DEARBORN, MI – Despite the promise of greater refinement, the new-for-’11 Ford Explorer will not threaten sales of its cross/utility-vehicle cousins, says Ford Motor Co.’s top North American executive.

Critics have suggested the 7-seat Explorer, which migrates from a body-on-frame architecture to the Ford Taurus sedan’s D-segment car platform, will steal sales from the Ford Edge and Flex. And those critics are wrong, says Mark Fields, president-The Americas.

“We’ve done a lot of research on the customers,” Fields tells Ward’s at a recent media event here. “The Edge is a CUV with 5 seats, and people are looking for stylish design on that.

“Flex customers want more of a people mover; they want to be able to haul the family around with the right technology,” he adds. “Explorer is for families that have a sense of adventure, they want to have the option of going off-road.”

After months of teasing consumers with partial photos on Facebook, Ford today officially takes the wraps off the new model, claiming it will redefine the utility-vehicle segment.

The SUV’s off-road capability will go a long way in differentiating it from its CUV stable mates, Ford insists. Complementing a driver-activated terrain-response system is a platform that is 3 ins. (7.6 cm) wider and significantly stronger, the auto maker says.

Additionally, the Explorer’s towing capability will approach that of a conventional body-on-frame SUV.

When the Explorer launches later this year, precise timing remains under wraps, it will feature a 3.5L Ti-VCT V-6 engine that produces 290 hp and peak torque of 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm). Equipped with the V-6, Ford claims a tow rating of 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg).

Sometime later, the auto maker will offer a 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged I-4 delivering a projected 237 hp and peak torque of 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm).

The I-4 will afford a 2,000-lb. (907-kg) tow rating, while also providing a 30% fuel-economy boost over the current Explorer, Ford says.

“When we took a look at sizing, what we wanted to do was make sure we offered fantastic fuel economy and still deliver the performance that was required,” Don Ufford, chief engineer-Ford truck engineering, says of the I-4.

“When we decided on the displacement sizing, it was the right size to get good launch when you’re in the naturally aspirated portion of the torque curve. And it’s also the right size combined with the turbocharger sizing to have good road load capability and grade ability. So when you tip in on a grade you have good responsiveness.”

Explorer production moves from Ford’s assembly site in Louisville, KY, now being retooled for an unnamed C-segment vehicle, to the auto maker’s plant in Chicago, home to the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS fullsize sedans.

To accommodate Explorer output, the auto maker plans to add a second shift of about 1,200 new workers at Chicago. The site has been operating at a mere 22.7% of its 290,000-unit capacity, according to Ward’s data.

If Explorer production adds another 50,000-60,000 units to Chicago’s output, the plant’s capacity utilization would approach 60%.

Ford has yet to reveal volume expectations for the Explorer, the U.S. market’s best-selling Middle Sport Utility almost every year since its 1990 debut, according to Ward’s data. The Chevrolet Trailblazer took the crown in 2005.

Through June, sales of the current-generation body-on-frame Explorer were tracking 30.9% ahead of like-2009.

The SUV’s best year was 2000, when Ford delivered 445,157 units. Ironically, 2000 also was the Explorer’s must tumultuous year, when it was implicated in nearly 300 rollover fatalities linked to Firestone tire failure.

But Ford research shows the incident largely has been forgotten by consumers, says Ken Czubay, Ford vice president-sales and marketing. “Firestone is not an issue.”

Jim Farley, group vice president of global marketing, says the Explorer’s name recognition, which stands at about 96%, will help drive sales.

“The good news is, I don’t have to do a lot of explaining; everyone knows about Explorer,” he says. “The issue is how do I myth-bust about what they think Explorer is and what it’s become?”

bpope@wardsauto.com