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Ford hopes ride on new Explorer

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Ford hopes ride on new Explorer

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. today unveils its 2011 Explorer, banking that consumers will embrace the reincarnation of its iconic sport utility vehicle as a car-based crossover.

Ford wants this Explorer to redefine SUVs the way the original defined them and sparked the SUV craze two decades ago. If it's a hit, the automaker stands to win financially and make the Explorer king of the segment again.

The 2011 Explorer, whose launch will be trumpeted on Facebook and in nine cities, marries the attributes that people love in SUVs -- roominess, capability and safety -- while fixing what they hate: poor fuel economy and a rough ride.

For weeks, the automaker has built anticipation by playing peekaboo -- releasing photos revealing part of a quarter panel here, a bit of the front end there. But today marks the first day consumers get a complete image and information.

With celebrities, executives and dealers in a coordinated attempt to seize attention from mainstream and social media, the multicity debut is a departure from the usual practice of launching an important vehicle at an auto show.

It's the start of a major media buy designed to reach 50 million people, said Jim Farley, head of global marketing.

Some 1,000 people are expected at the launch this morning in Ford's hometown, Dearborn. Other launch cities include Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami.

"This is a really big car for our company," Farley said.

Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, calls the 2011 Explorer "the SUV for the 21st century, to break down the barriers and the stereotypes." The result is a car-based crossover that looks like an SUV, crawls out of mud and can tow 5,000 pounds, but with the fuel economy of a Toyota Camry.

It could prove game-changing.

"Ford is really tearing down the whole SUV segment, redefining it and taking what people love and amping it up," said analyst Erich Merkle of Autoconomy in Grand Rapids.

Overriding the past

While Ford has a lot riding on its new Explorer, no one expects a return to the glory days. Explorer sales in the United States peaked at 445,000 in 2000, each one netting a healthy profit.

Its popularity was so consuming that Ford ignored cars such as its Taurus, which was relegated to rental car status and then discontinued as a midsize car.

But when higher gasoline prices torpedoed the SUV segment, the Explorer became a casualty. By 2009, Explorer sales had fallen to 52,000, and fewer than 32,000 were sold in the first half of this year.

As Ford worked to rebuild its car lineup in recent years, the bold decision was made to remake the Explorer using the underpinnings of its new Taurus, which was making a comeback as a full-size sedan.

Car-based crossovers have proliferated, including Ford's own Flex and Edge. And utility vehicles account for a third of the market, Farley said.

He said the Explorer's name recognition, at nearly 100 percent, works in its favor.

"Our job is to myth-bust," Farley said of the prevailing attitude that SUVs are not fuel-efficient.

Ford originally thought that meant a radical design change.

Three design concepts were created. One, the Explorer America, was shown at the 2008 North American International Auto Show.

But it didn't go over well with consumers, said Moray Callum, North American head of design. "It was not as recognizable as an SUV as people wanted it to be."

"It seems the public that had stopped buying SUVs was not turning its back on the look or the capability of SUVs," Callum said, but rather their fuel economy and teeth-jarring ride. Ford execs realized they needed a modern interpretation of a look, still recognizable as an Explorer.

The concept chosen for production was closer to the Explorer's SUV roots.

"It taps into the traditional Explorer, yet is completely new," said Merkle.

Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive in Lexington, Mass., likes the design but doesn't see a family resemblance to its predecessors.

"It is a very modern and progressive interpretation," she said. "The biggest hurdle is it is not immediately associated with an Explorer."

But both analysts agree the interior and features make it a strong competitor.

"The telematics is years beyond what anyone else is offering, even luxury brands, and has been a real differentiator for Ford," said Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive in Troy.

Based on the Taurus, as opposed to its original body-on-frame construction, the new Explorer drives like a car.

And then there's fuel economy.

By swapping the old 4-liter V-6 with a new 3.5-liter V-6, fuel economy is improved by 20 percent.

An optional 2-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is 30 percent more fuel-efficient. That equates to 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. Official figures will be released once the government completes its testing.

"It will likely be close to hitting the 30-mpg mark, a monumental achievement for a Ford Explorer with three-row seating," said Merkle.

Derrick Kuzak, head of Ford's global product development, said improving fuel efficiency by a few miles per gallon "was not good enough to meet our targets.

"It will be on par with a Toyota Camry with a V-6," he said.

Sales to start in 5 months

Ford will not reveal volume estimates for the new Explorer, which will be built in Chicago alongside the Taurus and Lincoln MKS. A second shift is being added in November.

Two shifts can produce about 220,000 units a year, said analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J.

The Explorer -- the sticker price hasn't yet been announced -- will go on sale about five months after the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, on sale now.

"People will cross-shop Grand Cherokee and look at fuel economy numbers and balk," said Bragman. The Grand Cherokee with a V-6 gets 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

The Explorer won't follow the Jeep across the Rubicon, but will tackle snow, mud and sand with its terrain management system that shifts into four-wheel drive and adjusts torque with the turn of a knob.

And the final attribute: the blue oval.

"If people like your company, they're more likely to shop your product," said Farley.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100726/AUTO01/7260347/1148/auto01/Ford-hopes-ride-on-new-Explorer#ixzz0unZTNu2E

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