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Electric cars and hybrids may hold the automotive limelight these days, but automakers have not given up on SUVs. Ford's venerable Explorer gets an update for the 2011 model year that completely redesigns the car from the ground up, making for a modern four-wheel-drive vehicle that justifies itself with a huge cargo area and third-row seating.
The 2011 Ford Explorer retains a trucklike front end, albeit with fewer harsh lines in the body work. Large side windows lead back to an angled C-pillar. The cargo area includes a third row of seats that can fold flat into the floor.
But underneath the Explorer is a very different vehicle from previous generations. Instead of a frame-based platform, the new Explorer uses independent suspension components front and rear. Instead of a V-8, the new Explorer currently comes with a 3.5-liter V-6, and Ford will add its new Ecoboost four cylinder at a later date.
The 2011 Explorer also gets Ford's latest cabin electronics, although that fact is not unequivocally a good thing. Optional with the Ford Explorer XLT is the MyFord Touch cabin tech interface. This interface includes useful LCDs in the instrument cluster and a large touch screen on the center stack.
In the instrument cluster, the LCD to the left of the speedometer shows vehicle data, while the one on the right shows infotainment. Both are configurable with D pads on the steering wheel spokes, letting the driver, for instance, check fuel economy on the left and route guidance on the right. These displays work very well and provide useful information close to the driver's line of sight.
The central touch screen is where the problems begin. Divided into four main areas, audio, navigation, phone, and climate, this touch screen is too slow responding to input. Touch the tab for navigation, and the response is less than instantaneous, such that you might be finding yourself touching it again, thinking it didn't work the first time.
Part of the problem seems to be that Ford used a resistive touch screen instead of the capacitive style of touch screen commonly used on cell phones. A resistive touch screen has the advantage that it can be operated by a person wearing gloves, but it needs a stronger touch than the capacitive style. However, Ford could also use a faster CPU in the system, as some of the slow response seems to do with processing time.
Another major problem with the Explorer is the navigation system. This flash-drive-based system offers some very good features, such as traffic and 3D displays, but it is more prone to losing track of the vehicle than others. While driving in a lightly wooded area, the system lost its GPS fix, showing the vehicle off in random areas of the map. Even after it regained its satellite signal, it took an unreasonably long time, measured in tens of minutes, to regain its position on the map. That performance is exceedingly subpar, and does not measure up to Ford's previous, hard-drive-based navigation system.
Through Sirius Travel Link, the Explorer brings in a lot of useful external data. There is a weather report, sports scores, gas prices at nearby stations, and movie times. The latter two integrate with the navigation system, letting you, for instance, make a gas station in the list of fuel prices the car's destination. This is all fine and good if the navigation system knows the correct location of the car.
One of the star features of the Explorer, seen in other Ford vehicles, is the Sync voice command system. This system has been refined for easier voice inputs, for example, letting you say an entire address string instead of city, street, then street number. Likewise, Sync integrates with the Bluetooth phone system, and allows making calls merely by saying a contact's name.
Although many cars now have dial-by-name for voice command, few can equal Sync's ability to understand band, album, and song names. This feature of Sync works for just about anything plugged into one of the Explorer's two USB ports, whether it be an iPod, Zune, or flash drive. Although this feature works surprisingly well, both USB ports failed during our testing of the Explorer. Although the main interface would show a song being played, audio was not playing through the speakers. The USB ports appeared to be rather finicky.