By Alex Taylor III
October 18, 2010

Amid declining sales and a shifting auto market, it looked like Ford had lost faith in the Explorer, one of the company’s most successful models. But Ford has given the Explorer a revise and a new lease on life, perhaps at the expense of another member of its family.

Ford doesn’t do everything right. Back in the day when SUVs were the hot thing going, the Explorer was the hottest of the hot. It reliably ranked among the 10 most popular vehicles in the U.S., and it became, behind the F-150, the second most recognized nameplate in the Ford lineup, besting even the Mustang and Taurus.

But Ford (F) seemed to lose faith in the Explorer 10 years ago after reports of an abnormally high incidence of tire failures, some of which led to vehicle rollovers. Explorer was exonerated but the damage was done.

After peaking in 2000 with sales of 445,157 — nearly one a minute — Explorer sales declined inexorably year after year as gasoline prices ratcheted higher. As a truck-based SUV in a market increasingly moving towards car-based crossovers, the Explorer had become a dinosaur. By 2009, the Explorer was selling at only one-eighth of its record rate, notching sales of just 52,190.

The only thing to do was to give it a total makeover, and that’s what Ford has done.

The new look works, perhaps too well. It puts the Explorer into competition with another Ford crossover that has three rows of seats and similar capability, the Flex. The Flex has been an underachiever in the salesroom, and the launch of the 2011 Explorer may hasten its slide. Call it a case of “corporate cannibalization.”

Gone are the Explorer’s pickup-truck engineering, beefy four-wheel-drive, and trail-tough ride. The new Explorer is based on the Taurus passenger-car platform and shares many components with the Flex. Its old body-on-frame has been replaced by a lighter unit-body construction.

Instead of an off-roader built for climbing over things and towing heavy loads, the Explorer becomes a soft-roader, more at home on the highway than a mountain trail.

That infuriates some purists.

“Platform prostitution” one furious blogger wrote, adding “Ford’s taken a name with a heritage and used it in a completely unhistorical way, thus betraying it.”

In fact, Ford was just changing with the times, albeit belatedly.

The old Explorer was designed to do things nobody used it for. “More than 80% of the people had never taken the vehicle off-road,” explained a Ford product specialist. “One lady, when asked about the buttons on the dash marked Auto, 4 High and 4 Low said that she had never pushed them because she was worried what might happen if she did.”

Now she won’t have to because the old four-wheel-drive setup has been replaced by an on-demand, all-wheel drive system called “terrain management.” All that lady would need to do now is turn the dial to the setting for snow, sand or mud. No off-road training required.

But shifting consumer tastes wasn’t the only imperative that led Ford’s engineers toward the 2011 Explorer. Whereas the old Explorer flaunted its brute strength, the new model shows off its fuel economy.

Ford is concerned not just with the impact on driving costs but also on tightening government mileage regulations.

With a proposed 60 mile-per-gallon standard proposed for 2025, every movement in that direction helps. So the new Explorer has an aluminum hood, low rolling resistance tires and no spare tire. Ford says it weighs nearly 100 pounds less than its predecessor and will get 30% better mileage.

Another imperative behind the 2011 model was distinctive design. Here success is more subjective. With less overhang in the front and a shorter hood, the new Explorer looks snub-nosed compared with its predecessor — an effect compounded by the curved corners on the hood and fenders.

Inside, the interior is executed with the kind of attention to detail that has made Ford tops among the Detroit Three, if not yet up to the levels of Audi.

The Explorer’s instrument panel is in a league of its own. The unfortunately-named “MyFord Touch” displays information on two full-color LCD screens on either side of the speedometer, as well as an eight-inch screen at the top of the center stack. The screens are controlled by a pair of switches on either side of the steering wheel cross arm, or, for those who are comfortable talking to a car, an upgraded voice recognition system that recognizes thousands of spoken commands.

Under way, drivers can enjoy the traditional command seating position, refined driveline, and quiet ride. Wider and lower than the old model, yet with the same ground clearance, this Explorer is unlikely to be victimized by any more complaints about rollovers.

Base price for the 2011 Explorer with the standard 3.5-liter V6 engine is $28,995. According to Edmonds.com, a top-of-the-line Limited model with all-wheel-drive will go for $39,190. That’s almost identical to the Flex, which is powered by the same engine and also can come equipped with all-wheel drive.

The flat-roof Flex hasn’t been able to dodge the minivan soccer-mom connection. While it looks much longer than the Explorer because of its proportions, the difference is only four inches, while the Explorer is actually three inches wider.

So, it’s the lengthy people-mover vs. beamy crossover. In its new configuration, the Explorer has become the Flex’s worst nightmare. Rugged SUV styling beats people-mover efficiency every time. Ford may have succeeded in reviving the Explorer at the expense of another member of its family.

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