Numbers don't lie: There's no denying that the Ford Explorer, introduced in 1990, was an enormous success, quickly becoming — year after year — the top-selling SUV. The four-door, V-6-powered sport utility vehicle filled an enormous hole in Ford's lineup, as the models that preceded it, the Bronco and smaller Bronco II, were never offered with rear doors.
Even from that very first model, though, I was never a big Explorer fan. I always thought there were better alternatives available, sold by General Motors, Chrysler, Jeep, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and even Isuzu.
Now, things have changed. If you assume a few constants over the long, long life of the Explorer, such as the 4-liter, German-built V-6 engine, then this 2011 model represents the first genuinely new Explorer. The biggest change: The Explorer has always been a traditional, truck-based SUV, with a body attached to a separate frame. For 2011, the Explorer officially becomes a "crossover," now based on a car platform — the Ford Taurus — rather than a truck platform. And, like the Taurus, the Explorer now comes standard as front-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel-drive.
As with most crossover SUVs, there's more sport, less utility. The 2011 Explorer can tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds, while the 2010 model could tow up to 7,115 pounds. The four-wheel-drive 2010 Explorer was heavier, more rugged and more capable off-road than the newer model.
But the trade-off for slightly less utility is minor compared to what the 2011 Explorer offers — a far better ride, excellent handling and much better fuel mileage. The test Explorer, an all-wheel-drive mid-level XLT model, is EPA-rated at 17 mpg city, 23 mpg on the highway. A similarly-equipped 2010 Explorer was rated at 14 mpg city, 19 highway. That was with the optional 292-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 engine. Now, the standard engine is a 3.5-liter V-6, but it has only two fewer horsepower than the old V-8. The new Explorer will soon be offered with a 2-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder than gets even better mileage, and has a still-impressive 237 horsepower.
The seven-passenger 2011 Explorer has an all-new look, inside and out. Exterior styling is handsome and functional, with a high-enough roof to make for decent headroom even in the two third-row seats — though getting back to those two seats is a hassle, and once there, legroom is marginal. Those seats fold down easily, more than doubling the 21 cubic feet of luggage space you have when all the seats are in place.
Inside, the test Explorer XLT — one step up from the base model, and one down from the deluxe Limited — had plenty of standard equipment. Front and second-row seats were fine, instruments and controls properly placed. I'm not yet impressed with the touch-sensitive controls, most of them located in the TV screen in the center console, and some right below the screen. They require a very light touch to operate, but the system is unnecessarily complex and anti-intuitive. It's certainly capable once you master it, but I just don't much like any system that can be torpedoed to this extent by the failure of a video screen. Oh, well — there's also voice-operated controls.
That's pretty much where the criticism ends. The electric-boosted power steering is superb — properly weighted and with just the right feel. The engine and 6-speed automatic transmission work in harmony, and you won't miss the V-8 unless you need to tow a lot.
Price is comparable to the outgoing model, starting at $28,190 for the front-drive base model. The all-wheel-drive Limited starts at $39,190, and can easily top $45,000. The test XLT listed for $38,355, with about $4,400 in options. Even at that, it lacked a power lift gate, a sunroof, power third-row seats and a rear-seat entertainment system.
When word came that the Explorer would be built on the Taurus chassis — and would, in fact, be assembled in the same Chicago plant — many of us wondered what kind of SUV that Taurus platform would make. The answer: An excellent one, at least on par with anything the competition offers. Well done.