2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

Manufacturer’s web site
Ford Motor Company of Canada

Review and photos by Grant Yoxon

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2011 Ford Explorer

La Malbaie, Quebec – The 2011 Ford Explorer is not the Explorer that you would remember, a sturdy sport utility vehicle known for its popular blend of up-country capability and urban civility, but compromised by both. It was once the most recognizable name in sport utilities and the most common SUV seen on the road.

At one time it was okay to give up a bit of creature comfort and decent on-road manners to have a vehicle with enough room to ferry your child’s starting line-up to hockey practice or transport home the proceeds of a really bad day at Costco, and be capable of traversing even the tallest snow bank left by the plough at the end of the driveway, and on nicer days the power to haul the family camper to the lake (and with an engine compartment big enough to hold the number of gas swilling cylinders necessary to pull a really big camper).

That was so last century.

Today’s SUV buyers, the majority that is, don’t really care whether or not their utility vehicle can go where no vehicle was intended to go. They just want it to get them to wherever they need to go, whether to hockey practice on a bad winter morning or to the summer retreat with the camper in back. And they don’t want any compromises. They want comfort, excellent driveability and on-road behaviour, the latest communication and entertainment technology and, above all, good fuel economy.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

The 2011 Ford Explorer, a complete reinvention of the iconic Ford SUV, does just that. With seven-passenger seating, there is enough room for a hockey team’s starting line-up (plus mom or dad). With the third row folded, with optional power at the push of a button, you can fill the Explorer with a bank account-draining load of Costco goodies. With 290 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque under the hood, the new 3.5-litre V6 is just two horsepower short of the no longer available V8, and with the mandatory towing package is capable of hauling the same 2,268 kgs (5,000 lbs.) – and uses about 25 per cent less fuel than the 4.6-litre V8. Hooking up is easy with the optional rear-view camera with zoom-in functionality that will let dad take down the campsite while mom and the kids spend one last hour at the beach.

And the high technology is not limited to rear view clarity. There are rear seat entertainment systems, Ford’s industry leading SYNC and MyFordTouch information and entertainment technology, or a navigation system that can be purchased anytime after buying the vehicle for a reasonable $700 – all of which could fill many screens of dark grey pixels just to describe.

As this is not our first “First Drive” of the 2011 Ford Explorer, I encourage you to read Paul Williams’ excellent introduction from the Explorer’s North American press launch in San Diego late last year and get all the information on standard equipment, trim lines and optional equipment here.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

No one would complain about a trip to southern California in December, but the popularity of utility vehicles, whether sport or crossover, in Canada is based on their winter weather capability and safety, not their beach running reputation. When Paul tested the Explorer’s advanced all wheel drive system, he was limited to tossing the vehicle around in a sand pit somewhere, not the best way to judge the snow and ice setting on the Explorer’s standard (for 4WD models) shift-on-the-fly terrain management system.

The 2011 Ford Explorer features an intelligent four-wheel-drive terrain management system that integrates powertrain and braking controls to provide appropriate traction for any driving conditions the roads and climate present. Terrain management is activated by a console-mounted knob that features settings for snow and slippery conditions, mud, sand and regular driving under normal road conditions. There is also a setting for creeping down steep inclines without using the brake pedal. Each setting provides unique engine behaviour, throttle tip-in, transmission shift scheduling and calibrations for traction and stability control systems.

Terrain management helps the Explorer deliver increased fuel economy by eliminating heavy transfer case and driveline components, while making 4WD capabilities more accessible.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

The system was first developed for the Land Rover LR3, before Ford sold the British 4X4 icon, and the control closely resembles that found in the LR3.

Our winter weather drive took us from Quebec City 130 km east along the north shore of the St. Laurence River to La Malbai, a spectacular and scenic drive. Along the way we explored ice covered country roads, drove along a slightly widened snow mobile trail and tested the Explorer’s terrain management system and its stability control systems on an ice and snow covered test track.

In normal 4WD operation, torque is biased to the front wheels, sending power to the rear wheels as necessary as dictated by conditions and slip, the perfect setting for most of our journey east, as the roads were largely dry and bare. The front wheel bias, along with a new electric power steering system, six-speed automatic transmission and a more efficient engine all help to reduce fuel consumption.

When we encountered roads that were partially to fully covered in ice, we switched alternately between normal and snow mode. In snow mode, the terrain management system allows less wheelspin, provides more cautious throttle control, enables earlier transmission upshifts, and allows a higher level of traction control sensitivity to limit wheel spin. We found this mode worked best accelerating from a full stop, but once under way, the long throttle tip in and slow upshifts became a bit irritating. Any slippage we encountered, when two wheels were on ice and two on pavement, or while cornering with more speed than advisable, was ably handled by the Explorer’s stability control systems while in normal mode with its more pleasant throttle travel and crisp shifts.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

However, when traveling along a hilly snowmobile trail, for example, the soft accelerator prevents you picking up too much speed, conforming driving style to road conditions, while the slow upshifts maintain a consistent balance. Yes, we probably could have negotiated the trail in normal mode from end to end and back again – it was never a serious challenge for the Explorer – but it would have required more braking to limit speed and as most winter drivers know, even with all-wheel-drive, braking is often the prelude to a loss of control.

As well, the Explorer’s stability control systems – AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and a new innovation call Curve Control – reduce engine torque more aggressively in snow mode, making braking unnecessary.

This was most evident on a snow and ice covered test track, simulating more extreme conditions, where we played with the different modes available on the Explorer’s terrain management system on a skid pad and slalom course. Normal mode allows the Explorer to slide a bit and keeps interference from automatic braking and torque reduction to a minimum, while in snow mode the reduction of torque and application of braking is aggressive. The more you try to lose control, the less responsive is the vehicle to your out of control inputs, to the point of nearly completely shutting down the power.

One can easily see how snow mode and stability control on an all-wheel-drive vehicle can keep you out of trouble when conditions deteriorate.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

Snow mode also improves off-line traction on ice with a more aggressive application of traction control, limiting wheel spin. Should you get stuck and need to spin the wheels to get moving, switch to sand mode. This terrain management setting “desensitizes” traction control (no you cannot shut traction control off completely) and maximizes wheel torque – the complete opposite of snow mode.

Similarly, mud and ruts mode allows cautious torque demand at the top end of the throttle, but becomes more aggressive as you put your right foot down. The transmission holds lower gears longer to prevent unwanted transmission upshifts, while stability control is desensitized to help maintain vehicle momentum through the muck.

Curve Control is a more gentle application of AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, reducing engine torque and applying, automatically, up to four-wheel braking when the stability control system senses that the vehicle is taking a curve too quickly. Essentially, it prevents the Explorer from understeering – ploughing straight ahead off a curve – and keeping the vehicle on course. The 2011 Explorer is the first application of Curve Control, which should become standard equipment in all Ford sport utilities, crossovers, trucks and vans by 2015.

Stability control systems like AdvanceTrac and Curve Control are safety nets for drivers who misjudge road conditions or drive beyond what conditions warrant. When weather conditions deteriorate, as they often do during a Canadian winter, the best solution is to drive cautiously or not drive at all. But having them available will help ensure that when you have to go, you will get there safely.

2011 Ford Explorer
2011 Ford Explorer. Click image to enlarge

Terrain management and stability controls are only part of the safety features that are either standard or optional on the 2011 Ford Explorer. Other safety features include:

  • Rear inflatable seatbelts that will better protect children in a crash; a blind spot information system (BLIS) that alerts drivers – via a lit symbol in the side mirror – of objects they may not see when changing lanes;
  • Cross-traffic alert, which helps alert drivers to approaching traffic when reversing, for example, out of a parking spot;
  • Collision warning with brake support, which operates in conjunction with the optional adaptive cruise control system to help avoid rear end collisions;
  • MyKey, which allows owners to program their vehicle, for younger drivers, to limit top speed and audio volume;
  • Two front and two side second-generation airbags as well as side-curtain airbags for all three rows of passenger seating; and,
  • An SOS Post-Crash Alert System, which unlocks the doors and activates the emergency flashers in the event of airbag deployment, and for SYNC-equipped models, 911 Assist functionality which automatically dials the emergency operator.

    The 2011 Ford Explorer is on sale now with four-wheel-drive models starting at $32,999. Top of the line Limited 4WD models start at $44,199 excluding taxes, destination fees and available discounts.

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