Two decades ago, the 1991 Ford Explorer brought a new level of ride and handling to the midsize SUV class. This popular model stood out from competitors that were designed for utility first, on-road comfort second.
Today, nearly every SUV follows the Explorer model, with most taking an even further step away from heavy-duty off-road and towing abilities. But with standards higher than ever, the redesigned 2011 Explorer has regained the ride and handling lead; car-based for the first time in its history, it stands among the class’s best for composure both in curves and in a straight line.
Beyond its top-notch driving dynamics, the Explorer also has a very comfortable and well-finished interior, and its fuel economy ratings are the best of the eight cars in this comparison.
But two issues keep the Explorer from taking first place: a relative lack of cargo space and a maddeningly over-complicated instrument layout. Like the Dodge Durango, folding the seats creates an uneven surface and offers much less total volume than some competitors. And Ford’s reliance on a touch screen for many functions and unconventional controls for others badly needs to be reconsidered.
The Explorer is without doubt a very strong vehicle overall. But either of those two issues is a potential deal-breaker.
A smooth, quiet ride that absorbs bumps easily without losing composure on the highway is an Explorer asset. That Ford achieved that ride quality even as the Explorer handles quite well is all the more impressive.
The Explorer has firm, responsive steering and feels smaller than it is in cornering. A wide turning radius can be irritating in tight quarters, but in general the Explorer has a very natural feel. A punchy – if a little noisy – V6 adds to an impressive driving experience.
As noted, the EPA puts the Explorer at the top of the comparison for gas mileage, with 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. Note, though, that each of these eight is rated for either 18 or 19 mpg in mixed driving. A new-for-2012 turbocharged four-cylinder promises a more drastic advantage.
Very nice inside
Although the Explorer doesn’t try to provide an overwhelming sense of luxury, its interior is commendably solid. Materials look and feel nice, and assembly flaws are absent.
The front seats are very comfortable as well, at least for slimmer drivers who fit comfortably between the bolsters. Others might feel confined both by the shape of the cushion and by the relatively narrow seats beside a large, high center console. The Explorer is a wide vehicle, but it doesn’t feel it on the front seats.
The three-passenger middle-row bench seat is spacious and comfortable for two adults, but it’s not wide enough for three to be comfortable, and the center backrest is hard. The third row is decently roomy and well-padded, but it sits low.
But not huge inside
Like the Dodge Durango, the Explorer doesn’t have the expansive interior cargo volume its exterior dimensions suggest. Its 80.7 cubic feet with all the seats folded is the least of these eight; it’s significantly bigger on the outside than a Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot, but the Explorer’s cargo space isn’t hugely better than those automakers’ compact RAV4 and CR-V models. (Each have about 73 cubic feet; the Pilot and Highlander offer 87 and 95 cubic feet of cargo space, respectively.)
Also like the Durango, the Explorer’s seats don’t fold perfectly flush – there’s a gap and ledge between the folded seatbacks of the third and middle rows. At least both seats fold flat rather than resting at an incline.
The Explorer’s bigger cargo trump card – for some, offsetting the reduced total capacity – is the space behind the rearmost seats. Ford trumps the competition with a minivan-style cargo well behind the third row, which bumps seven-passenger cargo capacity to 21 cubic feet – more than any competitor but the Chevrolet Traverse.
The seat is designed to stow easily into that cargo well, though apparently it needs some care – it briefly jammed while the salesman was demonstrating it. Higher-end Explorers will stow and raise the third row automatically at the push of a button.
And not user-friendly inside
A dominant feature of the redesigned Explorer’s dash is the abandonment of conventional buttons. A touch screen, with various menus, handles many functions; others are operated by touch-sensitive fixed controls below the screen.
The MyFord Touch system, included on all but the most basic Explorers, is undeniably slick-looking. And when it can command your total concentration, it’s perfectly intuitive to use.
But while you’re driving, MyFord Touch stands in the way of quick, easy adjustments to the stereo or climate controls. You can’t do most functions by identifying buttons by feel, because there are only two (knobs for fan speed and stereo volume). You can’t tell without looking whether the touch-sensitive controls are registering your touch, and it’s easy to activate the wrong one while brushing past the dash.
See more photos of the 2011 Ford Explorer XLT in today’s slideshow
Reviewers with longer drives in the Explorer have found that the system doesn’t always work as designed, either, with the controls sometimes registering inputs too slowly or needing to reboot. But even when it’s working properly, the frustrating controls stand as an impediment to straightforward driving.
Ford offers two backup solutions: steering wheel controls to scroll through the touch-screen menus, which also forces your eyes off the road; and voice-recognition commands, which take additional time, especially if the system struggles to recognize you.
“People either love or hate technology,” writes Ford on its website about the new control system, “but even if you’re in the latter camp, you know you’re going to have to live with it, because it’s not going anywhere.”
As an alternative to having to live with it, of course, you could buy a competitor that doesn’t sacrifice user-friendly controls in a disastrously misguided effort to be cutting-edge.
Many Ford dealers have reported shortages of Explorers in their inventory. This imbalance between supply and demand comes out in the consumer’s disfavor – it will likely be harder to track down the particular model you want, and to haggle down the price if you find it.
There are many good reasons to make those compromises. The Explorer’s outstanding driving dynamics and comfortable, well-finished interior are indisputable eye-catchers in a crowded class.
But if you can’t tolerate the inconvenience of the controls or want maximum cargo space, there are plenty of other strong choices to choose from.
Overall grade: B+
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Read the introduction to this comparison
Vehicle tested: 2011 Ford Explorer
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $28,360
Version tested: XLT FWD
Version base price (MSRP): $31,520
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $37,235
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $39,510
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $36,868
Test vehicle provided by: Claud Wood at Koons Ford of Silver Spring, Md.
Length: 197.1 inches
Width: 78.9 inches
Height: 71.0 inches
Wheelbase: 112.6 inches
Weight: 4,732 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: 21.0 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind middle seat: 43.8 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 80.7 cubic feet
Turning circle: 39.7 feet
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 with 290 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 17 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 23 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 19 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Illinois
For more information: Ford website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on estimates from Truecar.com and quotes from individual dealers.
**The price as comparable reflects an Explorer XLT 4WD rather than the tested front-wheel-drive model.