With California's Death Valley conveniently located on the same continent as Dearborn, Michigan, why on earth would Ford ship engineers and the all-new 2011 Explorer all the way to the United Arab Emirates to conduct hot-weather and off-road testing? Especially on a crossover, a vehicle few people will ever drive off-road?
The value of this 14,000-mile round trip became abundantly clear as I stepped out of the civilized, air-conditioned comfort of my shuttle vehicle, an F-150 SVT Raptor.
The air in Dubai hits you like an atomic hair dryer. Unlike the heat in Death Valley, there's some serious humidity hanging in the atmosphere due to the UAE's proximity to the Gulf of Oman. Our day in the desert saw temperatures of 48° Celsius (118° Fahrenheit) with humidity in the range of 40-60 percent. That's not a dry heat. Using a standard heat index calculator with a 50-percent humidity factor, the equivalent temperature showed 191° Fahrenheit.
Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL
In cooler months, the area Ford chose to roast its engineers is used by locals for picnics and an off-road activity called dune surfing. Drivers traverse the sandy slopes at high rates of speed, tempting fate and the distinct possibility of rolling over. Given the general conservative nature of Dubai's ruling clan, the locals have found some interesting ways to cut loose.
The 2011 Explorer I came to ride in was perched upon the ridge of a sand dune. The truck would have looked rather regal were it not for the black duct tape crisscrossing its body panels. Apparently there's not an Arabic equivalent for Brenda Priddy, because only a camel shepherd would have been thrown off by this amateurish camo job.
Its interior looked equally odd. Sets of guy-wires stretched laterally across the first and second row of seats. Tiny curlicues of wires – temperature sensing thermo couples – branched off the support wire. The sensors fed data into a laptop mounted in the second row. It looked like some Rube Goldberg contraption meant to electrocute ill-behaved passengers.
Chief engineer on the project, Don Ufford, told Autoblog, "Those sensors measure the temperature of the air at eye level, around your H-point and at the floor. We need to make sure we've got good coverage in each zone. This kind of heat and humidity makes it really tough to hit our targets, and we've had to make some upgrades to our system in order to make sure the system works in this worst case scenario."
This would certainly be that.
Ufford later noted that most cooling upgrades identified in Dubai would make it into U.S. vehicles, giving Stateside drivers the benefit of extra capacity developed for the Middle East market. This region of the world historically buys about 10,000 Explorers per year, making it one of the USA's most-exported vehicles. But the A/C isn't the only thing the team is checking out here.
If you've followed the introduction of the 2011 Explorer, Ford is headlining it as an SUV, not a crossover. Of course, they're not saying it's not a crossover, which it is. Ford freely admits that the Explorer is related to the 2010 Ford Taurus. If you ask enough questions, they'll tell you what's been upgraded over and above the Taurus and other D-platform cousins, the Flex, Lincoln MKS and MKT.
The upgrade list is substantial.
Changes were made to improve chassis strength, especially regarding lateral suspension loads. Off-roading exerts more severe side-loading on a chassis than on-road driving, so upgraded components include the front and rear sub-frames, bushings, lower control arms, steering knuckles, jounce bumpers and steering gear. To help meet Ford's internal standards for towing performance (the Explorer is rated to tow 5,000 pounds), the brakes are also larger than the base Taurus.
The Explorer's optional all-wheel-drive system is similar to, but significantly upgraded from what lurks under a Taurus with all-wheel drive. An independent cooling circuit was added to the Power Take Off (PTO), the component that sends power to the rear axle (see above, right). In off-road conditions, the Explorer's PTO must be able to transmit lots of torque rearward for extended periods of time. The heat generated by this could easily damage the unit, so the integrated cooler keeps the PTO working in a safe temperature window during heavy-duty use.
As we were blasting through the desert on tires deflated to 15 psi, Ford's Ufford would repeatedly ask one of his engineers riding in the second row to monitor the PTO's temp, as well as the condition of the rear axle's clutch assembly. Located just ahead of the rear differential, the clutch manages the torque split to the rear axle. While the rear differential is an open unit, individual brake application makes the entire assembly work as if the unit is a limited-slip differential.
Even after a particularly rough run through deep sand, the Explorer's PTO temperatures remained comfortably within a safe zone, attesting to the functionality of the new cooling unit. This is quite a feat given the frying pan temperatures and the power-sapping characteristics of the UAE's desert sand.
What's more important than the list of upgrades are the capabilities they endow. Riding shotgun while Ufford navigated the dunes and something that approximated a track through the wasteland, the 2011 Explorer showed it had the goods to deliver. While there were some serious obstacles that used up the crossover's suspension travel, new jounce bumpers controlled the energy so there were no unpleasant metal-to-metal/suspension-to-chassis collisions. Also, compared to some rough-and-tumble off-roaders, the ride remained well-controlled and exhibited very little head toss, that body movement that wants to send your head flying off your shoulders.
The 2011 Explorer is not intended to go head-to-head off-road with the new Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is good, because without a two-speed transfer case, it couldn't. This deficiency and the Explorer's comparatively modest approach and departure angles relegate the new crossover to relatively light off-road duty, but it most certainly can go where many other crossovers can't.
For example, if a Chevrolet Traverse or Toyota Highlander attempted to follow a 2011 Explorer out on to the UAE's sand dunes, their calibrated-for-the-street electronic stability control would likely cut engine torque when the driver needed it to power out of deep sand. Additionally, all of the power flowing to the rear axle would quickly overheat their PTOs, causing their drivetrains to operate in front-wheel drive only. Maybe they could get a tow back to civilization from a camel, as there are plenty around.
The Explorer's AWD system with Terrain Management handled the sand surprisingly well. In dedicated Sand mode (there are also modes for snow and mud, as well as normal pavement), it provided quick throttle response and held the vehicle in lower gears longer. Unlike some AWD systems, Ford's remains operational at all speeds.
Showing the development team's thorough knowledge of off-roading, in Sand mode, the system also modulated the response of the engine when the driver lifts off the throttle, with power cutting gradually to help the Explorer maintain its momentum to stay on top of the sand. The Sand mode also allowed for much more vehicle yaw, making the ride really entertaining, because the vehicle can be tossed through corners. Ufford noted that the Expy's anti-roll control is always keeping an eye on things, so if the situation got truly hairy, Ford's Advance Trac would have stepped in to lower velocities and prevent a rollover.
During a couple hours of off-roading, the Sand mode never seemed to impede the Explorer's progress. As shown in the accompanying gallery, the crossover tackled some truly tough stuff. One particularly rough incident dislodged the right-front inner fender liner and wheel well molding. This happened before my eyes, and it was interesting to see the Ford team develop theories about why it happened and how a production fix might be engineered.
The in-the-field fix was to free the busted pieces with a utility knife. The plastic bits rode back to Ford's metro-Dubai garage in the Explorer's cargo hold.
Our position for that same ride was in the front passenger seat. From this vantage point, we could tell a few more things about the 2011 Explorer. Even missing a wheel well liner, this beat up prototype was surprisingly quiet on paved surfaces. Even over the numerous speed bumps and rumble strips that seem as plentiful on UAE roads as grains of sand, there were no untoward squeaks or rattles. The ride was also composed. Granted, the roads were arrow-straight, the speeds relatively low, and the pavement generally smooth, so these initial impressions are admittedly limited. We'll bring you a thorough driving evaluation as soon as we get the chance to actually drive one for ourselves.
Back at Ford's garage, AB asked Ufford about what they learned during the weeks of testing in Dubai. He noted that at this point in the vehicle's development, the cooling enhancements developed during the UAE test will likely come Stateside. The jury is still out about whether to offer the light-duty skid plate fitted to the vehicle shot for this gallery – it might become part of a package available to U.S. customers and it might not.
Hmmm, a crossover that offers an optional skid plate...
In the end, the 2011 Explorer is not a traditional SUV. But, based on our initial experience in Dubai, it seems to offer enough SUV-like capabilities to keep 99-percent of its target buyers happy. Anyone who needs more can buy a Raptor or cross their fingers that there might be a new Ranger-based Bronco in Ford's future.
Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL