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Ford gets it right with revamped car-based SUV

Ford insists the 2011 Explorer is an SUV (sport-utility vehicle), not an SAV (sport-activity vehicle), not a crossover wagon and not a station wagon, either.

But the revamped Explorer is car-based, with roots found in the Ford Taurus. So this latest Explorer is a car with a truck-ish body on top. What you will not find underneath is a truck-like body-on-frame construction and forget about towing a house; the Explorer's maximum tow rating is 2,268 kg, about the same as a comparably equipped Chevrolet Traverse or Honda Pilot.

I've done a bit of towing in my time and if you plan to yank around something heavier than 2,268 kg, you a) really need to know what you're doing and b) you want a really big rig for the tow vehicle. Ford says 2,268 kg is enough for 99 per cent of its customers and I'm sure that's true.

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In short, the 2011 Explorer is big enough for most, with seating for seven, though the third row is a tight fit and best used for in-a-pinch transportation of small folk. Overall, I'd argue Ford will surprise you if you think this Explorer is just an updated version of the last one - the one that traced its underpinnings to an old pickup truck with an awkward ride and clumsy handling.

That is exactly the opposite of what Ford has delivered here. Big as it is, the new Explorer drives small. It's modern in every way, from the design to the road manners to all the technology on board. There is even a very 21st-century EcoBoost four-cylinder engine on the way - with direct fuel injection and turbocharging that together promise 25 to 30 per cent better fuel economy than the equivalent V-6 of before.

In the meantime, though, the biggest engine in the Explorer is a high-tech 3.5-litre V-6 (290 hp and 255 lb-ft). Those numbers indicate an Explorer today has about twice the horsepower of the original 1991 Explorer with its 4.0-litre V-6 (155 hp).

Fuel economy for the V-6 Explorer Limited with all-wheel-drive (12.5 litres/100 city, 8.8 highway) is better than the less-powerful Traverse AWD and the top-of-the-line Pilot Touring, too. Not a lot better, but better. If you want super fuel economy, wait for the EcoBoost Explorer.

Most important of all, the Explorer feels exactly like a car - a tall car - when you're on the road. The independent suspension soaks up bad pavement, glides along smooth highways and handles corners better than you'd ever expect. The V-6 provides excellent acceleration and the electric-power assisted steering feels well-weighted in your hands. This very quiet Explorer is a pleasure to drive.

The few of you who venture off-road may have some concerns, however. This Explorer does not possess traditional four-wheel-drive with a locking rear differential. You won't find the other bits and pieces required by rock crawlers, either.

Yet ground clearance is right there with all the other SUV of this ilk. And Ford equips the Explorer with hill descent programming (to maintain a slow speed down a steep incline) and there is a Terrain Management System available that is nearly identical to Land Rover's Terrain Response system: select the type of terrain - sand or snow or pavement - and a computer brain adjusts wheel spin, throttle inputs and other factors.

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Ford also has Curve Control, which monitors the Explorer in fast sharp corners. It works by using the antilock brakes and throttle control to keep the Explorer between the lines. That's active safety. On the passive side, the Explorer's crash test performances have earned it a Top Safety Pick from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Heck, the Explorer even offers inflatable second-row seatbelts designed to help displace weight against a bigger surface during an smash-up.

Those belts are part of a cabin with creature comforts that include good seats, plenty of storage bins and well-conceived controls and instruments. The new My FordTouch system does take some practice, but before long even technophobes should be able to use this infotainment, navigation and everything system.

My FordTouch does have critics, though, including the testers at Consumer Reports. The touch-sensitive controls look cool but like an iPhone they lack the tactile feedback of a Blackberry. Those who don't use voice commands will be required to look down at a touch screen to perform simple adjustments to the climate system and such, rather than perform them by feel. Yes, a potential driver distraction issue.

If you do go the voice-activated way, merely push a button and speak one of 10,000 voice commands such as "Find an address" or "Destination street address." Then you just say the address as you would in normal conversation.

One big takeaway with the Explorer is the idea of how committed Ford is to gadgets. From Bluetooth connectivity to a zoom feature on the back-up camera (it helps with connecting a trailer to the hitch), the Explorer is Ford's big vision of technology brought to life. Ford believes buyers want this stuff and are willing to pay for it.

Perhaps. What's indisputable is how good overall the 2011 Explorer is as a 21st-century SUV.

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Tech specs

2011 Ford Explorer Limited V-6 AWD

Type: Mid-size SUV

Price: $44,199 ($1,450 freight)

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 290 hp/255 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Automatic full-time four-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.5 city/8.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Hyundai Veracruz, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Volkswagen Touareg

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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