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2011 Ford Explorer LTD: Smooth sailing at a cost

Ford’s latest Explorer leaves behind its predecessor’s somewhat unsteady platform and delivers superior handling . But is the top-of-the-line LTD model really worth its $50K price tag?

The rise of online car shopping has thankfully given customers the ability to investigate exactly

what vehicles a local dealer has in stock along with the window stickers for each offering.

That reduces the opportunity for the ancient bait-and-switch scam of a dealer who advertises a deal that’s simply too-good-to-be-true. When you show up to claim this bargain, you are told it has just been sold but a similar model is available — though at a much higher price.

While investigating the local availability of the 2011 Explorer one month after the start of production at Ford’s (F) Chicago plant, I found several mid-level XLTs available with sticker prices of $37, 585.

Our family’s first Explorer in 1990 cost around $25,000, so that sounded about right.

Then I ran across a loaded top-of-the-line LTD Explorer with a price of $50, 570. That’s nearly double the advertised bare-bones price of $28,190. It also gets you into the neighborhood of some German SUVs with fancier name plates like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, both of which have somewhat comparable models starting at around $47,000.

Ford, I thought, must think very highly of the new Explorer. I’m happy to report that I do too, though probably not $50,000 worth.

Of course, the 2011 Explorer has almost nothing in common with the 1991 model. Aside from the electronics, safety gear, and advanced powertrain, the new Explorer leaves behind its somewhat unsteady platform on the old Ranger pickup and instead has a car chassis that it shares with the Ford Taurus.

The result is not just greater stability but superior handling and the finest ride I have ever experienced in an SUV or a crossover. The Explorer cossets you with minutely-controlled vibrations while it absorbs lumps and bumps with no jostle or sway.

Despite its car-like origins and demeanor, Ford will continue to market the three-seat row Explorer as an SUV and not a crossover, even though most of its owners will never take it off-road. I suspect Ford’s intention is to differentiate it from the two-seat-row Edge, which I reviewed last week, and the three-seat-row Flex, both of which fall into the less-rugged crossover category.

The Explorer does have a few Jeep-fighting characteristics. Its chief engineer worked on the current Land Rover Range Rover in an earlier assignment, and the vehicle has off-road features like hill-descent control, hill-ascent assist, and terrain management.

Potential buyers will likely be more interested in the push-button start, dual-headrest DVD system, power lift gate, and active park assist. I found the electronic nannies helpful: blind-spot detection and collision alert

A second week’s practice has made me more comfortable with the MyFord Touch electronic control system (standard on all Limited models). While the touch screen is as touchy as ever, the voice command setup picked up my speech pattern in record time, allowing me to adjust the audio system and direct the navigation system efficiently by following the prompts.

Now that such a sophisticated system is available from a full-line producer, I suspect other manufacturers will have to develop their own. The system still needs substantial refinement, though. In its February issue, Consumer Reports calls it “a complicated distraction” and early adopters have reported software problems.

The Explorer isn’t for everyone. Although 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor, it still weighs in at a hefty 4,500 pounds, which limits the in-town fuel economy to 17 miles per gallon (highway is 25 mpg). Over a couple of hundred miles of not so vigorous driving, I was only able to nudge that to 17.7 mpg. And, as noted, the high-line versions aren’t suitable for families on a budget.

But for those who need a vehicle with this kind of size and capability, the 2011 Explorer is exceptionally well executed.