2011 Ford Explorer unveiled tries crossing over on road to redemption

11explorer01hropt 2011 Ford Explorer unveiled tries crossing over on road to redemption

2011 Ford Explorer Deep Dive – Click above for high-res image gallery

In creating the 2011 Explorer, Ford engineers and designers had an enormously difficult task set before them. Ford’s President of the Americas, Mark Fields, described the job as “Reinventing the SUV for the 21st century.” Despite the near complete collapse of the traditional mid-to-large SUV market over the last several years, Ford still sees a substantial market for the capabilities of these boxy behemoths. Customers just don’t want the traditional downsides that accompany these body-on-frame ‘utes – specifically, their higher fuel consumption and poor ride and handling.

Since its debut some 20 years ago, the Explorer has sold over six million units, four million of which are still traversing the world’s roads. Through much of the late-1990s and early part of the last decade, the Explorer was Ford’s second-best-selling vehicle behind its F-Series pickups, regularly selling 400,000 units a year. Fast-forward to 2009, and that volume had plummeted to just over 52,000. Even so, Ford believes it still has an opportunity. According to the automaker’s vice president of global marketing, Jim Farley, each year, at least 140,000 Explorer owners come back to Blue Oval dealerships looking to purchase new vehicles. And obviously, they just aren’t buying Explorers.

When word got out that Ford was developing a new unibody Explorer off the same platform architecture that underpins the Taurus and Flex – not to mention the Lincoln MKS and MKT – many people wondered why Dearborn had elected to develop yet another crossover, especially since the Taurus X/Freestyle had just been killed due to slow sales. This predicament was not lost on Ford’s product planners, and their four-wheeled response is a new Explorer that remains squarely targeted at traditional SUV buyers – shoppers that Ford sees as a distinct group from most crossover intenders. Long ago, Jeep proved with the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee that a unibody chassis isn’t necessarily an impediment to building a fully capable off-roader, and Ford appears to have taken that lesson to heart, along with targeting big improvements in fuel economy and driving dynamics. Follow the jump to find out if they succeeded.

Design and Quality

The first thing you’ll notice about the new Explorer is its appearance, and it couldn’t be much more different from the more station wagon-like Flex. This, despite possessing similar hardware underneath. It’s also quite different from 2008′s Explorer America concept. While that design study featured a unibody, three-row configuration, its shape was comparatively soft and formless.

The production 2011 Explorer combines many of the design ideas found in the latest Taurus along with some of the “kinetic” elements from Ford of Europe’s design menu into a taller, SUV form factor. The result is a sleek, modern look that combines ruggedness and athleticism. At the front, a further evolution of the three-bar grille from the Taurus sits above a trapezoidal lower air intake that echos some of Ford’s European offerings. Along the flanks, parallel character lines below the beltline and above the rocker panels again mirror the appearance of the Taurus and also carry into the rear quarters. When combined with wheel arches that bulge out to cover a six inch wider track, the pulled-in bodysides lend the Explorer a much more aggressive stance.

The windshield is raked back at a steeper angle than prior iterations, and the blacked-out B- and D-pillars that have been a hallmark of every Explorer are now complemented by matching A-pillars. Only the Explorer’s C-pillar is painted body color. Of the three pre-production models we’ve seen, two were painted white, a move that served to highlight the vastly improved tolerances of the new body panels. The gaps between the doors and bodyshell are remarkably tight and rival luxury vehicles from the likes of Audi and Lexus.

The one fitment exception that stands out is the cut line of the Explorer’s hood. Like many other recent designs, the hood wraps over the bodysides in a clamshell stamping. The horizontal gap between the hood and fenders is notably wider than others, which Ford’s North America Design Director Moray Callum tells us is to allow for over-slam when closing the hood. Callum further explains that the main reason for adopting this style of hood is pedestrian protection. Moving the flange from the top surface of the engine compartment to the sides provides more compliance if a pedestrian is struck. Despite the larger gap, Ford has integrated it well, running from the top edge of the headlamps back to the side glass.

In addition to the appearance and build quality, improved aerodynamics was a major focus of the new design. Ford claims a best-in-class drag coefficient of 0.35 for the new Explorer, which should contribute to improved fuel efficiency as well as reduced wind noise.


Over the last several years, Ford has made huge strides in improving both the actual and perceived quality of its interiors. Just like the refreshed 2011 Edge and the 2012 Focus, the Explorer’s new cabin stands head-and-shoulders above the old model. The interior is dominated by soft-touch materials and, at first glance, the control layout appears both intuitive and ergonomically sound.

The additional width of the 2011 model comes through with extra hip and shoulder room in the first two rows. Riders in those seats will also find that they have about two inches more clearance for their ten-gallon hats. Unlike some competitors’ crossovers, the second row doesn’t offer any fore-aft adjustments, but occupants can at least adjust the seatback angle.

11explorer02hropt 2011 Ford Explorer unveiled tries crossing over on road to redemption

Based strictly on the specifications, leg- and headroom in the third row are pretty similar to the old model, although hip- and shoulder room are down slightly. Even still, six-footers can inhabit the third row with knees unencumbered by the second-row seatbacks.

Since the Explorer shares its architecture with the Flex, it also has the same type of third-row folding mechanism. With the seats up, there is a deep bin behind the seats that provides ample room for groceries or gear – even with seven people in the vehicle. The seatbacks can also be folded forward to retain the bin while adding extra cargo space on top of the seat. Finally, the entire unit can be flipped back into the bin, leaving a flat, bumper-level floor. With the second row seats folded as well, Ford says that the Explorer offers 80.7 cubic feet of cargo space. Additionally, the Explorer will also have an optional power-fold mechanism, but the manual setup is so easy to use that the power-fold system’s extra weight and complexity hardly seems worth it.


One of the main target audiences for vehicles like the Explorer are active families. With this and the Explorer’s past rollover controversy still in mind, safety came to be one of the team’s top priorities during development. Like every Ford SUV, pickup and crossover in recent years, the Explorer has the automaker’s Roll Stability Control (RSC) system, in addition to the more typical stability control. Aside from Volvo, Ford says it is the only the automaker to add a body roll sensor to the usual array of inertial sensors to keep things on an even keel. The Explorer builds on these existing systems with the new Curve Control functionality that we profiled a few weeks ago.

In addition to various dynamic stability control algorithms, the Explorer is available with a radar-based adaptive cruise control system. The same radar sensor used to manage the vehicle speed on a road trip also powers a collision warning system. If the Explorer is closing on another vehicle too quickly, a bright red LED array on top of the instrument cluster warns the driver and pre-charges the brakes for quicker response when they hit the pedal. If the driver fails to respond in time, the system will automatically apply the brakes with full force in order to minimize the impact or avoid the accident completely.

If an impact can’t be avoided, the safety engineers have incorporated some new technology to help mitigate injuries to the passengers. Ford first announced its rear seatbelt airbag system last Fall, and it makes its production debut on the Explorer. The outboard belts in the second row consist of a double layer of fabric around a tubular airbag. In the event of a collision, the bag is inflated and the belt material opens up. The safety advantage here is that the impact load is spread over a larger area, reducing pressure at any one point. Because they are physically smaller, children are more susceptible to compression injuries in a collision, and since they typically sit in the second row, these new inflatable belts should help reduce injuries among children in particular.

Another feature unique to Ford (at least to our knowledge) is the use of pressure sensors in the side of the vehicle’s body structure. In the event of a side impact, said pressure sensors will actually register before the accelerometers currently used to trigger airbags. Given the limited space between the side of the vehicle and the occupants, those extra few milliseconds of airbag deployment can make a significant difference.

The Explorer will also be available with a cross-traffic alert system that uses radar sensors in the rear corners to look sideways as the vehicle is backed out of a parking space. It can warn the driver if there are any other vehicles coming down the aisle before the driver can see them. Rear vision is also aided by a rear-view camera with a unique zoom feature, something that ought to be very helpful when hooking up a trailer.

Part two of our introduction to the 2011 Explorer will be published later today. In it we’ll take a closer look at the new SUV’s top technology and powertrain features, as well as have more official images from Ford to share.

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