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2011 Ford Explorer XLT review:

2011 Ford Explorer XLT

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Other audio sources included Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming audio, and HD radio. A nice feature of this stereo is its ability to show album art for devices plugged into the USB ports and channel icons for satellite radio stations.

The base eight-speaker audio system in the Explorer produces average sound quality. Music is audible, but the reproduction is drab across the frequencies. Highs don't particularly stand out, nor does the detail, and bass is not particularly strong. There is an optional Sony premium audio system that should deliver much improved audio quality, if the Sony system in the Ford Edge is anything to go by.

Ford makes a couple of driver assistance features available in the Explorer. The backup camera, which features a zoom function and distance lines, is a necessary feature in the Explorer, given its size. The side mirrors have icons that light up when another car is in the Explorer's blind spot. This is particularly useful, as the blind spots seem typically large for an SUV.

Offroad lightweight
New for four-wheel-drive Explorers is a terrain selection system, a knob on the console that lets you choose offroad programs for sand, mud, and snow. But the Explorer is a little bit of a lightweight when it comes to offroad conditions, as it doesn't have a manually locking differential or a height adjustable suspension. The different terrain programs adjust traction control, throttle, and other systems.

The Explorer got mired in these mud ruts, and could not get itself out.

During testing, our Ford Explorer slid into a deep mud rut from which it could not free itself. This deep and slick rut would trap most vehicles, but the Explorer's terrain management system seemed to offer little relief, and its lack of ground clearance did not help the situation.

On paved roads, the Explorer feels stable and offers a reasonably comfortable ride. Ford uses an electric power steering system with solid feedback, making it easy to feel the car's grip in corners. The Explorer is pure SUV, so it is not meant for hard cornering. But it does not sway excessively going through a turn.

The transmission, Ford's six-speed automatic Speed Shift in the XLT trim, has drive and manual modes. A rocker switch on the side of the shifter, easily thumbed, shifts gears sequentially in manual mode. The gear shifts are not particularly quick, but they don't really need to be in this type of vehicle.

The 3.5-liter V-6 powering the Explorer XLT has variable valve timing, putting it about average on the tech scale. It produces 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. This truck might feel more powerful if the engine was tuned for more torque, even if that meant sacrificing some horsepower. It requires a lot of pedal to get it moving.

The six-speed automatic transmission in the Explorer XLT offers a manual shift mode.

Ford promises a much more advanced engine in the future, a direct injection turbocharged four-cylinder. That Ecoboost engine should deliver the same power but get better fuel economy.

As it is, the four-wheel-drive Explorer is supposed to get 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. In testing over a variety of roads, from dense urban traffic to high-speed freeways, our Explorer turned in an average of 17.8 mpg. Those numbers are certainly better than older generation V-8 Explorers, but the Ecoboost engine should do even better.

In sum
Ford's new navigation system lost the 2011 Explorer points for cabin tech. Current GPS should be able to keep a location lock much better than this one. But Sync earned it high points for voice command and the Bluetooth phone system. Likewise, connectivity with Sirius Travel Link garnered extra points. Although the stereo offered multiple audio sources, the buggy USB ports brought the score down.

By today's tech standards, the engine is only average, but the Explorer's transmission and electric power steering got it more performance tech points. Although the four-wheel-drive system fell short of what we would have liked, it still brought in extra points for its different traction control programs.

For design, the Explorer gets big points for practicality, especially with the flat folding third row and easy access to the vehicle. The exterior look is also good with its modern lines. The cabin tech interface is a bit of a mixed bag. We had to mark it down for its sluggish response, but the instrument cluster LCDs are a very useful feature.

Tech specs
Model2011 Ford Explorer
Power train3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy17 mpg city/23 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy17.8 mpg
NavigationOptional flash-drive-based system with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportStandard
Disc playerMP3-compatible single CD
MP3 player supportiPod, Zune, many others
Other digital audioUSB drive, Bluetooth streaming, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio systemEight-speaker system
Driver aidsBlind-spot detection, rear-view camera
Base price$33,190
Price as tested$37,640

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