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.
The right side display shows infotainment, such as the current track playing on satellite radio.
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.
The nav system lost its GPS signal in lightly wooded areas, and took a long time to get it back.
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.
Sync does a great job indexing music from MP3 players and even USB flash drives.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2011 Ford Explorer|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/23 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-drive-based system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Eight-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot detection, rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$37,640|