terrific, inside and out. Thanks to its lower roof line and wider stance, it looks much sleeker than the outgoing Explorer and has a lot more curb appeal than either the Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander. The interior has far more soft-touch materials than its Japanese rivals, and mixes aluminum, wood and leather finishes in a very stylish way.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD is an excellent choice for a family vehicle, with one caveat: It's more expensive than vehicles such as the Chevrolet Traverse, the Honda Pilot Touring and the Toyota Highlander. Loaded with options, an Explorer Limited can cost more than $50,000, moving it into competition with luxury crossovers such as the BMW X5. Go easy on the options, however, and it makes a fine case for itself.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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