2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD
2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2011 Ford Explorer

It pays to be careful with the products that bring in the dough. Ford learned its lesson about that with the Five Hundred and Freestyle, the cars that (temporarily) replaced the Taurus in 2007. Those two tanked big-time, and it’s debateable whether the Taurus, which has since been redesigned (again) into a very well-sorted full-size sedan, has ever recovered from that gaffe.

In Ford’s SUV line-up, the Explorer name commands the same kind of respect that the Taurus once did. It’s popular, but it could be argued that its truckishness kept it from being more popular, especially with drivers who choose a mid-sized SUV with a view to flexible family transportation, rather than for off-road readiness or towing capability. It was with them in mind that Ford decided to move the 2011 Explorer to a unibody platform, in place of the old version’s body-on-frame design.

Initially, the only engine on offer is a 3.5-litre V6 that’s used widely throughout the Ford line. With its 290 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque, it replaces a 4.0-litre V6 (210 hp; 254 lb.-ft.) and a 4.6-litre V8 (292 hp; 300 lb.-ft.). Despite torque that only matches that of the old V6, Ford says the new Explorer will tow 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg); a 2010 Explorer with the V8 could haul 3,500 pounds (1,588 kg), but could handle up to 7,130 pounds (3,234 kg) when properly equipped.

2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD
2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD
2011 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD. Click image to enlarge

The old Explorer was no pipsqueak, but its replacement is even more visually imposing. More importantly, it’s bigger inside, at least in the front seats, where there’s notably more leg and foot room. Any extra space in the second row is less obvious, where legroom is good, but not as generous as I expected to find in a vehicle this large. Three-row seating is standard, and it’s in the third row that you’ll find a more usable environment than in the previous-generation truck. There’s enough leg- and headroom for average-sized adults, but only children will likely put up with sitting back there for long periods of time. The front seats are long-haul comfortable, a common trait across most of the Ford line-up.

Limited models get standard adjustable pedals, but I think many may wish these were available in the lower trims, too (they’re not, even as an option).

One of the bigger benefits of this redesign is a lower step-in height compared to the last generation Explorer, which makes it a more viable vehicle for everyday use.

For the not-so-everyday owners who miss the off-road abilities afforded by the old Explorer’s truck-based construction, Ford’s solution is a Terrain Management System that’s standard in all four-wheel drive models. Through a console-mounted knob, this allows the driver to set the drive-train to one of four settings (normal, snow, mud or sand) to optimize performance on a variety of surfaces. A muddy backroad was a good proving ground for the “mud” setting; while the truck got through just fine in normal mode, the system makes a tangible difference in transmission shift feel and throttle tip-in with a view to helping the driver maintain momentum and avoid getting stuck. Aside from normal, the most useful setting for most drivers will be snow mode, which orders quicker upshifts and softer shifts in general to help maintain traction in wintry conditions.

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