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January 24, 2011

First Drive: 2011 Ford Explorer Is No Stick in the Mud

2011 Ford ExplorersBack in July, the auto world was buzzing with the news that Ford was going to reveal their latest rendition of the Explorer in a novel manner: on Facebook (on a page that currently boasts nearly 80,000 fans).

Ford followed the Facebook reveal with an "All Access Tour," bringing the new vehicle face to face with potential customers in 44 cities in 25 US states. And in August, AskPatty was at Ford's Dearborn headquarters for an industry reveal, which allowed us to take an early look at the new Explorer's changed appearance, safety features and cutting edge technology.

2011 Ford Explorer at OffRoad Track But while the press and public has had plenty of opportunity to learn of this latest Explorer's features (including fuel economy, sustainability and new generation SYNC technology), few have had the chance to actually drive one...

..until last week, when I had the privilege of representing at the Explorer's official media launch in San Diego county. The event culminated at an elaborate off-road track Ford created to show off the new vehicle's technology-assisted four-wheel drive capabilities.

As a Southern California native who prefers the city to the big outdoors, my SUV needs are limited to school carpool and hauling groceries. I also suffer from a debilitating fear of heights. I cannot think of a reason I would ever go off road -- and I am not alone. According to Ford's Amy Marentic, only 17% of Explorer drivers surveyed are off road drivers, and very few of them go rock climbing. Their research also revealed that many drivers are intimidated by the 4WD High and Low settings. That pretty much describes me.

"Intelligent 4WD"

But my husband (who is the primary driver of our family SUV) is a geologist, and his job requires a certain amount of off road reconnaissance. He regularly comes home with tales of driving up steep, steep inclines that would give me a heart attack. And he's nostalgic for the Explorer he drove about a decade ago, which had a manual transmission. "The antilock brakes don't help me off road," he insists. He thinks a stick shift would give him more control.

You won't find a classic stick shift and clutch on the 2011 Explorer, but Ford's engineers feel they've come up with a 21st century technology solution that should please both hardcore off roaders and dilettantes like me.

2011 Explorer Console Terrain Management on 2011 Explorer Terrain Management on 2011 Explorer

The 2011 Explorer replaces the old 4WD High and Low settings with a set of computerized programs for different driving conditions. They call it Terrain Management, and describe it as "intelligent four wheel drive." Shifting between mud, sand or snow programs is as easy as turning a dial set on the center console. A Descent Control button in the middle allows you to go downhill without fear of interference from your antilock brakes.

2011 Ford Explorer on Hill Ford's hilly off road site included a lengthy "mud track" that twisted around and up and down the terrain. I opted to be a passenger for that one, and I'm glad I did, because some of the descents kicked my acro-anxiety into high gear.

I don't think the guy who volunteered to take the wheel was all that comfortable with off-roading, either -- but the Explorer handled the muddy ups and downs with ease.


We had the Descent Control button on for the downhill segments (Ford helpfully put up flags suggesting when to 2011 Explorer Does Mud turn it on and off). It worked well, but it takes some getting used to. It's very similar to Cruise Control, because it kicks in as long as you keep your foot off the brake -- and this is counter-intuitive when you're driving down a hill.

I found the courage to actually drive on a (mercifully flat) sand track and got to experience for myself how the Explorer changes traction for sand and snow.

Driving the Explorer

Driving off-road was just half the Explorer adventure. Our route to the site turned out to be a 90-minute series of very long and winding back roads of San Diego County. The upside is that between the two kinds of driving, we really manged to put the Explorer through its paces.

The new Explorer's unibody and independent suspension results in a drive that's more like a car than a truck. It's a lot roomier than the Ford Explorer we owned all those years ago; its third row seat means it can accommodate up to seven passengers.

I was surprised to learn that this longer, roomier 2011 Explorer gets 17/23 mpg (the 2-wheel drive model gets up to 25 mpg on the highway). That's 20% more fuel efficient than the 2010 model, despite sporting a V-6 engine. Ford's Marentic credited the improved fuel economy on better aerodynamics and double the high-strength steel, resulting in an Explorer that weighs quite a bit less than its predecessor.

Early next year, Ford will debut another Explorer with a new I-4 engine that squeezes out even more miles per gallon.

The model we drove had nice luxury touches like heated leather seats and a Sony sound system that has the look and feel of a nice home theater. It sounded great, too.

Innovative Safety Features

The new Explorer is loaded with standard safety features, like Curve Control, which automatically kicks in when a driver takes a curve at too-high speed, by reducing engine torque and applying up to four-wheel automatic braking. Some of the participants at our media event tried their darndest to set it off (which was not always appreciated by those riding with them). No one reported actually succeeding -- which means either the Explorer is a remarkably stable vehicle or Curve Control is so seamless it is barely noticeable (probably both).

2011 Ford Explorer Safety Demo Other available safety features include:

  • BLIS® (Blind spot Information System), which alerts drivers of objects they may not see when changing lanes
  • Adaptive Cruise Control, which monitors the vehicle in front (up to 600 feet) and adjusts the speed to remain at a safe distance
  • Rear inflatable seat belts, which combat neck and chest injuries in the back seat
  • Safety Canopy® with rollover sensor to help provide full-length protection for front and rear passengers in both rollovers and side impact crashes

 All in all, I found the 2011 Explorer to be a terrific family vehicle. And it's even more terrific for families who like to play in the mud.

2010by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles, the Yahoo! Motherboard and her personal site, SoCal Mom.

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