The SUV boom of the 1990s had many players, but the Ford Explorer was arguably one of the bigger ones, in the figurative sense that is. With a just-right size, optional luxuries and a macho, adventurous look, the Explorer almost defined the segment.
It was joined in 1997 by a bigger brother, the Expedition, and there seemed to be no end in sight. Gas was relatively cheap, everyone seemed to be able to justify why they needed to drive a truck, and the current environmental movement hadn’t really taken hold yet.
Things began to unravel for Ford’s high-volume sport utility in 2000, when a high number of tire failures — sometimes resulting in rollover crashes — painted the Explorer as anything but the “safe” vehicle many presumed it was, based merely on its size and heft.
A redesign for the 2002 model year brought changes to the suspension and the eventual inclusion of electronic stability control, but then the proverbial other shoe dropped. Gas prices started spiking to levels of over $3 per gallon, and then over $4 per gallon, which we’re seeing again this year.
Just in the nick of time, Ford has introduced a completely new Explorer for the 2011 model year that seeks to present a softer side of the SUV world. The former truck-based body-on-frame model is now built on a unitized car platform. The Explorer is now what’s called a “crossover.”
Essentially, Ford is looking ahead to stricter fuel efficiency standards, and there was no sense in trying to make an old-school design comply. Though the new model shares its name and a few styling cues with the previous one (introduced in 2006 and selling poorly ever since), any similarities end there.
Up front, sitting sideways like in a car, is Ford’s new workhorse 3.5 liter V6 engine. Sorry, no more V8s. You can still get “four wheel drive,” but it’s more like all wheel drive and not the classic setup with a low-range transfer case. Why? Because 99% of Explorer buyers don’t need a true four wheel drive system.
What everyone who buys this new Explorer will get is a nicer ride, more agreeable fuel economy and lots more space inside. The list of standard and available features is huge, including the all wheel drive system with a big knob on the console offering different settings for all the terrain and weather one might encounter (in Alaska, for example, not here in mild Southern California).
While a pleasant enough vehicle, this is going to be a tricky one for Ford to market and its dealers to sell. They already have the two-row Edge and three-row Flex in their portfolio, both of which sell pretty well. And there’s also the larger Expedition, carrying on unchanged with V8 power, three rows of seats and conventional four wheel drive as an option.
But taken on its own merits, the 2011 Explorer makes for a fine vehicle, if not an especially exciting one. Its competitors include the GM crossovers like the Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave, not to mention Dodge’s redone Durango, which sticks with a conventional layout and optional V8, and it’s built on a unibody chassis shared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee (and Mercedes-Benz).
Prices for the new Ford Explorer start at $28,190 for the base model. Step up to the XLT level trim and you’re at $31,190 before options, while the Limited version starts its window sticker at $37,190. Add $2000 to each base price if you’d prefer all wheel drive, and options are numerous. For fun I went online and “built” an Explorer Limited with everything and it came in just shy of $50,000.
Times have changed since the Explorer’s glory days. Now, to keep up with the times, the Explorer has changed too.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @davekunzcars