I was going to start this review of the re-designed 2011 Ford Explorer by calling it the car that saved my life. Well, that sounds a bit too much like a paid marketing story in some trade magazine, or maybe a blog entry, but the truth is that the new Explorer really did stick to an icy road for an entire week, and at least kept me out of the ditch and from some panicky moments on a lonely country road covered with snow. The much-improved SUV now looks and drives like a true crossover, with a stately interior and a radical new unibody construction. Yet, the intelligent drivetrain, third-row seating, and reasonable price tag make the Explorer the crowning SUV of the moment, minus a few weird snafus.
Everything is new on the Explorer except the name, and apparently Ford even thought about changing that. At least a dozen people commented during our test that the vehicle looks nothing like the old Explorer and more like a beefed up Ford Escape. (If they had known more about the similarly styled Ford Edge, they may have said the Explorer looks like a close cousin.) The auto industry has followed the path of unibody construction because it means cheaper all-in-one materials, but Ford managed to beef up the hood, provide a few sleek angles (especially in the rear), and liven up the design for the current century. The Explorer looks absolutely refined in person, although the Jeep Grand Cherokee has a bit beefier all-terrain look and gets the nod as the more appealing total re-design. Overall, the new Explorer is about 100 pounds lighter than the previous generation Explorer model.
Interestingly, the front grill is a bit more subtle than the Edge, which is almost too pronounced. The outside of the car is sleek and rugged, but not quite as urbanized as the Lincoln MKX. That’s a good thing, especially if you decide to pull an old clunky fishing boat or a dilapidated camper. Ford intends the Explorer to look and feel like a crossover but in reality is a full SUV that can carry and pull cargo.
Inside, the new Explorer feels like a fish bowl, and I mean that in a good way. Several passengers commented about the roominess in the first and second row, about the quality of construction (essentially hard plastic, but molded in a way that feels almost dignified.) Really, the interior is just as much of a radical departure from the old Explorer as the outside, mostly because it just seems so spacious compared to even the Grand Cherokee and the Edge. Of course, every Explorer, even the entry-level model that costs $28,190 includes a third row seat for seven total passengers. That third row is definitely cramped but not awkwardly so – for school age kids, it’s just about right.
Speaking of the third-tow seat, there is also a way to fold the back seats down automatically. This worked well, and looks cool when you use the buttons. However, we preferred the speed on the Dodge Grand Caravan because the Explorer tends to run just a tad slow in comparison. If you fold the third row seats down, you get 43.8 cubic feet of cargo space. If you fold down the second row seats, you get 80.7 cubic feet of space. In keeping with the fish-bowl feel of the car, the Explorer has more space than the Grand Cherokee, which has 68.7 cubic feet in the back with the second row seats folded down.
Ford is pretty serious about making all-terrain driving accessible to everyone. For the SUV newbie, there’s now a dial that shows you a picture of the terrain – mud, sand, snow. This means you don’t have to know anything about what 4×4 low means or 4×4 high. Really, I’m not sure the average SUV owner really understood that terminology anyway. (Low meant you are pretty much stuck or driving through the thick stuff, high meant the 4×4 is engaged and ready.) In the Explorer, when you switch modes, you can feel the vehicle changing to match the terrain. This can be a little jarring at first if you have driven an SUV and never played around with the 4×4 settings. Ford told me that there is some extra intelligence at work here even beyond the Edge model that also automatically adjusts tire speed, braking, and even the powertrain level to each wheel. In practice, the dialing system worked beautifully.
Here are some examples. I mostly tested the snow setting, which also works for grass and gravel, since that’s the condition of the roads where I live. I also tested the mud settings in thick snow and dirt, and then tested the sane setting in lighter snow where there wasn’t as much ice present. I also tested the normal mode which is basically like using the SUV in rear-wheel drive.
In all of my testing, I never felt like the car did not match up to the conditions. For example, on hard-packed snow, the Explorer did intelligently change wheel speed to keep me going straight. Again, this can be a little jarring if you are used to a normal 4×4 mode or all-wheel drive. A tire will actually kick in and spin a little more to keep the vehicle straight. You might feel a bit like the car has taken over, but in the end the final result is that you do not slide and the Explorer doesn’t yaw to the side. Even on a very icy road, the Explorer stayed straight and kept me from going in the ditch at about a 50MPH speed.
So what about heavy snow? In the exact same snow bank where I tested the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Explorer easily propelled through about 8 inches of snow. There wasn’t any side-to-side movement so typical with older SUV models (meaning, you don’t get stuck but you fishtail like crazy).
My only issue with the Explorer is that there does not seem to be a way to set a default position on the terrain management dial. I’d really prefer being able to lock in the snow setting and leave it there all winter. Ford likely does not do this simply because they want to give the driver the option. Yet, if you have just driven the vehicle, stop and park, then jump back in, you have to remember to set the dial to snow. If you forget, you might assume it is in the snow setting and then find yourself in a snow bank since you were back to the rear-wheel drive setting as the default position.
For highway driving on snow and on dry pavement, the Explorer also behaved perfectly. There were a few minor instances with the Grand Cherokee when the car slipped a bit out of turns, but the Explorer hugged the road in my tests. That’s surprising, because usually there would be some slippage, and the Ford Edge didn’t always drive perfectly straight. Ford has accomplished one amazing thing in the re-design: they have made an SUV that actually keeps you from slipping on the road.
Of course, no one buys an SUV only for driving in snow, at least not in my state. The Explorer offers quite a few extras beyond just the terrain dial. The vehicle borrows heavily from the Edge in this regard: it offers the MyFord Touch system with finger-touch control over navigation, climate, and radio. The Explorer also lets you share a 3G signal over in-car Wi-Fi when you plug an adapter into the USB port. (I tested this with a Sprint 3G card but it did not work; Ford tells me Verizon cards do work.)
Like the Edge, the Explorer also alerts you when you go in reverse if there is any traffic behind you. In testing this feature, I found the beeping to be a bit excessive and flagged snow banks just as often as passing cars. The blind spot detection also worked well on the highway and glows yellow if there is a car coming up in your lane, but also tends to be triggered by snow banks.
Ford has added a few extra improvements even over the Edge and MKX though. One is a new Curve Control system that slows the car automatically if you are taking a turn too fast. Truth in reporting: we are not sure if this ever actually kicked in during our entire test. The feature is a great idea, but to test it we felt wed’ have to take a corner too fast and drive in an unsafe way. If the Explorer did employ this technology around a turn, we never noticed, and that might be a good thing.
Another safety feature that we couldn’t test: this is the first vehicle we’ve tested that uses inflatable rear safety belts that expand in the event of a collision. Ford has a video that shows how they work.
The Explorer also adds some handy tech extras, including a liftgate rear hatch that is programmable in height (in case your garage is too low), an improved stability control system that applies brakes and adjusts wheel speed to compensate for any side-to-side movement. Of course, we’ve already covered the Ford SYNC system for voice-activated driving and several other amenities now standard on many Ford vehicles, such as rain-sensing wipers. We still had some issues with SYNC when we used an iPhone 4, but Ford told us that is mostly due to operating systems issue on the phone itself. For example, the phone doesn’t like to be used for Bluetooth Stereo and as a USB device at the same time. The Explorer also features an SD card slot which can be used to load premium map-based navigation into the MyFord Touch system.
This all leaves the Explorer in an interesting place in our estimation. It is a technically superior SUV. We have to say we ended up liking the exterior styling of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee just a notch better – it looks more like an SUV than a crossover and is a hair more rugged-looking for off-road use. We sometimes had glitchy problems with My Touch on the Explorer – we’d prefer more hardware knobs for adjusting climate and audio than relying so much on capacitive touch dials that behave oddly at times. Also, there’s no way to compare the Explorer to the upcoming 2011 Dodge Durango quite yet. And, in winter driving, we never tested pulling capacity or 4×4 mud-slinging in off-road conditions. The 3.5-liter V6 engine is also a beast of reckoning but we focused mostly on road-hugging behaviors.
Also, in comparison to the Grand Cherokee, we liked being able to adjust the ground clearance height so easily and there is a full 4×4 low mode that can help if you do get stuck. The Explorer offers a snow mode that behaves like 4×4 low but it’s not quite as beefy as the Grand Cherokee in our tests.
That said, Ford deserves high accolades for the new Explorer. It is a remarkable re-design and we ended up preferring the ride, the handling, and the tech features even to the Ford Edge. The terrain dial is a smart idea, even if it works much like the one in the Grand Cherokee and the Land Rover. Overall, the Explorer kept us going straight on slippery roads. That’s worth the cars lighter weight in gold.