2011 Ford Explorer Limited HD Video Review

Back in the early 90’s the Ford Explorer was among the most popular vehicles sold in America.  Not most popular truck, I’m talking vehicle, constantly selling around 400,000 units a year, the kind of volume Camry and Accord do today.  Originally based on the compact Ranger pickup chassis, it helped establish our love affair with the SUV.

The 2011 Explorer on the all-media drive in San Diego

Oh, how times change.  Over the years Explorer has been battered by the Firestone tire controversy, a world-wide economic meltdown and the rising cost of gasoline.  Families began switching to car-based crossovers that are both more comfortable and fuel efficient.  Explorer, it seemed to some, had run its course.

Time for a Robert Downey Jr. style re-boot.  The name is about all the new 2011 Explorer carries over.  While the handsome sheetmetal is evolutionary, what’s under it is a little more revolutionary since for the first time ever Explorer does not ride on a truck chassis.  It’s built on the same unibody architecture as the Taurus sedan and Flex crossover.  Skip all-wheel drive and Explorer is now powered by its front wheels.

Change is Good

Ford is marketing this fifth-generation model as an SUV, not a crossover.  In reality only a few people truly use the rugged capabilities of sport utes.  It’s not as if Explorer has become a shopping mall cruiser though, it can tow up to 5,000 pounds and traverse some fairly nasty terrain.  Remember, the very capable Jeep Grand Cherokee has always been unibody, same with Range Rover and no one disses their abilities.

The 2011 Explorer on the all-media drive in San Diego

When approaching this do over, the engineers knew they needed a big boost in both fuel economy and refinement.  Gas isn’t getting any cheaper and crossovers offer both comfort and utility.   Any compromise on Explorer’s toughness and the image suffers.  And you though your job was hard…

What They Came Up With

A very nice vehicle to be sure.  The 2011 version is about 5 inches wider and 4 inches longer.  Seven-passenger seating is standard, a six-person configuration is available.

Bigger yes, but loads of high strength steel and an aluminum hood makes the vehicle lighter by around 100 pounds.  The 3.5-liter V6 engine pumps out 80 more horsepower now for a total of 290 (255 lb-ft of torque).  In fact, Ford has eliminated the V8.  Later this year Ford will offer an optional turbocharged four-cylinder (yes, four) EcoBoost engine.  It’s better fuel economy won’t be available with all-wheel drive.

2011 Ford Explorer

I’m driving a top-of-the-line Limited model with push button keyless ignition.  The transmission is a six-speed unit that offers up quick decisive shifts.  Manual control is done with a small button on the console lever

Fuel economy is 25 percent better now with AWD models EPA rated at 17 city, 23 highway and front drivers at 17/25.  Those numbers are about even with Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander V6, in some cases ever so slightly better.  A bonus?  Like many Fords, the gas filler is capless.

Not Many Will Miss The V8

Explorer is quick off the line with good low-end torque.  The structure may be lighter but it feels exceptionally solid with the cabin remaining nice and quiet at highway speeds.  For a larger rig Explorer is crisp in the corners, though some may find the ride quality a bit too firm.  Many want to compare Explorer with Grand Cherokee even though the Jeep stops the body count at five.  As far as driving dynamics go, the Ford is Euro firm with minimal body roll (for an SUV anyways).  JGC take a softer ride approach with a more luxurious Lexus-like dynamic (again, for a sport ute).   In the end, the driving dynamic reminds me most of Pilot.

2011 Ford Explorer

My tester is all-wheel drive and I drove it exclusively in stop-and-go city situations for two days straight to check gas mileage. With my usual foot of lead, the trip computer reads 16 miles per gallon. Contrast that with the 2008 V6 Explorer I use as a production vehicle at KING TV which routinely slups a gallon every 13 miles in the city, 18 on the highway.   That’s a decent improvement considering the old one is smaller and less powerful.  I’ll take the driving dynamic of the new one too.

Doors That Keep Your Levi’s Clean

Like Flex, Explorer has a door design that fully covers the entire sill so after a good romp in the mud it’s clean, and so are your pant legs.  Once inside its easy to see this high-end Limited version has a rich interior, only the remarkably picky will not find a comfortable driving position with a tilt/telescope steering wheels and adjustable pedals.  The big asterisk with that statement would be my wife, who being as petite as she is lovely, cannot touch the floor with her feet since the chairs are on the high side.  At least the seats are heated and vented.

2011 Ford Explorer

Ford’s new gauge cluster uses a center-mounted speedometer flanked on either side by high definition LCD displays.  The beauty here is a driver can configure it the way they want.  Choose between two different tachometers styles or ditch it all together.  Options include trip computer, phone info, radio stations, compass and much more.  The list goes on and on.

Materials are soft to the touch and pleasant to look at.  The Sony sound system is terrific, I’m not too crazy about the grainy sound quality of Sirius satellite radio, the HD Radio tuner is very nice (and doesn’t require a monthly fee).

Nice Touch

It’s all controlled by the new MyFord Touch interface that groups operations by color (red for entertainment, yellow for phone, ect…) on a touch screen to enhance the Microsoft SYNC system.  Unlike Consumer Reports I really like MFT but have two issues- The touch sensitively could be better and the hazard button just below the screen is easy to trip, even though it’s recessed.

2011 Ford Explorer

Connect just about anything with A/V inputs and outputs, there are RCA jacks, two USB ports, and Bluetooth for phones.  The electronics are so deep on Explorer, an entire article could be written about them.

MyFord Touch doesn’t hand over all the controls to the screen, redundant controls are on the center stack which is a touch surface, not really buttons. At 43 grand as tested there’s no sunroof or video entertainment system installed.  This is not inexpensive vehicle.

One last controller is a knob on the center console that’s found on all-wheel drive Explorers.  Called Terrain Response, it makes the all-wheel drive system easier to use and more effective in operation.  Match the icon on the dial to the surface you want to drive on (mud, sand or snow) and you’re good to go.  The traction control automatically optimizes itself for the terrain you choose. There’s also hill decent control that operates the throttle while descending very steep grades so you can concentrate on steering.

Curve Control Launches On the All-New 2011 Ford Explorer

Curve Control is not a Weight Watchers diet program.  This technology uses Ford’s Roll Stability Control to sense when a driver is taking a curve too fast and reduces engine torque and applies braking to all four wheels to slow Explorer by up to 10 mph in about one second.  The electronics measure the degree that the vehicle is turning and compares that with the rate the driver is trying to turn.  If the two don’t match up Curve Control kicks in, applies the right amount of braking to each wheel to keep you out of the ditch.  Standard on Explorer, expect it on 90 percent of Fords crossovers, SUVs, trucks and vans by 2015.

Back To Row Two

The middle row has a lot going on.  Leg and knee room is about average, foot room is more generous.  This can’t be changed because the seats don’t slide fore an aft.   There’s a fold down armrest and the bench splits and reclines.  Lots of cupholders back here too, plus a 110v outlet and map pockets for more storage.  Finally, there are climate controls so passengers can dial in their own comfort.

2011 Ford Explorer

One safety technology unique to Explorer’s middle row is seatbelts with built in airbags.  Because the front chairs get adjusted in different ways it’s difficult to properly mount a forward facing airbag in the second row.  Upon impact, the belts expand instantly making the restraint much wider, dissipating the force so it causes less injury to the occupant.  The belts themselves feel thicker and stiffer and the buckle is hollow so compressed air can be forced through it up into the strap.  Nice tech.  Hope I never need it.

Going Way Back

Explorer has a standard third row now, often that means a cramped penalty box.  As an average sized guy like me would be OK in this space for short trips across town and kids should be quite comfortable. NBA players would be unhappy (but hey, they’ll be driving their Escalades).

2011 Ford Explorer  My well-optioned Limited tester has power third row folding seats that are a Godsend when trying to raise them from the floor.  The cargo hold is large, a trim piece on the edge of it that’s designed to snap off for access to the spare tire does so a little too easy.  In full-on 7 passenger mode Explorer does pretty well storage-wise. Normally, with the third row in use, crossovers can only handle two packs.  Explorer holds five.  Drop row number three and Explorer swallows up 16 bundles of Kirkland brand bath tissue, among the best in class.

Front drive Explorers start at 29 thousand dollars. The direction gas prices are headed, this SUV may never sell 400,000 units a year again.  Still, for those who need seating for up to 7 and sophisticated all-wheel drive, there’s no doubt Ford has built the best Explorer ever.




  1. Toaster says:

    I’ve never been a Ford guy. For whatever reason, I’ve always hated the Blue Oval … i blame my dad, a die hard GM guy for that. That being said, there are a number of Ford products that I’d consider driving these days, this being at the top of the list.

    I love the MyFord Touch system, at least on paper. I’d have to try it out myself first, but several reviews I’ve seen and read mention laggy response time when switching views, etc. Sync is a great feature and only now are some other companies catching up (Kia and GM both have similar systems on the way which sound promising, I think Kia’s is already in the new Sorento IIRC and GM will debut with the Volt and the next Equinox).

    I love the direct injection engine. A V6 with the horsepower of a V8? Sign me up! Oh, and it’s better on gas than the previous lower powered V6? Bonus! Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

    As a family man with a need for a 3 row vehicle (admittedly it would be stowed 90% of the time, but it sure comes in hand for that fraction when the whole family is going somewhere and we’re picking up one of the kids friends or one of the grand-parents) I would certainly look at the new Explorer when the time comes. I love the new styling, it’s both rugged looking and eye-catching. Fit and finish looks improved for the most part, and it’s got the features I want and the cargo/seating capacity that I need.

    Tom, how would you compare the new explorer with the Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia or even the Kia Sorento? Those along with the Explorer are the ones I’d probably look at most closely if I were buying today. I know the Kia is smaller, and thus less costly, but are there other advantages to going with it? Or is bigger really better? How does the Explorer perform with respect to the GM twins?

    • TV says:

      I like MyFord Touch, only wish the screen was more responsive, it can be a little sluggish at times. Fit and finish on my tester was quite good but really, great build quality is expected across the board now. Everyone is on their A game.

      As far as comparing the GM crossovers, the Ford has less room inside but drives smaller (the GMs have a smoother ride quality though). Personally, I like the interior finish of the Explorer better, Acadia and Traverse are starting to become dated having been around for a number of years.

      Yes, Sorento is smaller, especially the third row but if you’re not going to use it often it works to haul the occasional kid or two. It’s much less money than Explorer though, 10K or so. Explorer is a step up in class and size, it feels more substantial when driving. Cheers Toaster! TV

  2. crash says:

    Sorry – hit the reply button too early. Anyway – after those experiences, I swore that I’d never, ever own a Ford…ever ever ever….Now, I’d have zero issue owning one…simply put – they’re great products by all measuring sticks.

    I’ve actually recommended the Explorer to my dad as a replacement for his Sequoia….he was surprised by the recco to say the least!

  3. crash says:

    Another hit for Ford…I used to have Fords as company cars…starting w/ the Aerostar (or, as I called it, the Deathstar) followed by the Windstar. A