DETROIT — Soon you'll start to hear more about the 2011 Ford Explorer, the brand's most-recognized nameplate after the F-150 and Mustang. Ford hopes to restore the vehicle's luster in the eyes of fickle SUV buyers who once adored the vehicle.
The SUV's remake reflects Ford's enthusiasm for technological innovation, which seems laudable, especially when you see how much the Explorer has changed.
Ford unveiled its impressive new SUV to the media this summer in Dearborn, Mich.
It looks like a Ford truck viewed through the prism of Land Rover, as the automaker has equipped Explorers with a terrain-management system first developed for the British luxury brand. The system allows drivers to select one of four modes while driving: normal, mud, sand or snow. The vehicle then adjusts engine behavior, throttle response, transmission shifts, traction and stability control.
Despite that, the new Explorer isn't a hard-core boulder basher. While it has been designed for off-road use, the 2011 model is built on a car platform, which Ford says results in a smoother, quieter ride and improved fuel economy.
To improve its suburban credentials, the company swapped its optional engine, a gas-hungry V-8, for a fuel-sipping four-cylinder that returns the same mileage and power as a V-6-powered Toyota Camry.
SUV purists will cry foul, but Ford insists that Explorer drivers are more likely to use four-wheel drive in inclement weather than for occasional camping trips. In other words, crossing culverts may be important to buyers, but getting home safely is more so.
While car magazines make distinctions between SUVs that ride on truck platforms (ideal for off-roading) and those that ride on car platforms (ideal for commuting), Ford says most buyers don't. Thus, even though the Honda Pilot rides atop the Odyssey minivan platform, most consumers consider it an SUV.
So Ford has added safety technology such as Curve Control, which corrects understeer — or resistance to turning — in corners. Other new features are ones found on other Ford vehicles: blind-spot detection and cross-traffic alert — both of which spot cars before you do — and crash control, which alerts you if you're not braking quickly enough and takes pre-emptive action if you don't. There's even parking assist to parallel park for you.
Like other automakers, Ford is introducing new electronic features that increasingly take decisions out of drivers' hands, usually in the name of safety.
And who doesn't want to feel safer?
But with each innovation, with each byte taken out of a driver's control, we come closer to a car that drives itself. One Ford official admitted that the company has the ability to build a car that drives itself but that buyers aren't ready to accept one. So Ford is introducing features one at a time.
While I applaud safety innovation, please, leave the driving to me.
Larry Printz is automotive editor at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.