The traditional boxy body-on-frame SUV has been in decline the last few years. The substantial uptick in gas prices in recent years has taken a big bite out of bigger gas thirsty (more traditional) SUV sales, while SUV crossovers and smaller efficient more car-like SUVs have enjoyed increased popularity. And with the upcoming steady increase of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards, this trend will continue with some (if not most) traditional SUVs biting the dust in the coming years. Unfortunately the Ford Explorer will be the first major player to be a causality of these changing times. And it won’t be the last. Just like the original muscle car era came to a crash by the early 1970s so too the traditional SUV era is coming to an abrupt end.
There will be an all-new Ford Explorer for the 2011 model year however it will based on the unibody Taurus platform – not Ford’s medium size body-on-frame (Ranger) truck platform that it has been built on since 1991. The 2011 Ford Explorer will be an entirely new vehicle – it will be a revolution not an evolution. As of right now Ford has not released any pictures of the 2011 Explorer but all rumors are pointing to it being more of a crossover style SUV. The Explorer up to 2010 has been a gradual revision of the original 1991 Ford Explorer which was the talk of the automotive world when it was released in 1990. Ford did not create the five door SUV niche; Jeep started it with the release of the 1963 Wagoneer. Jeep with the downsized 5-door 1984 Jeep Cherokee and Wagoneer made inroads into suburbia however Jeep constantly stressed the off-road capabilities and prowess of these two SUVs in its advertising. Cherokee sales were soaring by the late 1980s. However there was a problem the downsized Cherokee and Wagoneer which were the perfect SUVs for the high gas prices of 1984, within a year gas prices took a massive drop and remained low through the remainder of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. The 2.5 liter four-cylinder and 2.8 liter V6 were the engine choices for the downsized Jeeps in 1984, by 1987 the 2.8 liter V6 was gone and replaced with a new AMC fuel-injected 4.0 liter inline-6 making 173 horsepower (which would be bumped up gradually to 190 horsepower in a few short years). This gave the Cherokee and Wagoneer a powerful motor but their interior space was a little tight for a family of five. This is where Ford jumped into the niche in 1990 with the all-new 1991 Ford Explorer which replaced Ford’s 3-door Bronco II (there was also a 3-door 1991-2002 Explorer to placate the former Bronco II buyers). The Explorer was attractive and it looked the SUV part with a very boxy shape that could be described as one smaller brick on top of another larger brick. Ford did not try to compete with Jeep on off-road ruggedness. Ford marketed the Explorer more as a modern station wagon that could fit comfortably an average size family. Ford had the foresight to make the Explorer larger than the Cherokee – which was its great selling point. The utility was there with plenty of cargo space and optional was a push button 4-wheel drive system so the Explorer could also meet the demands in adverse road conditions such as snow. Jeep would not have a vehicle the size of the Explorer until Spring of 1992 when the Grand Cherokee was released. The Explorer thrived during the 1990s and up until a few years ago when gas prices soared which also hurt most mid-size and large SUVs. Ford was smart enough to not mess with the formula the last twenty years, only making gradual cosmetic and functional updates over the years. The exterior lines have become more rounded over the years though the overall shape is still boxy.
So here we are in 2010 (sounds like a song doesn’t it), and the Explorer still looks like an Explorer. The four trim levels available are familiar to most (not much has changed over the years) – the base “XLT”, the sporty “XLT Sport” (a new 2010 offering), mid-range “Eddie Bauer”, and then the top-of-the-line “Limited” (there is an Explorer Sport Trac which is an Explorer with a small pickup truck type bed but Ford classifies it as a separate model). No matter which trim level you get, the Explorer’s exterior cues look more like its big brother Expedition than early model Explorers. This is a good thing since the full-size Expedition is an attractive yet rugged looking SUV. The Explorer has indeed kept up with the times – updates to the exterior panels have kept it current, there’s no pointing at this vehicle and saying it’s outdated.
The Limited’s exterior is nicely accented with chrome – just enough to show off its upscale nature but nothing like the crazy over-the-top chrome on the borderline gaudy Lincoln Navigator. And for those wanting the full treatment there are optional power driven running boards with chrome accents that open and retract when the side doors are opened and closed.
As well as Ford has kept up on the exterior styling, the interior is where the Explorer has made great strides in recent years. Going back to the early Explorers the interior was too close to the Ranger pickup. Even when equipped with leather seats the old Explorer looked more like a pretender than the real thing. For instance the old automatic transmission shifter located on the steering column especially on older upscale Explorers was downright unattractive when most of the competition like the Grand Cherokee had a center console auto shifter. Fortunately now the auto shifter is now located on the Explorer’s center console (where it always belonged). However that’s not the whole story. The interior even in the base XLT is attractive in a puritan sense but more importantly it’s functional and comfortable. However moving up to the Limited, that’s where the big surprise is. With its perforated leather seats, voice activated navigation, premium sound system with Sirius Satellite Radio, optional power moonroof, optional rear DVD entertainment system, and much more – even the most luxury conscious would feel comfortable spending time in this interior. The dash layout is simple but easy to read, the Limited’s white background speedo and tach are also a nice touches.
Seating for seven is standard on the Limited due to the third row of seats. For a little more luxurious touch there are available sport seats for the second row with a center console in-between however with this configuration total seating drops to six. No matter which configuration a buyer opts for there is plenty of room in the Explorer and with the third seating row retracted there is also a lot of available cargo space – 45.1 cubic feet to be exact. It’s this kind of room that first made SUVs like the Explorer so popular with buyers.
The suspension of the Explorer has also seen changes for the better over the last twenty years. The 4-wheel drive 2010 Explorer has both an independent front and rear suspension. Now compare that to the 4-wheel drive equipped 1991 Explorer which had the Twin Traction Beam front suspension and a solid rear axle with leaf springs for the rear suspension. The ride quality between the two is like night and day, with the 1991 feeling like the dark ages. The axle hop feeling of the old 1991 Explorer on rough pavement is long gone, the four wheel independent suspension feels right at home in this type of driving condition. Steering is also precise when compared to the Explorers of yesteryear. And the standard Advance Trac (with Roll Stability Control) helps to keep the Explorer sure footed in even the worst of driving conditions. There are three available driveline configurations – 2-wheel drive, Control Trac 4-wheel drive, and an all-wheel drive (AWD) system. The 2-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive) is standard on the Limited, while the Control Trac and AWD are both optional. Control Trac is the system for the buyer who plans on taking the Explorer off-road or into similar rough driving conditions. There are three available modes for Command Trac which can be activated by the driver: 4-wheel drive “auto” which leaves the magic up to the computer, 4-wheel drive “high” when road conditions become harsh in snowy, icy, and other slippery conditions, and 4-wheel drive “low” for off-road endeavors. Because of the latter the Limited with Control Trac is only available with 18 inch wheels. The AWD equipped Limited is only available with 20 inch wheels. If you want a boulevard cruiser with some added capabilities the AWD is the way to go. Mind you the AWD will handle snowy and icy conditions well but it only has a one speed transfer case so you can forget about off-roading with the AWD system. If you want a sure footed off-road capabilities or even the ability to pound through a 2 foot snow drift (in 4-wheel drive low) the Control Trac equipped Explorer is the only choice.
When you get to the engine choices of the 2010 Explorer here’s where things get a little strange. There are two engine choices – a 4.0 liter SOHC V6 and a 4.6 liter SOHC V8. The V6 of course is the standard motor while the V8 is optional. When looking at the mpg figures there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two which is unusual since the average V8 is more fuel thirsty than the average V6. On the Command Trac equipped Explorer Limited the 4.0 V6 has EPA mpg ratings of 13 City and 19 Highway while the 4.6 V8’s ratings are 14 City (that’s right one mpg better than the V6) and 19 Highway. When comparing horsepower and torque figures, the V8 easily trounces the V6. The 24 valve (3 valve per cylinder) 4.6 SOHC V8 produces 282 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque verses the 12 valve 4.0 SOHC V6 which makes only 210 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque. On the towing front this equates to the 4-wheel drive equipped V8 powered Explorer Limited having a towing capacity of up to 7,115 lbs verses the 5,205 lb maximum towing capacity of the V6 powered Explorer Limited. For both engines the maximum towing capacity drops when the Explorer is equipped with AWD or 2-wheel drive and when the Class II towing package is ordered instead of the Class III/IV package. All V8 powered 2010 Explorers come equipped with a 3.55 rear axle ratio. The V6 comes standard with the 3.55 rear axle ratio and has an optional 3.73 rear axle ratio when the Class III/IV towing package is ordered.
The problem with the V6 is it is an old engine design; it is a member of the Ford Cologne V6 family which was first introduced on the European 1964 Ford Taunus in the form of a 2.0 liter OHV V6. A 155 horsepower version of the 4.0 liter OHC V6 was the only engine available on the 1991 Ford Explorer. By the 1997 model year the SOHC 4.0 liter version of this motor was introduced as an Explorer engine option. Back then the 4.0 SOHC V6 made 205 horsepower which was 45 more than the standard 160 horsepower 4.0 OHV V6 on the 1997 Explorer. There was also a 215 horsepower 5.0 liter OHV V8 option, so you can see in this situation back in 1997, the 4.0 SOHC V6 made sense and was more powerful than the OHV V6 and more efficient than the V8. However 13 years later the SOHC is a little long in the tooth and no longer makes sense since its mpg figures are the same as the SOHC V8. There’s really no reason not to go with the SOHC V8 with its far superior power and towing capacity. It’s a virtual no brainer – test driving the two back-to-back is where one sees how the 4.6 SOHC V8 performs so much better in every performance category than the 4.0 SOHC V6 – this is important especially when buying a loaded Explorer Limited which weighs just under 5,000 lbs. This is part of the reason why the SOHC V6 equipped Explorer Limited feels like a slug compared to the V8 equipped one. Another factor supporting the V8 purchase is the mandatory six-speed automatic transmission verses the V6’s mandatory five-speed automatic. So this begs the question why didn’t Ford just make the V8 standard on all Explorer models? This is good question, my guess is it is due to perception; there are certain people who won’t buy a V8 because they are convinced the V6 is always more efficient. One other thing to consider is that the 2010 Explorer will probably be the last Explorer with a V8 option. Moving over to a Taurus based platform in 2011 will more than likely mean using Ford’s new efficient 263 horsepower 3.5 liter Direct Injection DOHC V6 found in the Ford Taurus. The Taurus SHO’s 365 horsepower 3.5 liter Twin-Turbo EcoBoost Direct Injection DOHC V6 may also be an available engine option.
Then comes the important question – with so much going for the 2010 Explorer, why the poor sales? As mentioned earlier across the board traditional mid-size SUVs like the Explorer tend to not be fuel-efficient and with higher gas prices in recent years sales have dipped considerably (which was how things ended for the original muscle car era in the early 1970s). In essence these types of SUVs thrived when gas prices were low. And in the last few years the crossover SUV has become the new “it” vehicle, just like traditional SUVs and minivans once were. Though the Explorer has kept up with the times and continued to offer great refinement while still providing excellent utility and off-road capabilities. Unfortunately the direction the Explorer will move in 2011, off-road capabilities will more than likely be a thing of the past. The Explorer will become a typical crossover SUV with AWD – in essence a fancy urban/suburban status vehicle instead of a utility vehicle. This will be no surprise since the yuppies created the crossover craze and their idea of off-roading is driving home from the opera when it’s raining.
I am sure most will not let out a whimper or even shed a tear about the traditional Ford Explorer’s departure. The auto press attention will be only focused on the all-new 2011 Explorer, however years down the road the completion of the 2010 model year will be remembered as being an end to an era. There are a few wise folks with a little Explorer nostalgia who will be buying one before the 2010 inventory exits the Ford dealership lots for good. Usually we don’t miss what we have until it’s gone, with the Explorer that will certainly be the case. You can’t go wrong buying a new V8 powered 2010 Explorer Limited with Control Trac, it’s certainly an end to a fine era.
Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved