Thursday, December 5, 2013
By SCOTT WASSER
When someone wonders what the differences are between a plasma and an LCD television, I can tell them.
Ford has a winner on its hands with the fifth-generation Explorer, the first built on a car-like chassis rather than a truck-like frame. The changes make the Explorer more refined, but Ford retained enough ruggedness to satisfy most prospective buyers.
The all-new Explorer is one of the most comfortable, refined and best-handling vehicles in its class.
NUTS AND BOLTS
WHAT IS IT? Explorer Limited 4WD, the redesigned, refined and reinvented version of Ford's popular midsize SUV.
WHAT'S IT COST? $28,995 for the least expensive, front-wheel drive Base model. XLT 4WD starts at $33,295. A Limited 4WD like the one tested starts at $39,190. Options and destination fee hiked its MSRP to $45,970.
WHAT I LIKED BEST: Ford not only reinvented the wheel, it reinvented the entire SUV.
WHAT I LIKED LEAST: Finding MyFord Touch electronics system so frustrating.
WHO'S IT FOR? Midsize SUV buyers who want best-in-breed performance and styling.
IMPORTANT NUMBERS: 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6 with variable valve timing produces 290 hp, 286 lb-ft torque. 6-speed auto. 112.6-inch wheelbase. 4,731-lb curb weight. 17 city/23 highway mpg (EPA). 5,000-lb max. towing. 21/43.8/80.7 cubic ft cargo space behind third/second/first-row seats.
If you're having trouble figuring out how to connect your surround-sound speaker system and where to place the components, just ask me.
And if you're trying to find the best bang for the buck in a new computer, I can help you make the right decision.
Yet I spent a week driving and testing a new Ford Explorer and still have no clue about the best way to choose a station on the satellite radio or play a particular track on my iPhone.
Despite being a freelance technology writer for over 20 years and spending nearly three years as a full-time editor of a couple of national consumer electronics magazines, I turned into a techno-moron whenever I tried to control the Explorer's MyFord Touch audio system.
Based on glowing reviews of the system by my colleagues, it's my fault, not Ford's. Most other reviewers love the system, which can be controlled by voice, touchscreen or buttons.
But I found it unintuitive and cumbersome to perform even routine tasks. And when I did figure out how to do something, the system response seemed slow.
Maybe I'd get the hang of it and appreciate the system's impressive capabilities as much as my colleagues if I were smarter. Or owned an Explorer and used MyFord Touch on a regular basis.
The Explorer would be right near the top of my list if I were shopping for a midsize SUV/crossover because it is one of the very best available. It's so good, in fact, that I began this column griping about the MyFord Touch system because it's literally the only complaint I have about the vehicle.
Ford completely rethought and redesigned the Explorer for the 2011 model year. At one time, the Explorer was the king of SUVs and almost everybody wanted one. It was one of America's top-selling vehicles for years, with nearly half a million sold every year for the better part of a decade.
But that Explorer, which debuted in 1990, was a different vehicle for a time when gasoline was comparatively cheap. It used body-on-frame construction, like a truck. Americans were willing to put up with truck-like ride, handling and fuel economy in exchange for the roomy ruggedness and versatility of an SUV.
No more. In today's pricier and more practical America, vehicle buyers realized they didn't need transportation that could rule the Rubicon if the farthest they got off-road was a gravel driveway. And what is the point of an 8,000-pound towing capacity if you've never pulled anything in your life other than the little red wagon you got for your 4th birthday?
So we entered the age of crossovers -- essentially station wagons that look like SUVs. And folks stopped buying the body-on-frame Explorer. Sales barely topped 50,000 in 2009, a horrible year in general for the entire auto industry, and climbed only a few thousand as the industry started to rebound in 2010.
Meanwhile, Ford was creating an all-new Explorer that had little in common with its predecessors other than sharing the name. Introduced as a 2011 model, the new Explorer is built on a robust but car-like unitized-body platform.
The result is one of the most comfortable, refined and best-handling vehicles in its class. Hours on the interstate in the Explorer were a pleasure. Road, wind and mechanical noises are beautifully muted even at 75 mph. The ride is sedan-like.
Handling is comparably admirable. On good stretches of interstate, the Explorer tracks effortlessly while providing the driver a reassuring sense of control. On rougher stretches, it soaks up the road rubbish with aplomb.
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