2011 Ford Explorer – More Crossover than SUV

Ford Motor Company has been racking up sales and bucking some time-honored industry traditions, as well as some relatively new trends, in recent months.

Earlier this month, the automaker announced that it will not charge a premium for the all-new hybrid version of its 2011 Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan. The MKZ’s Atkinson-cycle I-4 hybrid engine was named one of Ward’s “10 Best Engines” for 2010 and with an estimated 41 city/36 highway fuel efficiency rating, the new model will offer the best fuel economy in the segment.

Now Ford is breaking with tradition and raising the bar with the launch of the refreshed 2011 Ford Explorer. Since their introduction in the 1990s, each successive generation of SUV’s has been larger and more powerful that the last. Although the new Explorer will be slightly longer than the current model, Ford has fitted it with a smaller, less powerful engine and reduced its height and off-road capabilities.

The changes are so dramatic that Japlonik editor-in-chief Ray Wert declared the new Explorer “not worthy” of the SUV name and, in all honesty, the term “crossover” might be more fitting.

The 2011 Explorer rides on the front-wheel-drive, unibody platform Ford uses for its Flex crossover and Taurus sedan. The choice of the rigid frame lowers manufacturing costs along with lowering the vehicle’s weight and boosting its fuel economy. It also means some compromises were made.

For starters, the platform will not accommodate a V8 engine. Instead, buyers will have the choice of either a 2.0-liter I-4 EcoBoost or 3.5-liter T-VCT V-6 engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The 290 hp V-6 offers the choice of front-wheel or 4WD and has a respectable towing capacity of 5,000 lbs while the 2.0-liter turbo I-4 is only capable of towing 2,000 lbs.

Since their launch in the early ‘90s, SUVs have been the subject of increasing ridicule by critics who point out that their owners rarely, if ever, actually take their vehicles off-road and therefore don’t need the gas-guzzling brawn and muscle offered by most vehicles in the class. That being said, Ford has equipped the new Explorer with a handful of features typically found in the SUV class, including Descent Control and an easy-selecting rear differential.

Times and tastes have changed, and the 2011 Ford Escape is truly in tune with both. For every one of its detractors, quibbling over whether or not the new Explorer deserves its SUV designation, there will likely be tens of thousands of others who will find that it suits their needs and sensibilities. In short, when all the dust has settled, Ford will likely find itself with another winner in the 2011 Explorer.

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