It’s been a long, slow tease, with lots of photos of half of a grille or a corner of a taillight, but the newest version of one of America’s best-known, best-selling vehicles is finally here. We spent the morning checking out a production example of the 2011 Ford Explorer, and we’re back to report that it’s a significant step up in quality, but it has a decidedly different purpose than any previous Explorer.
This isn’t the hard-charging, truck-based SUV of the 1990′s. That one was a work truck converted to daily-driver duty. This one works it the other way around — its a comfortable, upscale crossover with a nod toward trail-worthy off-road prowess.
Outside, it still looks tough. But its car-based crossover roots are obvious in the more angular lines and softened corners of the new model. Black pillars everywhere but the C-pillar make it look almost like a Land Rover product, but there’s no mistaking the big Ford grille.
Inside, it’s a high-tech showcase. Touch-sensitive controls replace buttons for most climate and entertainment functions, and just about every surface you touch is softer and feels more premium than in most SUVs at this price. The Explorer ships with Ford’s new MyTouch media interface — the successor to the outstanding SYNC system. We didn’t get time to play with it yet, but the system sounds promising. The Explorer seats seven, with impressive headroom, and has a more than respectable cargo hold.
Under the hood, Ford has flipped tradition upside down. Instead of offering a low-power, high-mileage engine as standard equipment with an optional high-power, low-mileage model for a higher cost, Ford will offer the Explorer with its most powerful engine, and require you to pay extra for the more efficient, less-powerful version.
Standard is a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. Optional is a 237-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. We’re not sure consumers will be willing to pay extra for less power, but Ford thinks they’ll pay up front to save at the pump.
A six-speed automatic is the only gearbox. Four-cylinder models, we should note, come only in front-wheel drive. AWD editions get a new Terrain Management System (didn’t we say Land Rover?) that adjusts the suspension and grip for different types of terrain.
It’s a promising car. Ford engineers tell us they believe the Explorer won’t sell the way it did in the 1990′s, no matter how they design it — America’s tastes have just changed. But this has the potential to beat the Honda Pilot and Chevy Traverse. It’s certainly the most high-tech (and best looking in our opinion) option in that group.