SAN DIEGO – SUVs originally were more truck than car, offering consumers a “go anywhere, carry anything” vehicle that generally came along with a rough ride and dismal fuel economy.

If that, indeed, is the definition of an SUV, the new ’11Ford Explorer does not fall within the category. What it does, however, is offer most of the benefits of a traditional SUV without the sacrifices.

Ford Motor Co. touts the Explorer as the “SUV for the 21st Century,” and its very architecture confirms it is a different beast.

Sharing a platform with the Taurus fullsize sedan, the ’11 Explorer rides and handles more like a car than a traditional body-on-frame SUV, yet boasts many of the features and attributes that endeared the SUV to so many buyers in the 1990s.

During a media event here, we drove the Explorer over a number of varying terrains, although most of our time was spent on pavement.

While the Explorer boasts a car-like ride, it inexplicably exhibits a degree of body roll around corners that is more reminiscent of the old Explorer than the Taurus.

The roll likely is due to the Explorer’s taller stance, but far less than that of a traditional SUV.

Other than that, highway and surface-road driving is effortless, as Ford intended. The cabin is quiet – a key aspect in Ford’s product plan – with road noise nearly imperceptible while at speed.

Out of the gate, the Explorer comes equipped with a 3.5L V-6 making 290 hp and 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) of torque. A 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost inline 4-cyl. will be offered as an option next year, and no early builds with the engine were available for the media drive.

Power numbers on the EcoBoost engine aren’t official, but Ford is projecting about 237 hp and 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of torque.

If the projected power output is correct, the EcoBoost I-4 may struggle to propel the Explorer’s 4,000 lbs. (1,814 kg). Ultimately, it will come down to how the turbocharged engine is tuned.

Until then, the V-6 is a worthy engine sure to satisfy most buyers. Acceleration is brisk, and power is spread evenly throughout the torque band. Reliability also should not be an issue, as the 3.5L has proven roadworthy in a slew of Ford vehicles.

On the fuel-economy front, Ford’s decision to switch to a car-based architecture pays off. With a 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) highway rating for the 4-wheel-drive model, the new Explorer boasts a 25% highway fuel-economy gain over the outgoing similarly equipped V-6 model, rated at19 mpg (12.3 L/100 km).

In the city, the ’11 model achieves 17 mpg (13.8 L/100 km) vs. 13 mpg (18.0 L/100 km) in the ’10 version.

’11 Ford Explorer
Vehicle type front-engine, front- or 4-wheel drive, 7-passenger SUV
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6 with aluminum block and heads
Power (SAE net) 290 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 55 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92.5 x 86.7
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 112.6 ins. (286.0 cm)
Overall length 197.1 ins. (500.6 cm)
Overall width 90.2 ins. (229.1 cm)
Overall height 71.0 ins. (180.3 cm)
Curb weight 4,695 lbs. (4WD)
Base price $28,995
Fuel economy 17/25 mpg (14-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse
Pros Cons
Decent fuel economy Too much body roll
Well-crafted interior Styling subdued
Off-road capability No EcoBoost at launch

The Explorer comes standard with front-wheel drive, but 4WD models were available during a brief off-road jaunt here.

Off-road the Explorer is more than capable of traversing the worst terrains owners typically will face. During our test drive, we navigated tight wooded trails, a small water hole and a couple of steep grades, all without trouble.

The new terrain-management system makes it easy to dial up the best setting for whatever the conditions. These include normal, mud, sand and snow.

The front independent and rear multi-link suspension setup handled the different terrains fairly well, but there were times while driving over deep ruts that a stiffer configuration would have been welcome.

As Ford says, the Explorer is best-suited for light off-roading, noting 85% of Explorer owners never take their vehicle off pavement, and just 2% do it once a month or more. So the new model’s capabilities should satisfy the vast majority.

Vehicles such as the new Explorer further blur the line between cross/utility vehicles and SUVs. It is no longer the case that CUVs are defined as car-based utility vehicles and SUV as truck-based.

To clearly define the differences, Ward’s recently reworked its segmentation criteria. Under the new guidelines, SUVs must have off-road capabilities as a “strong characteristic,” whether they employ body-on-frame or unibody construction.

They also must offer standard or optional low-speed transfer-case gearing or an all-terrain management system and have at least 7.5 ins. (19 cm) of ground clearance.

In 4WD configuration, the Explorer’s terrain-management system and 8.2 ins. (21 cm) of ground clearance meets this criteria.

What strikes us most about the SUV is the quality of the interior.

Ranger Rover-esque may best describe the nicely laid out cabin, with topnotch materials throughout, evoking the feel of a more-expensive vehicle. Gaps between panels are minimal and materials, especially the leather, are luxurious.

A second-row bench seat comes standard, with captain’s chairs optional. We prefer the look of the captain-chair setup, which provides more space and easier access to the third row.

But for some, the less-expensive bench makes more sense, allowing one more child (or small adult) to squeeze in. As for the third row, it’s best suited for children.

MyFord Touch, a do-it-all infotainment system, has taken some flak by the media of late for being overly complicated, defeating the very purpose it was designed for – to cut down on distractions.

The perplexing system drove Consumer Reports to remove the Explorer and Ford Edge CUV from its coveted “recommended buy” status.

But during our test drive, albeit limited, we find the system quite handy once you become familiar with its many functions. Think of it as an Apple iPhone for your car; its vivid display and intuitive controls enhance the driving experience but may put off traditionalists who prefer dials and knobs over a touchscreen.

We especially like the Eco-Route feature, which instantly calculates the most fuel-efficient route for the driver.

The exterior of the Explorer is pleasing to the eye, with a wide stance and slightly rounded sheet metal. Ford succeeded in distinguishing the ’11 model from its predecessors. Side-by-side, the ’10 and ’11 models look nothing alike, with the newer version sporting much more CUV-like sheetmetal.

But it’s unclear how the new Explorer will fit into Ford’s lineup. While handsome, the exterior looks similar to that of the Edge, which may confuse some consumers.

Ford says the key differentiator will be the Explorer’s seating for seven. The Edge only accommodates five.

The market ultimately will determine if there is indeed an overlap, or if there really are two distinct buyers for the Edge and Explorer. Ford offers no volume projections, saying only that the new Explorer likely will surpass ’10 model-year sales, which were 60,687, according to Ward’s data.

Pricing between the outgoing model and the ’11 version is nearly indistinguishable, with the new Explorer starting at $28,995.

Overall, the ’11 Explorer is a modern interpretation of a classic SUV, which likely will appeal to most.

But part of us longs for the truck-like ride of a traditional SUV. As fuel-economy demands render such vehicles obsolete, body-on-frame models are a dying breed, and “21st Century” vehicles such as the ’11 Explorer are just one more nail in the coffin.

bpope@wardsauto.com