2012 Ford Explorer changes direction

Ford’s popular big SUV makes the transition to CUV – and does it very well

Published: July 11, 2011, 9:00 PM
Updated: July 2, 2018, 1:11 PM

2011 Ford Explorer

Bigger and better, that is the story of the new 2012 Ford Explorer. Ford has listened to the hundreds-of-thousands of Explorer customers and given their favorite Ford a serious makeover.

Now based on a unitized-body car architecture instead of that of a body-on-frame truck, it has a much more civil demeanor on the road but thanks to modern electronics, gives up little when venturing off road.

The new Explorer is also a lot larger than the old, slotting in between it and the Expedition in the Ford SUV lineup. Actually Ford would like us to refer to it as a CUV, a crossover utility vehicle, because of its car-based dynamics and default front-drive system.

Based on the same platform used for the Taurus and Flex, the new Explorer offers three rows of seats. There is ample room in the third row for adults travelling short distances, while smaller folks could almost get comfortable back there for longer hauls. The optional electric folding third row is pretty slick

The interior, las in all Fords of late is first-class. The instrument panel is ultra-modern and a showcase of current technology. Not only the colours but the instrument display can be changed depending on desired function. Materials, fit and finish are all excepional at this price point.

The Explorer showcases Ford’s new MyTouch infotainment system, which it says is easier and more intuitive to use as well as offering more features. Activated by voice or touch it controls the audio, climate control and navigation systems. Secondary controls mounted on the steering wheel make it possible to control most functions without taking your hands off the wheel.

The Explorer also benefits from engineering development during the period the company owned Land Rover and Volvo. The electronic all-wheel-drive control system has a rotary knob on the center console. With four predetermined positions the intelligent terrain management system" eliminates the bulky and heavy transfer case, yet allows similar capability by controlling a number of engine, transmission, AWD, ESC and ABS parameters to best effect.

You can select from mud/rut, snow/gravel/grass, sand and normal. There is also hill descent position.

Ford is staking out a leadership position in terms of safety and the Explorer features one of the most significant new developments since ABS; inflatable rear seat belts. The winner of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's (AJAC) Technology of the Year award for 2011, this optional feature is comprised of a tubular airbag inside the chest portion of the belt system of outboard second row seats. This distributes the tremendous forces of a crash over a much greater area, expecially beneficial to smaller occupants.

While making the new Explorer larger, Ford also took away the V-8 engine option. This may seem like backward thinking but it is actually a step forward. The new all-aluminum 3.5-litre V-6 produces 290 hp, more than either of the V-6 and V-8 engines used previously. It also allows the big SUV to get far better fuel economy than its smaller and heavier predecessor, 25% better than the V-8, which is very important as the company struggles to meet very tough new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards before 2016.

But don't for a moment think of this as a lightweight. It mass still tops 2300 kg (more than 5,000 lb), so moving that amount of weight, even with 290 hp, is a chore. Ford says a properly-equipped 2012 Explorer can tow up to 2300 kg ( 5,000 lb) but that would only seem palatable to me on flat roads.

Thankfully the new engine is paired with a new six-speed automatic, which ensures the engine doesn't stray far from its peak power-producing rev range. Transport Canada says you can expect 11.9 litres/100 km in the city and 8.0 on the highway. I say don't. Over a 350-km test mixed but mostly highway test route I averaged 9.8.

That same weight places a premium on chassis and suspension tuning. You need big beefy springs and shocks to keep things in control and all this weight sitting so far off the road has a decided tendency to lean in the corners. Part of the wide array of electronics on the vehicle is Curve Control, a system that applies the brakes to a single wheel and reduces engine power if the driver enters a turn too fast.

Other areas where electronics come into play are Hill Start assist and Trailer Sway Control. The suspension engineers did a good job of controlling that mass but don’t be looking for Explorers on a race track anytime soon.

The Explorer is also available with a cruise control system that maintains a set distance from the vehicle ahead and another feature that can parallel park the vehicle unaided.

The Explorer comes in three trim levels, base, XLT and Limited over a price range that spans the $30,000 - $50,000 range.