DEARBORN, MI – A downsized engine that delivers improved fuel economy is just what midsize utility-vehicle shoppers are looking for, Ford dealers say.

Ford Motor Co.’s redesigned-for-’11 Ford Explorer will feature an optional 2.0L I-4 with the auto maker’s trademark EcoBoost technology, which combines turbocharging with direct injection.

Against a backdrop of steadily rising gasoline prices, the engine – which comes later in the vehicle’s launch phase, and only with 2-wheel drive – promises a fuel-economy boost of up to 30% over the ’10 Explorer’s 4.0L V-6.

This translates to city/highway performance of about 19/25 mpg (12.4-9.4 L/100 km). Ford has not released iTs actual rating estimate.

Explorer owners have been “disappointed” in the SUV’s fuel economy, prompting some to shop elsewhere, says Bill Chope, president of Crest Ford in Flat Rock, MI. But with the arrival of the new vehicle, which is based on Ford’s D-segment car platform, he hopes to turn the tables.

“We expect a 35%-40% conquest rate with this vehicle,” Chope tells Ward’s at the Explorer’s unveiling, adding he expects the new Explorer will deliver “above-average” profit margins.

Seating is another selling point. Like the outgoing model, the ’11 Explorer will feature seating for seven, an important consideration for buyers who are turned off by current cross/utility vehicles with the same capability.

The Ford Flex CUV offers room for seven, but its boxy styling is “polarizing,” says a dealer who requests anonymity.

Through June, sales of the trendy Flex trailed like-2009 by 9.8%, according to Ward’s data.

Further, some consumers shy away from CUVs because those vehicles have assumed a stigma long associated with minivans, says Nicole Ernst, general manager of Friendly Ford in Monroe, MI.

“CUVs have kind of become the ‘mom car,’” Ernst says, adding vehicle such as the Flex and 5-seat Ford Edge “just don’t have enough truck-like appeal.”

Off-road capability and tow ratings are what sets the Explorer apart. While ’11 models equipped with the base-model’s 290-hp 3.5L Ti-VCT V-6 engine feature an adjustable terrain-response system, the vehicle’s towing performance suffers because Ford no longer offers a V-8.

The ’11 Explorer’s maximum rating 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg), compares with the ’10 model’s 7,115 lbs. (3,227 kg).

The tow rating for an ’11 Explorer outfitted with the 2.0L I-4, which still outguns the ’10 SUV’s V-6 on the horsepower front, 235 to 210, is 2,000-lb. (907-kg).

Still, Explorer owners historically have shunned the fullsize Ford Expedition, which represents a sizable leap. “Some people don’t want to step up that big, so (the Explorer) will be a big hit for us,” says Walt Oben, owner of Southgate Ford in Southgate, MI.

Ernst expects the new vehicles will “fly off the lot.”

The ’11 Explorer also marks a significant shift in marketing strategy. Rather than launch the vehicle using traditional methods, such as an auto show unveiling, Ford is using social-media outlets such as Facebook to generate buzz.

The social-media approach, like Ford used with its Fiesta B-car, works with today’s customers, says Charles Ashdown, dealer principal of Kings Ford in Cincinnati.

In “the old days,” families influenced brand allegiance, he says. “Nowadays, people are looking for what their peers have experienced.”

For this reason, dealers must change with the times. “For those that like the old way, it doesn’t work as well,” Ashdown warns.

bpope@wardsauto.com