Some­thing new to please SUV lovers — and haters On Wheels

The Washington Post Sunday - - AUTOMOTIVE - WAR­REN BROWN brownw@wash­post.com

The 2011 Ford Ex­plorer is more of a wagon and less of a truck than its pre­de­ces­sors. But it’s a fully ca­pa­ble sport-util­ity ve­hi­cle — one of the best-en­gi­neered, best-equipped, and ar­guably safest and most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly mid­size SUVs made by Ford or by any other ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer.

SUV haters will have to dig deep into their bag of bi­ases to come up with an even mildly plau­si­ble rea­son for hat­ing this one. And the like­li­hood is that they won’t find any.

The facts of the new Ex­plorer speak for them­selves:

Tra­di­tion­ally heavy truck-based, fu­el­con­sump­tive body-on-lad­der-frame con­struc­tion has been re­placed by a lighter, more car­like, uni­tized-body build process. Yet the new Ex­plorer is no less ca­pa­ble than its truck-based fore­bears, in­clud­ing those first “cov­ered truck” four-wheeldrive Ex­plor­ers in­tro­duced in 1991. It can still plow through sand and mud, rain and snow. It can ford streams and climb rocks, or sim­ply take you to a grassy pic­nic knoll or to a camp­site where paved roads end. It can also be out­fit­ted pull a trailer weigh­ing 5,000 pounds.

Back in 1996, in re­sponse to crit­i­cism that the Ex­plorer was “un­der­pow­ered,” Ford in­stalled a 5-liter, 210-horse­power V-8 en­gine in the Ex­plorer XLT — the “pop­u­larly equipped” model, mean­ing the one bought by the most con­sumers. That was a big deal.

The 2011 Ex­plorer XLT driven for this col­umn comes stan­dard with a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6, which is a sub­stan­tially smaller en­gine than the 1996 V-8. But the new V-6 delivers a max­i­mum 290 horse­power and 255 foot-pounds of torque, which means it leaves that old lum­ber­ing V-8 in the dust. The new en­gine is also more fu­el­ef­fi­cient, with a fed­eral rat­ing of 17 miles per gal­lon in the city and 25 mpg on the high­way us­ing reg­u­lar gaso­line.

In the 1996 V-8 Ex­plorer, you were lucky if you got 17 miles per gal­lon on the high­way and 14 in the city.

And then there’s safety. Let us stip­u­late that any­thing made or driven by hu­man be­ings can end in dis­as­ter. We are prone to er­ror. That be­ing the case, the 2011 Ex­plorer is about as good as it gets when it comes to SUV safety.

The new Ex­plorer of­fers in­flat­able seat belts in the rear seats, the first avail­able on a mass-mar­ket ve­hi­cle. In­flat­able belts are bet­ter than tra­di­tional strap mod­els in the mat­ter of dis­pers­ing crash en­ergy trans­ferred to the hu­man body. That could mean fewer ab­dom­i­nal and other in­ter­nal in­juries in a ve­hi­cle col­li­sion.

Stan­dard equip­ment in­cludes elec­tronic sta­bil­ity and trac­tion con­trol, and those work in tan­dem with a technology — the Ter­rain Man­age­ment Sys­tem (TMS) — bor­rowed from Land Rover, the Bri­tish SUV com­pany once owned by Ford.

It’s best to think of TMS as a kind of roadsur­face but­ler. In the Nor­mal set­ting, used on paved roads, it sends more torque to the Ex­plorer’s front wheels and serves the rear wheels only when needed (when it is de­tected via sen­sors that the rear wheels have bet­ter grip­ping power than the front wheels). The­Mud/Ruts set­ting per­mits the drive wheels to dig in and pull out of the mess. The Sand (only) set­ting sends the Ex­plorer into low gear and max­i­mizes torque, twist­ing power gen­er­ated by the en­gine, to the drive wheels. The Sand/Gravel/Snow set­ting lim­its wheel slip­page and in­creases trac­tion on slip­pery sur­faces.

In short, Ford has done a heck of a good job here. It has taken a va­ri­ety of com­plaints against tra­di­tional SUVs and turned them into pluses. Even the front end of the new Ex­plorer, for ex­am­ple, is de­signed to do less dam­age to smaller ve­hi­cles in ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle crashes.

And Ford did not for­get about the touchy-feely good stuff. Fit and fin­ish are ex­cel­lent, eas­ily among the best in the busi­ness. The new Ex­plorer’s cabin looks and feels good, even with stan­dard “pre­mium” cloth seats. Ameni­ties abound. Er­gonomics — ease of reach and use in the mat­ter of gauges and di­als, largely as­sisted by ad­vanced elec­tron­ics — no­tably the trade­marked My Ford Touch op­er­at­ing sys­tem, are best in class.

A quick com­ment onMy Ford Touch (MFT): It changes the tac­tile in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the driver and in­stru­ment-panel con­trols. The twist­ing and turn­ing of di­als is vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated. Slight touches do the job. MFT gives the driver voice con­trol when touch­ing proves in­con­ve­nient.

It’s amaz­ing, sim­ply amaz­ing. Even if you have no in­ten­tion of buy­ing a sport-util­ity ve­hi­cle, and es­pe­cially if you re­main among those be­nighted souls who haven’t driven a Ford lately be­cause of long-in­valid mem­o­ries of poor Ford qual­ity, you should check this one out. It will very pleas­antly sur­prise you.

FORD/WIECK

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