DEARBORN, Mich.—We won't see the all-new Ford Explorer in showrooms until the end of the year (pricing details and sale date are to-be-announced), but you'll be hearing about it steadily until then.
Ford is executing a "new media" advance marketing campaign for the 2011 Explorer, much as it did for the Fiesta, which now is in showrooms. The company unveiled the Explorer on Facebook Monday morning with invitations extended to 30,000 of Explorer "friends" and their "friends." Would they be called Explorer Scouts?
We got a ride in the 2011 Explorer last week. Ford said it was an Explorer, but the two demo vehicles were totally clad in bulky black aprons (think all the X-Ray protective shields at Massachusetts General Hospital). Inside, the instrument panel, door panels, and seats were similarly disguised.
The site was Ford's Dearborn Test Track, and the occasion was a demonstration of Curve Control, the new technology designed to protect drivers who enter a curve too fast for the road or driving conditions.
The simulation showed the technology to be terrific, slowing the vehicle 10 miles per hour per second to keep it on its intended path. Test drivers first turned the system off, and then hit a "ramp," delineated by cones, at 50 miles per hour. With tires squealing and smoking, the test vehicle plowed through the cones. That would be off the road and into a ditch, guard rail, or woods in real life. With the system on, the initial squeal turned to an abrupt slowdown, and we easily stayed on course.
A day later, Ford executives unveiled the actual new Explorer and touted the styling, safety, drivetrain, and quality. The first impression is that Ford has tried to be all things to all potential buyers. At the top end of the Base-XLT-Limited trim lines, the Explorer is downright Lincoln-esque.
* Ford has gone to a rigid unibody construction for a more car-like (dare we say crossover?) approach. However, four-wheel-drive advocates will have a simple dial for normal, mud/ruts, sand, or snow conditions. Each selection predisposes the computer to select different torque, shift, and throttle points.
* There is no V-8 option. Ford's 3.5-liter V-6 will produce 290 horsepower, 255 lb.-ft. of torque and deliver 20 percent better fuel economy. With a towing package, it can haul up to 5,000 pounds.
* The four-cylinder EcoBoost option. This highly anticipated addition to Ford's engine program will produce 237 HP, 250 lb.-ft. of torque, and (we're guessing) somewhere in the low- to mid-20s of miles per gallon. Unfortunately, this I-4 engine only is available with 2WD.
* Ford is introducing a newer version of its SYNC navigation/entertainment system that's heavy on voice activation with steering-wheel controls and LCD displays on both the Nav screen and instrument panel. This is a story in itself for another day.
* Safety. Besides a full array of airbags and Curve Control, Ford is offering BLIS (blind spot warning) with cross-traffic alerts and active (parallel) parking assist. To anyone who ever has to back out of a parking spot - and that's about all of us-the cross-traffic alert is a godsend.
* Inflatable rear seatbelts. Ford claims the devices will spread impact over five times the body space in case of an accident. That should especially help rear-seat passengers, those generally being the very young or more mature riders.
The Explorer has third-row seats, a long list of options and packages ... and plenty of competition in the segment like the 2011 Grand Cherokee, the upcoming new Hyundai Santa Fe, plus the Honda Pilot, Acura MDX, and GMC Acadia.