At its peak in the late 1990s, the Explorer was one of the most popular vehicles on the planet, with almost half a million sold annually. But while Ford tepidly dipped its toe into the rising car-based crossover market with new nameplates like 2005's Freestyle or 2008 Taurus X, the automaker kept one of its most well known models (third behind Mustang and F-150) relegated to a type of vehicle that less and less people were interested in. To the point where only about 50,000 Explorers will be sold in 2010 south of the border.
So, for 2011, someone at Ford put two and two together, took the Freestyle/Taurus X Volvo-based three-row crossover platform, ruggedized it to meet almost all of the towing and off-road capabilities of the last model, and slapped an Explorer badge to its rump.
Welcome to the 21st century.
I had the chance to spend a day with the 2011 Explorer recently. From a hardware standpoint or the way it drives, there’s nothing all that revolutionary about Ford’s third kick at this segment.
Sure, next year, you’ll be able to get a front-drive Explorer with a turbocharged four-banger with 237 hp. But Ford will charge a premium for its fuel economy benefits over the initial models old V6.And I think the four is a bit of a gamble. You would have to think that some older Explorer drivers, use to the tug of a torquey V8, would prefer the 350 hp turbo V6 you can get in the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT.
But at least the new Explorer offers a roomy and quiet cabin for up-to-seven occupants (it would make a great replacement if Santa’s reindeer ever went on strike), descent fuel economy for its class, and the latest in in-car infotainment—which Ford seems determined to make as a prominent reason to buy its crossover instead of a Traverse/Pilot/Highlander.
Ford figures 140,000 former Explorer U.S. buyers come back into the new car market every year. So moving the nameplate to a more modern platform seems logical.
But is Ford too late to the three-row crossover party?
Will buyers already on their second or third Pilot/Highlander even consider the new Explorer?
Or will previous Explorer buyers, accustomed to the 100% capabilities of the older, more capable models, not be interested in the 2011 metrosexual version?