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Motoring: 2011 Ford Explorer more car than truck

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | March 14th, 2011

Ford has been doing well in recent years. The quality and reliability of their cars have vastly improved, and they are now more focused towards creating world market cars, which is why the new Fiesta and the upcoming Focus will be pretty much the same around the world.

Ford also has a pretty complete line-up of vehicles in its inventory. You can buy pick-up trucks, SUVs, sedans, hatchbacks, coupes and convertibles, plus all the crossovers you can think of.

Ford still felt they could benefit from having another vehicle, a vehicle that has seen the company through both the good times and the bad. I'm talking about the Explorer SUV.

For 2011 we are getting a brand-new Explorer, but this one is not like any that came before it. It is not based on a truck platform; instead it's based on a modified version of the platform you'll find under the Taurus sedan and the Flex crossover.

Also unlike its predecessors, there is no V8 engine on offer. The vehicle launched with a 3.5- litre V6, but to everyone's surprise, the next engine on offer in this big SUV will be a four-cylinder turbo!

What on Earth is going on here, and what will this new product be like?

Ford sent me to Quebec City to test this new Explorer to find out.

From a styling point of view, it's fine. It is not the kind of beauty that will leave you breathless, but it's not repulsive, either. When you look at the styling in detail, you can see that this SUV wasn't designed to handle the rough stuff. There is just way too much front and rear overhang, so if you tried to do some rock crawling with this new version, you wouldn't have any bumpers left. You also can't raise the ride height to go over stuff, so in short, it looks kind of like an SUV, but in reality is more like a wagon with all-wheel drive.

Ford already has such a vehicle — the Flex — so why did they need to make another one? According to a Ford exec, "Flex is often seen as a big station wagon. People wanted a vehicle that would look more like an SUV."

So to make things clear to the reading public, if you want a seven-passenger vehicle with allwheel drive, you could either buy a Flex or the new Explorer — picking one over the other is like picking to wear a suit or athletic wear to the company picnic.

If you are going to a picnic, you'll find plenty of space to put your baskets, extra clothes and children. This is a very spacious vehicle. As mentioned earlier, this has the ability to transport seven people, and they will all be able to travel in relative comfort. Sure, the final row of seats doesn't have tons of legroom, but it's still better than most similar vehicles. Also, thanks to its clever folding rear seats (my loaded "Limited" model had power folding rear seats, which is very cool), when the last row of seats are up, you get a deep well to throw your shopping in. So it is very practical, but what about the fit, finish and equipment?

The quality is fine. It might not be better than the competition, but it's not the worst either, not by a long shot. It can also come very well equipped. My tester had a decent stereo, navigation, leather seats that can warm you up in the winter and cool you down in the summer, plus all the other goodies you can expect from a vehicle of this type these days.

But how is it to actually drive?

The quick answer is: good, but not great. It rides very comfortably, and handles well for a vehicle of this size, but it hasn't moved the game forward. It is just about as good as its competition in some areas and a little better in others. The area it is better than others is its soundproofing. This is a very quiet vehicle and Ford actually put extra effort to ensure that. You can be on the road for almost the whole day and your head won't be buzzing — trust me, I know; I decided to drive one back from the La Malbaie region of Quebec, and even after spending 10 hours in the vehicle, my head was fine. My back could have been better, though. The seats are fine, but not the most supportive. It's best to play with the lumbar settings until you find the right spot, which did help quite a bit.

On the long highway journey, I got to see how it would behave in different weather conditions. On my drive I encountered dry roads, rain and even snow, and by using its terrain response system, I was able to drive through pretty much anything.

I could also almost pass anyone without much trouble, because the 3.5-litre, V6 engine that is currently on offer is a decent engine. It produces 290 hp and 255 lb/ft of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, it had enough grunt to pass vehicles at highway speeds with very little fuss. So it's good on the highway, but not exactly great for the twisty mountain roads. I mentioned earlier that it handles fine for a vehicle of this size, and it does, but the problem is the lack of communication you get from the steering. You get hardly any feedback as to what the front wheels are doing, so placing this car on twisty roads is a bit more challenging than most.

Its most impressive technical detail is its fuel economy. I averaged 10.4-litres/100km on the highway, and about 14- litres/100km in city driving. That is not bad for a seven-passenger SUV.

Pricing is not bad. Currently the base model starts at $29,999, which is just a front-wheel drive version. My loaded model was stickered at just above $54,000.

To sum it up, the new Explorer is a good vehicle that will please most buyers, but if you're looking to go into parts of the country where roads don't really exist, look elsewhere.
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