Test Drive: Ford Explorer

By Barbara & Bill Schaffer

Once the icon of the SUV movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Ford Explorer dropped off the new car-buying map.? A casualty of high fuel prices, the economic downturn and the environmental movement, Explorer was sent back to the drawing board.

Totally reinvented, the 2012 Ford Explorer has again moved to the forefront in the new age of SUVs ? more economical, eco-responsible and better suited for today?s consumers.

?The all-new Explorer delivers exactly what today?s SUV buyers are looking for, combining the capability, convenience, performance and technologies they want with the fuel economy these times require,? said Bill Gubing, Ford chief program engineer. ?Explorer adds refinement to redefine what a modern SUV can be.?

Today?s new car and truck buyers are responding to vehicles that look good, adapt to lifestyles with new technologies and do it all with quality and craftsmanship.?? The new Explorer is right on target for the mid-size SUV buyers and the sales numbers are proving it.

????????? Ford designers created a contemporary styling that looks muscular and implies forward movement, even sitting still.? The front end has an attractive horizontal bar-look with each model having a distinctive styling.? The contrasting flat black lower fascia extends around the lower portions of the Explorer adding to the low sleek body style. ?The blacked out wrap-around rear window treatment is topped by a body color spoiler adding to the forward movement look.

The interior is understated elegance with black upper level surfaces on the dash and doors, and contrasting color door panels and seats. ?The extensive use of exposed stitching seats and door panels add to the opulent look of upper level models.? The dash is a quality, textured soft touch plastic that is accented by a brushed aluminum look trim.? Center stack controls are large and spaced widely for easier use.

The instrument panel has a large center speedometer that sits between two smaller display screens that can be customized by the owner to display appropriate information about the vehicle when needed.? The screens are controlled by two controller switches mounted on either side of the face of the three-spoke steering wheel.

??????????? High on Ford?s bragging list for the Explorer is the SYNC? voice-activated communications, entertainment system and MyFord Touch? driver connect technology S.? The gee whiz technology is impressive, but in the hands and with the voice of an untrained user it can be confusing and sometimes frustrating.? These systems are not intuitive for new owners; they require study and practice to reap the significant benefits. ??Ford has already been working on simplifying the systems, but we thought they were still confusing.

Ford has taken a leadership position in other technology and the Explorer benefits from that with available features like the active park assist that steers the vehicle for you when parallel parking and the MyKey?, which allows the owner to control how the vehicle is driven by other drivers.

The Explorer comes in three trim levels (base, XLT and Limited) each with a choice of three powertrain configurations (V-6 front-wheel drive, V-6 four-wheel drive and four-cylinder EcoBoost with front-wheel drive).

The standard V-6 engine is a 290-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 with Ford?s SelectShift six-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels, or the optional all-wheel drive version.? The V-6 is rated at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway driving.? The optional 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost Engine also uses a six-speed automatic transmission and gets an industry leading 20/28 mpg highway fuel economy rating. ?These engines both move the 4,500-pound plus SUVs to brisk 0 to 60 mph times of 6.9- and 7.8 seconds respectively.

Later in 2012, Ford will be is adding a 350-hp turbocharged V-6 EcoBoost engine in the new Explorer Sport.? This will become the first high performance Explorer.? Fuel economy will be16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for the Sport.

Because the Explorer is built on a unitized frame, the handling is more car-like than truck-like.? However, the weight and higher center of gravity causes some body lean during quick turns.? Ford engineers seem to have mastered the electric assist steering; it gives good driver feedback and goes where it?s aimed. ?The same goes for the big brakes, which have a solid pedal and stop quickly.? Ford engineers designed the Explorer for the highest common denominator driver, and that means mostly on road.? When required, however, the Explorer can do the off-road well as we discovered when we drove it at a recent SUV off-road competition.

It?s easy to set the Explorer 4WD up for adverse road conditions like dirt, sand, mud and snow.? Simply turn the Terrain Management System? switch on the center console to the position that displays the conditions you want to go on and it automatically adjusts to the drivetrain for that terrain.? The system also includes Hill Decent Control to walk the Explorer down a steep hill at a safe speed.

Ford has invested heavily in safety technology too, with all models getting features like AdvanceTrac? with Roll Stability Control to help prevent rollovers and Curve Control to provide braking ? optimized by each individual wheel.? Other interesting safety features include the world?s first inflatable seatbelts in the rear seats and an SOS Post-Crash Alert System?, which automatically summons help.

Explorer prices range from $29,695 for the front-wheel drive base model.? The fuel-sipping EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is $995 extra on all front-wheel drive models and the V-6 with four-wheel drive adds $2,000.? On the upper end, the posh Limited is $40,680, and with all the options it can go as high as $47,000.

With great styling, better fuel economy, good performance and sophisticated technologies, the Ford Explorer has a lot to like.? However, we think the SYNC and MyFord still needs a little simplification for the average user.? We applaud the many Ford dealers who are doing private tutoring to teach people how to use these innovative systems.

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