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Explorer blazes new trail for SUVs

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Explorer blazes new trail for SUVs

Rick Kranz

Automotive News -- August 2, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

So is the redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer an SUV or a crossover?

An SUV, says Ford -- although it's really in an evolving subniche that reflects an industrywide shift.

The Explorer shares a front-drive car platform with the Taurus and will get crossoverlike fuel economy. The boxy SUV styling is replaced by clean, aerodynamic lines. And Ford says towing capability, though reduced, will fit the needs of most buyers.

As automakers move away from traditional SUVs, they are creating different formulas. Some are closer to SUVs, such as the redesigned 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Some, like the Chevrolet Traverse, are closer to crossovers. The Explorer is in the middle.

Ford, which declares the Explorer an SUV, warns against underestimating the redesigned model. "It will do everything that an SUV customer wants it to do," says Said Deep, a Ford spokesman.

Well, most customers. Deep adds: "Will it rock-crawl? If you want to rock-crawl, there is another brand for that."

New SUV formula

The redesigned Explorer abandoned the traditional SUV formula: rugged body-on-frame construction, rear-wheel drive, V-8 power and four-wheel drive with low gears for serious off-roading. The redesigned Explorer has none of the above.

But Derrick Kuzak, Ford's head of global product development, said the intent was still to develop an SUV.

"What that means for us is off-road capability, high seating position and design imagery -- the way the vehicle looks. And it looks unmistakably powerful, like an SUV," he said at a press event in suburban Detroit last week.

Kuzak said fuel economy was the major complaint about the previous Explorer. The new standard 3.5-liter V-6 will get 20 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing 4.0-liter V-6, which is rated at 14 mpg city/20 highway.

The optional EcoBoost 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine will get at least 30 percent better fuel economy than the old V-6, Kuzak said.

But there are trade-offs. The V-8 was dropped, and towing capability was trimmed 2,000 pounds. The new model tows 5,000 pounds with the 3.5-liter V-6. Deep says nearly 90 percent of Explorer owners surveyed said that capability fits their needs.

In place of a transfer case with high, low and automatic gear settings, the Explorer's optional 4wd system relies on electronics.

4 modes

The system has four modes: snow, mud and ruts, sand and normal. Each has settings for the engine, throttle, transmission shifts, traction control and stability control. Combined, they determine the amount of power transferred to each wheel for best traction. A hill-descent control feature is included.

The 4wd system requires the V-6.

The normal mode is used on hard surfaces, such as a highway, and operates in fwd to enhance fuel economy. If rear-wheel slippage is detected, power is sent automatically to the rear wheels.

Under the other settings, all four wheels have power at all times. The degree of power to each wheel is determined by wheel slippage and the setting selected by the driver.

Translation: For the first time, the base Explorer is fwd.

Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Automotive, doesn't think that will hurt sales.

"The ones who use their truck as a car, they do not care if it is rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive," she says "They don't utilize those capabilities anyway."

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/article/20100802/RETAIL03/308029955/1254#ixzz0vS3QLg8U

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