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2011 Ford Explorer: Reinventing the classic SUV

Posted by Bill Griffith  May 31, 2011 12:12 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Ford started beating the drum for its "reinvented" 2011 Explorer more than a year ago. The company's latest and greatest SUV would have unibody construction, better driving dynamics, more economical engines, and be loaded with safety and entertainment technology.

The new Explorer does accomplish all of that, though we wound up using it for the same mundane chores that became easier when Ford first took the SUV segment mainstream with the 1991 model.

Good friends Helen and Ken had decided to become snowbirds, making their Tampa-area home their winter base and using their Lake Winnipesaukee condo for summer. "Could we send some boxes to your house and pick them up when we get settled in?" they asked a few months back.

"Of course," we'd replied.

So, every few days, a UPS truck would back up the driveway and another 40-pound box would be dropped off. It wasn't much of a chore to take the box downstairs and store it carefully in the basement — above the high-water mark for the two big spring floods in the past decade.

You've probably discerned that said boxes and today's test vehicle — a 2011 Ford Explorer XLT AWD — were destined to meet.

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"We've got this Explorer available. Do you want us to deliver your boxes?" we asked. Our friends were happy to save a trip and said, "Sure."

We could have stacked the boxes in the ample cargo area behind the Explorer's second row of seats (with the third row folded flat), but opted to fold both rows flat to avoid stacking, spread out the weight, and be able to illustrate the Explorer's cargo area.
Note to self: Lugging said boxes up the 15 stairs from the cellar back-to-back-to-back is considerably more strenuous than taking a single box down every few days.

Packing them into the Explorer, however, was a breeze. Flip a lever on the side of each of the 60/40 second-row seats and they readily fold flat. The third row wasn't quite as easy, but Ford has a system of straps that first folds the headrest, then the seatback, and finally flips the whole package down.

We took a mix of back roads and secondary highways to the New Hampshire Lakes Region to test the Explorer's handling on bumpy, curvy surfaces and its ability to handle steep climbs and descents.

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It did a great job. The 3.5-liter V-6 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It produced excellent acceleration from a start, and pulled strongly from various speeds when the road turned sharply steeper. In addition, there was a surprising amount of engine braking on descents (without activating any of the built-in four-wheel-drive modes that are available at the turn of a center console button). Even including a Friday night foray into Boston commuter traffic, the Explorer returned an overall 22.5 miles per gallon for the two trips.

Ford must have known its MyFord Touch connected technology frustrates me in this world of ever-increasing connectivity in the car. However, it was a cinch to pair an iPhone and stream music from it.

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Not having a tuning knob on the radio made it a bit tedious to seek and set preset stations through the New Hampshire hills, though that's not as big a deal for permanent owners. Still, having to navigate a series of wheel-mounted knobs or touch screen menus to toggle between AM and FM doesn't seem like a great advance when you can do it in less than a second with a button in older systems.

In this spring of fluctuating outside temperatures, Mrs. G made good use of the dual-zone climate control. Seats were very comfortable, considering the bumpy roads and extra half-hour our "scenic" route added to the normal hour and 45-minute drive. The unibody construction and refined suspension handled our local stretch of torture road, as well as the Granite State's frost heaves, with equal ease.

A rearview camera was the key element in a $2,075 Ford Rapid Spec option package that pushed our XLT's price from $34,155 to $36,230. The Explorer is available in three trim lines — base, XLT, and Limited and either two-wheel or four-wheel-drive. That rearview camera eased parking in the vehicle.

Ford's styling cues leave little doubt that the Explorer is a close relative of the Edge. From the outside it doesn't look all that big. Behind the wheel, it does, however, so the rear camera is a vital addition, especially for a guest driver.

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Often test vehicles are "fully loaded," but this one didn't have useful available features such as BLIS (Blind Spot Warning), adaptive cruise control, park assist, and inflatable rear seat belts. But it did have a full array of stability and braking assists, including Ford's acclaimed Curve Control system, something we've experienced with a Ford engineer at the wheel.

The new Explorer won't blaze a new trail the way the original did, but it will make following that trail a whole lot more pleasurable.


2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD

THE BASICS Price, base/as tested (with destination): $34,155/$36,230. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 17 city/25 highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 22.5. Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, intelligent four-wheel-drive. Body: Unitized steel body, six or seven passengers. THE SPECIFICS Horsepower: 290. Torque: 255 lb.-ft. Overall length: 197.1 in. Wheelbase: 112.6 in. Height: 71 in. Width: 90.2 in. Curb weight: 4,695.

THE GOOD
Engine, fuel economy, suspension, build quality.

THE BAD
Big-vehicle feel from driver's perspective (hard to judge vehicle corners); MyFordTouch system.

THE BOTTOM LINE
A considerably refined, updated, and contemporary revision of the Explorer.

ALSO CONSIDER

Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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