Remember all the doomsaying that surrounded Y2K? People at Ford Motor Company recall it too, except that in their case the 21st Century delivered all the grief that wasn't forthcoming to the rest of us. In May of 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a safety investigation into the Ford Explorer, in the very same year that Ford reported record sales of its best-selling SUV, a whopping 445,157 units. When NHTSA dug in, it found that certain Firestone tires experienced a statistically higher rate of failure when installed on Explorers. These blowouts led to an estimated 150 deaths due to crashes and rollovers.
Ford became enmeshed in countless lawsuits over the issue, and the situation became a true public relations nightmare. The reputation of the Explorer was harmed, even as Ford switched tire suppliers, redesigned the vehicle and added safety equipment like stability control. But Explorer sales lagged, and along with a general downturn in sales of large SUV's, some people still questioned whether the Explorer could be trusted.
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Wiping The Slate Clean
A decade later, Ford is in the process of introducing it's all-new 2011 Explorer. This new, seven-passenger model, due in dealerships this winter, couldn't be more different from the Explorers that preceded it.
With sales of truck-based, body-on-frame SUV's now accounting for only single-digit market share, Ford wisely made the new Explorer a unibody vehicle, akin to the crossover class that's currently the most popular thing going in auto sales. Over this new, car-based Explorer, Ford layered on safety features like phyllo dough in baklava. In other words, don't expect the new Explorer to make headlines for behaving badly.
Naturally More Resistant To Rollovers
Generally, car-based vehicles are more stable than traditional truck-based SUVs because they have lower centers of gravity. Vehicles made with unitized bodies -- as opposed to body-on-frame designs -- ride lower, making them tougher to flip over. This is certainly the case when comparing the 2010 model to the new 2011 Explorer. The new unibody model rides about two inches lower, as well as being nearly five inches wider and three inches longer. If you're looking for improved stability, lower, wider and longer is better.
The 2011 Ford Explorer. Click on the above image for more photos (Ford).
The Explorer shares some of its underbody components with the Ford Taurus and Ford Flex. Even though it is car-based, Ford engineers knew the Explorer still needed to be an SUV that's tough enough to do things like towing and driving off-road, so much of this stuff has been significantly strengthened. A spokesperson told us that the Explorer still had to pass Ford's truck durability test regimen because the company considers the vehicle an SUV and not a crossover.
Electronics Deliver More Dynamic Control
Tests of the old Explorer following the NHTSA investigation highlighted the role driver error may have played in some of the rollover incidents. Because taller SUVs are fundamentally more prone to rolling, it takes more skill to safely control one during an emergency maneuver.
Ford recognized this truth and added stability control to its SUVs in 2002 as an option, and made it standard in 2005. The system included the ability to sense and help prevent the onset of a roll over. Electronic sensors detect when the vehicle is in trouble, and then jump into action to do what is necessary to keep the vehicle under control. Engine power can be reduced while individual wheel brakes can be precisely activated to pull the SUV back in line.
The 2011 Explorer debuts a new stability-enhancing feature called Curve Control. Building on the capabilities of AdvanceTrac stability control, Curve Control can sense when a driver enters a curve too quickly and then automatically apply the brakes to slow the vehicle up to 10 mph in just one second. Ford engineers told us that this can make the difference between the driver making it around a corner -- or taking an unplanned off-road excursion that ends with a trip to the hospital.
Another new electronically enhanced safety feature is the optional collision warning system. When the optional forward-facing radar (used for the automatic cruise control) detects something in the vehicle's path, it signals a visual and audible warning. Then, anticipating the driver's next move, as the driver releases pressure on the accelerator pedal to slow down, the brakes will automatically engage to begin slowing the Explorer. This can dramatically reduce emergency stopping distances. As for how it feels in action, we'll let you know after we have an opportunity to test it ourselves.
The 2011 Ford Explorer features inflatable rear safety belts. Click on the above image for more photos (Ford).
Inflatable Rear Safety Belts
Ford also added an important new passive safety feature to the 2011 Explorer's option list: Inflatable rear safety belts. The new bag-in-belt system supplements the full complement of airbags already standard in the Explorer, including a three-row canopy bag designed to be effective in side impacts and rollover events.
The new inflatable safety belts help protect those in the second-row outboard seats. Upon impact, the rear belts incorporate airbags that help to spread the deceleration load on the occupant over a larger surface area of the body. This helps to reduce the opportunity of serious injury.
Driving Away From Distraction
There's no question that the devices drivers bring into a vehicle can distract them from what's happening on the road. Regardless, there seems to be no stopping drivers from using phones and MP3 players on the road, so Ford attacked the problem head on.
The optional MyFord Touch system attempts to make a driver's interaction with their devices less distracting. The system automatically pairs with known phones, and MP3 devices can tie into the system using a USB cable or a wireless Bluetooth link. Once the connections are set, drivers can make phone calls or cue up specific music selections using simple voice commands or by using buttons on the steering wheel.
Going beyond offering voice commands, the MyFord Touch system provides five-button controllers for those who find talking to their car silly. Navigating the simple menus on the bright LCD panel set into the instrument panel is easy. If equipped, even more details and choices are shown on the eight-inch LCD touch screen used for the navigation system.
Explaining all of the functions Ford designed into the MyFord Touch system would require its own article, but highlights include being able to receive driving directions from MapQuest and Google Maps, and tagging broadcast songs for later purchase in iTunes. (If you don't understand why this is cool, ask your teenager.)
An Expert Opinion
Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) weighed in on the Explorer, "You know, it's actually a popular misconception that the third-generation Ford Explorers [2002-2005 model years] were more prone to rollovers than other SUVs. Back during the Firestone episode we looked into that, and the four-door Explorers of that vintage were actually less likely to roll over than many other contemporary SUVs."
When asked about how the 2011 Explorer might compare to earlier models, Rader said, "Ford has been aiming high on safety. Several models, including the new Taurus, Ford Flex, and Lincoln MKT are related to the 2011 Explorer and are IIHS Top Safety Picks, our highest rating. We can't state for sure how the new Explorer will perform, but the performance of these other models should be a good indicator of how the Explorer will fare."
While the new Taurus, Flex and Lincoln MKT scored "Good" in each IIHS test, the previous-generation Explorer earned a rating of "Good" only for the front-impact collision test. In side- and rear-impact tests, it managed a rating of "Acceptable."
There's more to the 2011 Explorer than just safety. Two new powertrains prove that Ford's dramatically different approach goes more than skin deep. Ford's corporate 3.5-liter V6 is standard, and with a healthy 290 horsepower (almost as much as the 2010 Explorer with a 4.6-liter V-8), the new Explorer is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. The all-wheel-drive system's Terrain Management system promises to offer true off-road capabilities, as well.
The optional engine for the 4,400-pound Explorer is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Fortified with direct injection and a single turbocharger, this EcoBoost engine produces an impressive 237 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. That's 27 more horsepower than last year's 4.0-liter V6, and the kicker is that Ford promises it will achieve EPA numbers similar to a six-cylinder Toyota Camry. Although official EPA results are not yet available for the Explorer, the Camry gets 23 miles per gallon combined.
While comparisons to the Camry may seem ironic, given its own tarnished reputation as of late, what's clear is that the Explorer has evolved. We'll have to wait to see whether public perception of this redesigned SUV will change in turn.