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A 1990S ICON IS REDEFINED

New York Times

When sport utility vehicles ruled America's roads in the 1990s, the Ford Explorer was king, rolling off dealer lots by the hundreds of thousands every year. - But in the era of higher gas prices and eco-consciousness, the Explorer has flopped. During last year's cash-for-clunkers program, more Explorers were tossed in the scrap heap than any other model, by far.

With sales a small fraction of those in the glory days, Ford seriously considered burying the Explorer. Instead, the Explorer is getting a second life in 2011 as a more fuel-efficient crossover. Ford is betting that shoppers will be more willing to check out its new and revamped models than a few years ago, even an Explorer that Ford intends to market as a sport utility vehicle.

It is a move with some risk, auto analysts say. First, reviving nameplates that have greatly faded is a difficult task in the auto industry, where bad memories are often long-lasting.

Second, pouring resources into the Explorer breaks with Ford's much-heralded strategy of focusing on vehicles with global scale and appeal, and finally, the jury is out on whether even North Americans are ready to re-embrace the SUV in significant numbers.

Ford intends to market the Explorer heavily around its fuel-economy ratings, something it never did before, both because the numbers were so low and because few buyers cared. In the past, Explorers had an average rating of about 15 miles per gallon. Though Ford is being tight-lipped about the specifics of the 2011 model, the most efficient version is expected to get about 28 mpg in highway driving, the best in its segment.

"The fuel economy itself will be a message," Ford's head of marketing, James D. Farley, said.

Nothing on the market today is as popular as the Explorer was in the heart of its 10-year run as the nation's bestselling SUV; sales peaked at nearly 450,000 in 1998. Only 52,190 were sold last year.

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