.Our intrepid spy photographers managed to snap off a giant series of photos of the hotly anticipated 2012 Ford Explorer completely uncovered, and that is a very, very good thing indeed.
For the first time ever, thanks to an unruly gust of wind, we get to see the first-ever unibody Explorer in all its glory. That looks to include a new take on the familiar in-your-face three-bar grille with newly perforated top and bottom rungs bisected by two thin chrome strips up front. Note, too, the mildly sculpted flanks that lead to the currently en vogue fastback-like sharply raked C-pillar. A closer look at the fascia reveals not-yet-completed projector headlamps ensconced in clear covers that angle well back into the fenders. Lookin' good so far, we'd say.
.Ford still has yet to publicly unveil the all-new 2011 Explorer, but to whet our appetites, the automaker has pushed some cheeky teaser shots out on its Facebook page.
What can we tell from these shots? Well, little, apart from the fact that Ford employees took an Explorer prototype into the woods for some photography. We do, however, gain a few extra details -- for instance, designers have blacked out the A-pillars, allowing the crossover's daylight opening appear to wrap around the front of the vehicle.
As we've reported several times before, the new Explorer will shift from being a body-on-frame SUV to a unibody crossover, sharing a platform with the Flex and Taurus. Power will certainly include Ford's new 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged I-4, although a number of V-6s -- possibly even the twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost mill -- are reportedly under consideration.
.When the 2011 Explorer comes to market late in 2010 the base model, which comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and 6-speed automatic transmission will cost $28,995. The mid-level Explorer XLT will run $31,995 while the top-level Limited (Keyless entry, push-button, start, 20-inch wheels, rear-view camera, Sony stereo seen in earlier shots, Ford Sync, heated leather seats) will be $37,995. Both of which can be had with the 230-horsepower, 250 lb-feet of torque (mfg. est.) 2.0-liter Ecoboost inline-4. MyFord Touch and 20-inch wheels are standard on the Limited.
.On the road this new Explorer handles like none before it, with a supple ride, very good body control, and predictable dynamics. The ride is well mannered for a 4700-pound vehicle, and the new chassis prevents the dreaded bobble-head syndrome for occupants. But the electronically assisted power steering feels a bit too artificial. Ford’s new Curve Control feature measures steering input, vehicle speed, and yaw angle to apply brakes to numerous corners of the car to slow it down, whereas the electronic stability program applies the brake to one wheel at a time. We briefly encountered the Curve Control feature on our drive loop—not on purpose—and it did its job just fine.
Customers can choose from three trim levels: base model, XLT, and Limited. Pricing starts at $28,995 for base model, $31,995, and $37,995 for XLT and Limited respectively. Front-wheel drive is standard on all trim levels, four-wheel drive is a $2000 option.
The 2011 Ford Explorer is a well-executed version of the family crossover. Its main competitors are the Chevy Traverse, Toyota Highlander, and Honda Pilot, and the Ford is at or near the top in terms of on-road behavior and interior refinement. As far as off-roading goes, Ford seems to be conceding that territory to the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Toyota 4Runner.
That makes sense for Ford because research has shown on-road is where 99 percent of Explorer owners drive. After twenty years in the market, 96 percent of Americans know what an Explorer is; now it’s just a matter of getting people back into them. But even if Americans don’t embrace the new version, all is not lost, as the new Explorer will be exported from Chicago to 90 countries worldwide.
.Out of the Woods: Can the Explorer, once the bestselling SUV in the U.S., find its way back to sales success?
Handsome styling, a spacious interior, gizmos and safety features galore, refined highway demeanor, solid performance.
Expensive when loaded up, intrusive stability control, average gas mileage.
Ford makes the Explorer relevant again.
.The Taurus of SUVs: Can Ford's Onetime Sales Leader Become Popular Again?
Our first drive, mostly at Ford's Romeo Proving Grounds in Michigan, was limited to the AWD V-6. Tip into the throttle and the new Explorer lurches forward in a good, positive way, though on full-throttle launches, the engine struggles for torque.
If you buy an Explorer as a family vehicle, you'll find it sufficiently satisfying. There's enough motivation to squeeze into freeway traffic, for example. Straightline performance of the 2011 Ford Explorer XLT AWD model we tested is nearly identical to that of the 4.6-liter V-8 equipped Explorer we tested in 2005, with the 2011 Explorer accelerating to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds (0.1 quicker) and running the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds (0.1 slower). Braking performance is greatly improved, however, with the 2011's result of 120 feet for a 60-0 mph stop being 17 feet shorter than the previous model.
.It Gives Crossovers a Good Name
It's a Contender Again
Ford's decision to make the Explorer into a car-based SUV was the right one. It's convenient and comfortable in all the ways families will appreciate, and it's a worthy rival to vehicles like the CX-9, Durango, Highlander and Traverse. The Explorer is more distinctively styled than any of those vehicles and offers more safety features to boot. Further, it rides, handles, accelerates and stops as well as almost anything in the class (no one has yet equaled the CX-9's athletic dynamics).
Our only hesitation is that a fully loaded Explorer Limited like this one is expensive for a family vehicle. Our tester was nearly $46,000, and with every single option added, you're not too far from $50 grand. Stepping down to the XLT starts you at a much more reasonable $32,000 and yet it still includes almost all of the same hardware. As is often the case, if you want all the latest features you have to pay big up front to get them.
Thankfully, most of the 2011 Ford Explorer's best features are built right in. You don't need leather seats to realize that this Explorer is more comfortable, quieter and easier to live with on a daily basis. If you really need the capabilities of a truck, then this Explorer won't cut it. Ford is betting on the fact that most families don't need that kind of capability, and Ford is probably right.