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2011 Ford Explorer reaches out to families with fuel efficiency, safety features, seating


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2011 Ford Explorer reaches out to families with fuel efficiency, safety features, seating



SAN DIEGO -- Rolling through deep mud trenches on a 96-acre compound, the 2011 Ford Explorer proves it can handle the off-road demands of most weekend warriors. It easily travels over deep sand ruts and steep hills.

That's impressive because -- unlike older Explorers built on tough truck platforms -- the 2011 model is built on the same underbody as the Ford Taurus sedan, and, by definition, is a crossover and not an SUV.

"We think we have enough capability for most of our customers," said Don Ufford, Ford's chief engineer for North American vehicles.

Still, the change is a risk. Ford is aiming its new Explorer at a broader audience of families who put safety and fuel efficiency ahead of adventure -- unlike its rival, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The redesigned Grand Cherokee, launched in July, embraces its off-road heritage and has been a huge success.

But Ford needed a new fuel-efficient family vehicle with three rows of seats because it no longer sells a minivan, and its boxy Ford Flex has disappointed.

Explorer sales sank to 52,000 last year from a high of 445,000 in 2000, the year the vehicle became embroiled in a rollover scandal, as the industry has moved away from SUVs to more fuel-efficient models.

The new Explorer's fuel efficiency is 25% better than the outgoing model, and it's loaded with safety features, including an industry first: optional inflatable rear seat belts.

Despite its lingering image issues, and the change in strategy, the Explorer brings one big asset to the table: its name. The Explorer is among the most recognized names in Ford's lineup, behind only the F-150 and Mustang.

Ford Explorer picks fuel economy over heavy towing power

As Ford developed the 2011 Ford Explorer on a car platform for the first time, the company debated how much towing capacity the redesigned vehicle should have.

The production version of the redesigned 2011 Explorer powered by its 3.5-liter, 290 horsepower V6 is able to tow about 5,000 pounds -- enough to comfortably tow many small boats. But that's about 2,115 pounds less than the outgoing model based on a truck platform with a V8.

Nearly every time the issue came up, towing capacity was trumped by Ford's desire to improve fuel economy, said Brian Burkmyre, Explorer program management supervisor.

"Five thousand pounds was the sweet spot of our efforts to provide good towing capacity and improved fuel economy," Burkmyre said. "To go over 5,000 pounds, we would have had to add significant weight to the vehicle."

Meeting customer needs

What's more, Ford research showed that 5,000 pounds of towing capacity satisfies the needs of about 80% of existing Ford Explorer customers.

"We knew our customer base, and we knew their needs," Burkmyre said.

The issue of towing capacity was just one of many changes the automaker grappled with as it sought to redesign one of its most recognized models in its lineup.

Ultimately, the new Explorer shows that executives aimed to keep as much capability offered by the outgoing Explorer and still offer a value-packed, fuel--efficient, large vehicle that appeals to families.

The new Explorer seats up to seven people, gets a combined fuel economy of 20 m.p.g. and has a lower starting price than the outgoing model.

The entry-level 2011 Explorer starts at $28,190, excluding delivery and destination charges. That's about $1,000 lower than Ford's 2010 Explorer and $2,025 less than the entry-level price of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The starting price for the Explorer Limited, the highest-level Explorer, is $37,190.

From 1990 to 2004, the Explorer was the best-selling midsize SUV in America. Sales peaked in 2000, when Ford sold 445,157 Explorers.

That was the same year rollover problems emerged with Explorers equipped with Firestone tires. Lawsuits and a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation forced Firestone to recall 6.5 million tires in 2000 and Ford to recall 13 million tires in 2001.

Those issues are now in the past, said Art Spinella, president of the research firm CNW Research in Bandon, Ore.

"We find that, for the most part, midsize sport-utility owners are totally ignorant of the fact that Ford had an Explorer rollover problem," Spinella said.

Though the Explorer has watched its sales volume collapse to just about 52,000 last year as drivers sought other models, its long history as a staple SUV has left it with lasting name recognition.

Today, there are more than 4 million Explorers on the road, and more than 140,000 Explorer owners buy new vehicles every year, said Amy Marentic, Ford's group marketing manager."What we are finding is not as many come back to the Ford brand as we would like," Marentic said. "And when we ask them why, they say it is because of fuel economy and the refinement of the vehicle."

To increase the new Explorer's fuel economy, Ford reduced the weight by 100 pounds and improved the aerodynamics.

Also, instead of a traditional 4X4 system with heavy low-range gears, Ford is offering a terrain management system similar to a system Ford codeveloped with Land Rover several years ago.

That allowed Ford to save weight while also making it easier for drivers to switch to a variety of off-road settings.

5 m.p.g. improvement

Terrain management allows a driver to change the drive setting from normal driving to sand, mud or snow while moving. A hill descent setting controls the speed and acceleration while going down hills at low speeds. Ford is offering the system as an option with its 4X4 package for $2,000.

The changes led to results: The EPA rated the 2011 Explorer at 25 m.p.g. on the highway, or five miles per gallon better than the outgoing model and better than most of its competitors. The Explorer is rated for 17 m.p.g. in the city.

A third row of seats to make the Explorer a seven-passenger vehicle has been an option since at least 2004.

But the new Explorer will offer a standard third row of seats.

That will help Ford catch up to rival automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, Honda, Kia and Toyota that offer affordable, relatively fuel-efficient family vehicles that seat seven or eight passengers -- a popular field that includes minivans, crossovers and SUVs.

Ford has three vehicles that fit into that category. The outgoing Explorer, for which consumers must pay more for a third row; the boxy Flex crossover, which has disappointed; and the Ford Expedition, which has been in decline for years and is rated for a combined fuel economy of 16 m.p.g.

Ford also exited the minivan segment years ago.

Meanwhile, U.S. sales of the Chevrolet Traverse crossover that seats up to seven or eight, depending on the package, were up 17% through November, with 96,221 sold. And Chrysler, Honda and Toyota all have minivans with sales of between 89,000 and 105,000 through November.

By comparison, Ford has sold 50,588 Explorers, 31,948 Flexes and 32,695 Expeditions this year.



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