2011 Ford Explorer gets domesticated

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Rule number one in any industry is "adapt or die." That's why Ford Motor Co. is making some once-unthinkable changes to its next-generation version of the Ford Explorer SUV.

Ford is changing the original adventure-loving rugged off-roader to make it more in tune with the way people have always actually used it -- as a grocery getter -- instead of the way owners imagine they might use it: to scale craggy peaks.

Ford engineer Jim Holland with 2011 Ford Explorer. This is as much as Ford has shown of the new SUV, which debuts this summer.

"When we were working on the program we asked our current Explorer owners, 'Do you guys need the ability to go off road' and 100% said 'Absolutely, yes," said a Jay Ward, a Ford spokesman. "When we asked them, 'How often do you go off road?' 70% said 'Never."

So, the new Explorer will retain enough capability to cover what most buyers imagine when they think of going "off-road," which generally doesn't involve crawling up steep inclines or going over fallen rocks. It will be perfectly at home on a rutted trail through the forest, however.

At the same time, it will be easier on fuel and nicer to drive around town.

Not that long ago, the Explorer was the most popular passenger vehicle of any kind in America. Between 1995 and 2002 Ford sold an average of 412,000 of them a year, said Ford sales analyst George Pipas.

That was during the height of America's SUV craze when truck-based SUVs constituted most of what was available. They also suited Americans' tastes at a time when gasoline was cheap and people craved status and adventure.

Then more fuel-efficient, softer riding crossover SUVs, vehicles with car-like rather than truck-like engineering, gained popularity. Thus started a rapid slide in the sales of traditional truck-based SUVs and, perhaps most notably, the Explorer. Ford sold only 52,000 Explorers last year and 78,400 in 2008.

Having gotten the undeniable message, Ford is making the next Explorer a car-based crossover SUV. It will share its engineering with the Ford Taurus sedan.

The Taurus's engineering seems to be quite versatile. It also underpins the Lincoln MkS sedan and the Ford Flex and Lincoln MkT crossovers. That's part of the attraction of the car-based design, Pipas said. Ford can spread its engineering investment out over more different vehicles.

Part of the challenge in designing the new Explorer was meeting owners genuine needs while still enabling the fantasies that make them want an Explorer in the first place.

The new Explorer will ride higher off the ground than the Flex and it will have a dial that can call up various suspension and all-wheel-drive settings for snow, sand and mud. It's similar to a system used on vehicles sold by Land Rover, the British SUV maker that was owned, until recently, by Ford.

The lead engineer on the new Explorer, Jim Holland, was also a chief engineer at Land Rover where he helped develop the Terrain Response system, as it's called.

The new Explorer will be offered with at least two engines, a turbocharged 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine and a non-turbocharged V6. It's not clear, yet, if the more powerful EcoBoost V6 ending will be offered. All versions of the Explorer will have a six-speed automatic transmissions.

The new Explorer is expected to hit the market this summer as a 2011 model, Ward said.

For now, Ford is being unusually secretive about the new Explorer. With only a couple of months to go before it's launch, Ford has released only a "teaser" image in which the front corner of the SUV is visible in a portrait of Holland.

Ordinarily, a vehicle like this would have been unveiled months ago at one of the major auto shows but, Ward said, with the Internet allowing cars to be unveiled everywhere in the world at once, Ford felt there was no need to reveal the 2011 Explorer early. That would only have harmed sales of the current model To top of page

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