Test Drive: 2011 Ford Explorer

Latest midsize SUV switches from truck-type design to more carlike unibody construction

by James M. Flammang

2011 Ford Explorer

For two decades, Ford's Explorer has ranked among the most popular sport-utility vehicles. Now in its fifth generation, as redesigned for 2011, the Explorer has switched from body-on-frame to unibody construction. That helps reduce road noise as well as body roll "in dynamic cornering situations," according to Ford.

Ford also promises best-in-class fuel economy: an estimated 17 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway with the V-6 engine. The 3.5-liter V-6 yields 25 percent better fuel economy than the 2010 Explorer. For 2012, a newly available EcoBoost turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine will promise up to 30 percent more thrift with fuel.

Three trim levels are offered: base, XLT, and Limited. Each is available with either front-drive or four-wheel drive. Rather than the usual 4-High, 4-Low, and Automatic settings, Ford's four-wheel drive system lets the driver choose from four Terrain Management possibilities: normal, mud, sand, or snow. Hill Descent Control also is included.

Ford's 3.5-liter V-6 develops 290 horsepower at 6500 rpm, and 255 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. A six-speed automatic is the sole transmission possibility.

Slightly shorter in wheelbase, the 2011 Explorer is 4 inches longer overall than its predecessor. Some basic design elements actually are shared with Ford's Taurus sedan.

AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control is standard. Curve Control provides braking "optimized by individual wheel," as described by Ford. MyFord driver-connect technology includes a 4.2-inch LCD display.

Behind the wheel, the redesigned 2011 Explorer has a lot going for it. Refined? Yes. Quiet? Very much so. Energetic? Definitely, and brisk from lower speeds. Carlike? For the most part, yes.

In fact, you can check off most consideration factors as pluses. Yet, this Explorer generation lacks a certain amount of life and character, compared to earlier versions. Explorer used to be a bit special. Not so much anymore. If anything, it's become more of a cookie-cutter model, not less - easily matching but not necessarily beating the competition.

On the plus side, the Explorer benefits from good steering feel: on the light side, but not inappropriate. Easy to maneuver, this midsize SUV rides smoothly, as the suspension appears ready to tackle and contain nearly all trouble spots. Views are okay except past the very wide C-pillars, especially on the right.

On the other hand, the Explorer's information-screen layout looks almost incoherent. For many shoppers nowadays, Ford's Sync system makes the difference: love it (younger shoppers) or hate it (many others). There's nothing to feel in terms of controls: just flat "buttons" on the panel, and odd virtual buttons on the screen, such as "Where Am I?" Using them also is accompanied by annoying chirps. The Explorer driver absolutely must study the owner's manual to use Sync properly.

Front-seat space is ample (with mild seat bolstering), but the second row less so. Unless front seats are positioned well forward, second-row legroom is cramped. Headroom falls short of voluminous, too. But the center spot is better than most.

As for the third row, you can hardly see the seats back there, much less get to them easily. They're strictly for youngsters. Cargo space is passable with a shallow well, but most users are likely to fold down those limited-use third-row seats to get truly useful luggage room.

Prices for the Chicago-built Explorer start at $29,185 (including destination charge) for a front-drive base model.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang