It still looks like a traditional SUV, but the redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer is a completely different kind of vehicle. As we lean into a sweeping corner, the steering loads up in a linear manner, the body stays level, and we feel like we're in a tall, but well-sorted station wagon.
Previous Ford Explorers did not feel nearly as nimble. They were old-school, body-on-frame SUVs with off-road hardware and overly soft suspensions. Handling was not their strong suit, but few seem to care, as Ford sold more than 400,000 Explorers in 2000. Then there were a rollover controversy and a couple gas price spikes. Explorer sales fell off a cliff and have never recovered; only 50,000 have been sold so far this year.
Ford needed to do something drastic, so it has reinvented the Explorer as a more carlike crossover vehicle. The 2011 Ford Explorer now shares a front-wheel drive, unibody platform with the Flex, although it preserves some off-road credibility by offering an optional four-wheel-drive system with multiple terrain settings. So it's no longer the rugged, outdoor vehicle it used to be, yet few are likely to notice.
Composed and Confident
A rigid structure is key to the Explorer's newfound road manners. The stiffer chassis allowed Ford's engineers to tune the midsize SUV's suspension more precisely. Our top-of-the-range 2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD does a fine job of cushioning impacts while keeping the body on an even keel. Its steering is accurate and direct, if a bit light for enthusiastic drivers.
At our instrumented testing facility, the 2011 Ford Explorer pulls a class-competitive 0.77g on the skid pad and weaves through the slalom test at 58.5 mph. Key rivals for the Explorer include the redesigned 2011 Dodge Durango, along with the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Toyota Highlander and arguably Ford's own Flex.
No Small Thing
As confident as it feels, the Explorer remains an SUV of significant size -- something you'll want to keep in mind when parking it (although our Limited model has Ford's Active Park Assist, so we don't have to expend that much mental capacity). It has a slightly shorter wheelbase this year, but rides on a 67-inch track -- about 6 inches wider than the 2010 model's -- giving it a shoulder line comparable to heavyweights like the Traverse and Pilot. And at 197.1 inches long, the Explorer is also 3.7 inches longer than its predecessor.
The benefits to interior room are very tangible, with noticeably more shoulder room in the first and second rows. There's also another 3 inches of legroom in the second row, making the Explorer far friendlier for backseat passengers.
Space behind the third row has also grown considerably -- up from 13.6 to 21 cubic feet. Maximum cargo capacity, on the other hand, drops from 84 to 81 cubic feet. Given how often we use the rear cargo area versus folding both rows of seats down, it seems like an acceptable compromise.
You can't get a V8 engine on the new 2011 Ford Explorer -- a change that reduces its overall fuel consumption while keeping curb weight down. Still, with all the structural reinforcement and safety technology Ford put into the new SUV, it's not significantly lighter than before.
Fortunately, our Explorer Limited tester's 3.5-liter V6 engine is up to the task of propelling the nearly 4,900-pound SUV. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the V6 is rated at a solid 290 horsepower and has a decent 255-pound-feet torque rating.
This combination is good enough to get the Explorer to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds. That's about average for this class, as only the Highlander (7.8 seconds) and more potent Flex EcoBoost (6.4 seconds) are quicker. Notably, this new V6 Explorer is nearly a second quicker to 60 than the last V8-equipped Explorer we tested.
At 70 mph on the highway, the Explorer is quiet and smooth, its engine loafing at 2,000 rpm. The return is a low 65-decibel noise level that's on par with some luxury sedans. The engine isn't so wonderful during passing maneuvers, however, as its note grows coarse as the tach needle swings toward the 6,500-rpm redline.
Braking distances are always a big deal when you've got the whole family onboard, and the 2011 Ford Explorer gets the job done here. Its brake pedal has a firm, reassuring feel and works in a linear manner. Its 60-0-mph stopping distance of 122 feet is above average for the three-row crossover class.
The Explorer's economy ratings are above average for this class as well. Ford's projected 17 city/23 highway mpg rating for our four-wheel-drive tester (17/25 on front-drive Explorers) matches the EPA rating on the smaller, lighter Highlander. If that's not good enough, there's a turbocharged, four-cylinder Explorer on the way that will reportedly earn an 18/26 rating.
If there's one serious drawback to the new engines and suspension setups, it's towing capacity. With the proper setup, Ford says a V6-equipped 2011 Explorer can tow 5,000 pounds, well short of the 7,000-pound rating the old V8 models used to offer.
There's also the Explorer's diminished off-road capability. Instead of a true two-speed transfer case, there's now a single-speed, on-demand system. It routes power to the front wheels during normal driving and splits torque to the rear wheels on an as-needed basis. It's essentially a light-duty system for dealing with bad weather, not a true off-road-capable setup. Ford added a "Terrain Management Response" system that tailors throttle, traction control and shift calibration for varying terrain, but again, it's making the best of a light-duty system.
A Full Range of Features
No one is bound to miss the Explorer's lack of a transfer case. This was and is a family vehicle, and now, as then, a thoughtfully designed interior is higher on the priority list than just about anything else. In Limited guise, the Explorer's cabin uses lots of soft-touch plastics along with metallic, piano black and wood-grain trim. We especially like the reconfigurable instrument panel, which can display a tach, fuel and coolant gauges, or four-wheel-drive information alongside the large central speedometer.
There are some flaws, though. The buttons for the sound and climate-control systems are overly sensitive and simple controls like the seat heaters are accessed through the central touchscreen. It's the compromise you make for getting the Limited's standard MyFord Touch interface, which along with Sync, provides excellent phone and music connectivity.
Like any modern crossover, the 2011 Ford Explorer is stuffed full of safety features. In addition to the standard side curtain airbags for all three rows, you can equip your Explorer with second-row seatbelt airbags for just $195 more. Our Limited model has the big Rapid Spec 302A package, which in addition to the self-parking system, comes with collision warning and blind-spot warning systems.
It's a Contender Again
Ford's decision to make the Explorer into a car-based SUV was the right one. It's convenient and comfortable in all the ways families will appreciate, and it's a worthy rival to vehicles like the CX-9, Durango, Highlander and Traverse. The Explorer is more distinctively styled than any of those vehicles and offers more safety features to boot. Further, it rides, handles, accelerates and stops as well as almost anything in the class (no one has yet equaled the CX-9's athletic dynamics).
Our only hesitation is that a fully loaded Explorer Limited like this one is expensive for a family vehicle. Our tester was nearly $46,000, and with every single option added, you're not too far from $50 grand. Stepping down to the XLT starts you at a much more reasonable $32,000 and yet it still includes almost all of the same hardware. As is often the case, if you want all the latest features you have to pay big up front to get them.
Thankfully, most of the 2011 Ford Explorer's best features are built right in. You don't need leather seats to realize that this Explorer is more comfortable, quieter and easier to live with on a daily basis. If you really need the capabilities of a truck, then this Explorer won't cut it. Ford is betting on the fact that most families don't need that kind of capability, and Ford is probably right.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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