Because everybody likes to play in the sand. And mud. And rocks. And snow.
We just returned from Venice Beach, surrounded by sand castles on an atypically cool and overcast day, to witness Ford Senior VP Mark Fields unveil the 2011 Explorer, the family wagon/hauler that launched the SUV craze of the 1990s. Of course, the '90s are a distant memory now, so we shouldn't be surprised to see the latest version of Ford's flagship moving into the 21st century as an all-wheel drive crossover. Gone is the body-on-frame architecture, replace by a unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension. On the other hand, Explorers haven't been terribly wheelbase rigs since the first generation, and the newest model does sport the very-effective "Terrain Management" system that Ford developed in conjunction with Land Rover a few years ago. And overall, the Explorer's level of technological sophistication and refinement are pretty remarkable.
The base engine will be the turbocharged, direct-injecton 3.5L EcoBoost V-6 that's rated at 290 horsepower, 255 lb-ft and a relatively flat torque curve from 1,700 to 4,000 rpm.The engine is backed by a six-speed automatic and available in either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. (A 2.0L EcoBoost four-cylinder is an optional engine, in front-drive-only models.) Mileage is projected to be up to 30 percent better than the previous Explorer. Front suspension is the familiar independent short/long-arm/stabilizer bar configuration, while the independent rear, called "SR1," uses a 1:1 shock ratio to help eliminate undue feedback on rough roads. In normal operation, the Ford's a front-wheel drive, with Terrain Management engaging the rear wheels as tractive conditionsindicate. Dedicated "Sand", "Mud" and "Snow" driving modes all recalibrate throttle command, transmission shift points, and traction and stability control systems to suit the tractive demands of the given road and/or trail. The Explorer's hill descent control system is the same as on the Raptor, which means it also works in Reverse gear. Tires are 245/65R17 on base-model Explorers; XLT models get 18-inch wheels and Limited versions get 20s standard.
Inside and out, the Explorer shows impressive degrees of refinement, with soft-touch materials on instrument and door panels, and all the SYnc and MyFord Touch wizardry you can memorize. Cloth surfaces such as the headliner are made of 25-percent recycled materials. The exterior's exterior styling borrows from the Mustang (wheel arches) and Taurus (bodyside cutouts), with a sharply raked windshield for improved aerodynamics. And even though the new Explorer is longer and wider than the previous version, it's actually 100 pounds lighter due to its smaller engine, aluminum hood, and greater use of composite materials. We'll have a lot more to say about this vehicle (and more detailed photos as well---these media feeding frenzies are brutal!) as soon saw we can get a better look and test one (probably in November), but for now, I'm still shaking the sand out of my loafers.