Hands-on: Redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer

It's an off-road-capable vehicle with intelligent 4WD that seems just at home in the city as in the middle of the woods, which is probably why Ford's marketing team imported a few tons of dirt, trees, mountain bicyclists, and a staged campsite into the middle of New York City for its unveiling.

The 2011 Ford Explorer's sculpted sides resemble the Taurus. Ford

I recently spent an hour getting a hands-on impression of the newly unveiled 2011 Ford Explorer. And let me say upfront, I'm not that easy to impress when it comes to full-size SUVs (or really SUVs in general). I think they're excessive, especially in this era of restraint. And yet, I understand that there are families who want and need the flexibility that a big SUV provides: off-road capability, towing capacity, cargo space, and seating for seven. Even if the majority of SUVs are underused, I understand the need for all-in-one vehicles. You may own a different pair of shoes for every occasion, but that logic doesn't extend to vehicles.

The new 2011 Ford Explorer seems to strike the right balance as a jack-of-all-trades SUV.

The all-new Explorer interior features soft-touch materials. Ford

The exterior reflects a rugged elegance that you'd expect from a go-anywhere SUV. It's off-road capable, with intelligent 4WD, and up to 5,000 pounds of towing capacity, and yet the Explorer looks more at home in the city than in the middle of the woods, which is probably why Ford's marketing team reminded the audience for the car's unveiling of its off-roading roots with a few tons of imported dirt, trees, and a staged campsite plopped in the middle of New York City.

The elegance extends to the inside of the vehicle, as well. The new Explorer's interior is soft, clean, streamlined, and well laid-out, especially for a full-size SUV. Calm and serene is how it was described by the program managers. Granted, I was in the car only for a few minutes, but the interior did seem to envelop you like a cozy cocoon. Everything was easily within arms reach, including (I imagined) children in the second row.

The 2011 Ford Explorer's efficient ergonomics may be a result of the unique way it was brought to market. Using a job-sharing arrangement, the Explorer program was led by two female executives who split the position during the workweek. The co-program managers are working moms with different engineering backgrounds, and the wider range of perspectives, expertise, and experience may have enriched the vehicle's development process and final product.

The explorer's high level of family friendliness is readily apparent. For example, the automatic lifting tailgate can be programed to stop at different heights, making it easier for shorter people to close. The second and third rows fold completely flat in a variety of configurations, and the third row seats can independently fold and unfold at the touch of a button. Storage goes beyond cup holders and trunk, offering thoughtful compartments to hold everyday items such as umbrellas and parking cards. A 110-volt charger behind the center console is within easy reach of the driver, and vehicle ingress and egress is easier with the Explorer than what you'd expect for a full-size SUV. Still, it's probably best to avoid wearing pencil skirts and minis when getting into and out of this vehicle.

Folding Explorer second- and third-row seats give 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space. Ford

The high level of connectivity is another perk for busy working moms and dads who are running the kids around town. The 2011 Explorer is available with the MyFord Touch on the XLT and Limited trims, and the SUV can also be equipped with a Wi-Fi hot spot. With that amount of distraction, it's probably best that Ford outfitted this car with every safety bell and whistle on the market, including inflatable seat belts, cross traffic sensors, and the new CURVE control feature.

Using a full-size SUV to run the carpool obviously raises questions about fuel economy. Ford is being purposely coy about the fuel economy numbers, preferring to hold off estimates until the EPA announces its rating later this year. However, the company is quick to say that new Explorers equipped with the I-4 engine with EcoBoost get at least 30 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing model, and the V6 version gets 20 percent better gas mileage.

For those of you wondering, the 2010 Explorer with a V6 engine achieved an estimated 15 mpg in the city, and 20 mpg on the highway. Doing the math for me, Ford spokesperson Jay Ward said that it worked out to about an average 26 mpg for the I4 model. But he also stressed that the estimates are "at least 30 percent better" than the outgoing model. That said, we're getting awfully close to midsize and crossover fuel economy numbers with a seven-seater SUV.

With progress in fuel economy, it's easier to make the argument for buying this much SUV. The pricing makes the rest of the case: the 2011 Explorer starts at $28,995--$1,000 less than the current model. It's also $1,000 less than the 2010 Ford Flex SE. Fully loaded, the 2011 Ford Explorer LMT is $36,995, which includes the enhanced MyFord Touch.

After only an hour spent with the vehicle, it's hard to say what I didn't like. The vehicle is larger and wider than its predecessor, which is good for stability, bad for tooling about the city and going through drive-throughs. But most full-size SUVs live in the suburbs, and we really shouldn't be designing cars around fast-food establishments anyway.

 

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