Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: 2011 Ford Explorer

Great explorers must overcome great hurdles in order to not only to achieve their goals, but in many cases, just to stay alive. Sir Ranulph Fiennes was the first man to reach both North and South Poles, but he lost several fingers and toes in the experience. Likewise, Robert Falcon Scott, who raced Roald Amundsen across the Antarctic to realize the dream of being the first man to the South Pole, only to loose the race by 35-days and later his life on the return journey due to improper preparations. In the cutthroat world of the SUV, the waters are not as warm and comfortable as the Caribbean; rather icy and treacherous like the Arctic. The once powerful SUV has had to give way to the surge in popularity of the Crossover, as the public demands a high cargo and passenger volume vehicle that handles like a car.

Enter the Explorer, the pioneer of the modern SUV, however, as of late, with all the Japanese competition as well as Dodge, Jeep and Chevy producing significantly upgraded unibodied utes, the Explorer had become a relic of out of date body on frame technology. Like most of Fords range of new vehicles, 2011 sees all change for the Explorer, with an all-new unibody stuffed with as much technology Ford could squeeze into it.

Other than body construction, the biggest step forward is how much greener the Explorer has become with the new 3.5L V-6 producing 22% better fuel efficiency, with at city rating of 11.9/100km and 8.0L on the highway. All this comes with an improvement in power as well, upping to 290 hp and 255 lb-ft. The upcoming 2.0L Ecoboost that is due later this summer is even more impressive offering up 237 horsepower and 250 lb.-ft. of torque. However, despite its name, fuel efficiency is actually worse than the V-6, with a 13.1L/100km city and 8.7L on the highway.

The new design is quite an eye catcher if I do say so myself, and sports some distinctly Land Roverish touches that really add to the refinement of the vehicle. Inside the same can be said as a stylish interior design is matched with high quality soft touch materials, while what few buttons there are, give off a very luxurious feel and actuation. However, the coolness factor gets cranked to 11 with both the gauge cluster and center stack satnav, entertainment and HVAC centre.

Like the Fusion, the Explorer utilizes an adaptable digital gauge cluster giving the driver just about any onboard information one could ask for. The Sony controls are all touch sensitive

Along with the cool displays the Explorer has a mass of new drive technology. The list of control system acronyms for the Explorer is large enough to make an Infiniti blush. The Explorer has benefited with a heavy influx of shared technology that has been developed with the specialists expertise of out-going partners Volvo and Land Rover, with excellent safety and off-road abilities.

Lets start with the safety side of the equation. The new Explorer stepped up to bat big time in the safety department with the usual suspects; traction control, ABS and stability control, while adding the BLIS blind spot warning system, cross traffic-alert, adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support.  However, if you don’t think that’s enough, Ford have developed an industry first with the introduction of inflatable rear seat belts found in the 2nd row outboard seats. As a $250 option on XLT and Limited models, this system uses a compressed air container under each seat which fires air into an airbag folded into the seatbelt. The airbag tears through a seam in the belt, tripling its contact area in the event of a collision. Also debuting is Fords curve control system, which will detect if the vehicle has entered a corner too fast, and keeps it on the road by working with all the systems mentioned above, as well as roll over control, effectively controlling speed and skidding.

Land Rover faithful will know the multi-surface interface now found in the Explorer, allowing the driver to choose either snow, sand, rutted or normal driving conditions. Well, that system, known as the Terrain Management System, now makes the Explorer a formidable soft-roader. And just for good measure, Ford has added a hill decent function as well. With the Terrain Management controls in communication with the driving aids, it all combines to create a vehicle with incredible traction in any environment. Despite the Explorers independent suspension and relatively low ride height for an SUV, it performs beyond its mechanical disadvantages. However, that being said, the Explorer is missing one vital part of the Terrain Management System lacks the air springs found in the LR4 and Range Rover models, a feature that massively increases the off-road character of those vehicles. If Ford are smart, they will offer adjustable lift suspension in an off-road special edition, much like but not as extreme as the Raptor.

So, how does it all work in the real world, on roads slick with packed ice? With our tester wrapped with Continental ice tires driving in the standard surface setting already gives the driver a confident feeling on snow and ice as the Explorer is well planted and turns in well. With the multi-surface control set to “Sand” the explorer starts to get frisky as the computers start to allow the wheels to spin up, and the vehicle is allowed to slid around a little bit before traction and stability programs step in. In “Snow” mode, throttle response is cut and the traction and stability programs are working at the hardest to keep the vehicle on the straight and narrow. The result is a phenomenal amount of grip on even the slipperiest of surfaces.

Overall, Ford have done a wonderfull job bringing the aging old Explorer up to date, and none too soon as both Jeep and Dodge have also made eaqually impressive leaps with the Grand Cherokee and Durango. Until driving the Explorer, I was most impressed with the Grand Cherokee’s excellent new unibody. However, with Fords new design, and one of the most impressive interiors in the business, the Explorer just takes over as my pick for the segment. However, like I said above, if you are looking to do some off-roading, something old Explorer owner are quite fond of, I would suggest the Jeep, as they have the advantage of height adjustable air springs, the Explorers one let down.

MSRP: $29,999
Price as tested: $44,199 (LTD AWD)
Type: 4-door, full-size SUV
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 2.0L I-4
Horsepower: V-6 290, I-4 290
Torque: V-6 255, I-4
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Layout: Front engine, front wheel drive, optional AWD
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 11.9L city, 8.0L highway

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