Ford explorer

might be surprised at its size. The designers used some clever visual tricks to make this model look smaller than the 2010 edition, while retaining that traditional Explorer look. The low, chop-top look of the new model disguises a two-inch reduction in overall height. Likewise, the aggressively canted, body-color C-pillar hides a four-inch increase in overall length while still recalling the look of past Explorers. Finally, the wraparound headlights and taillights help to disguise a six-inch increase in width. The interior sees a similar refresh.

Benchmarking the interiors of the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 was a bold step for Ford to take, but it has paid off in the attractiveness and logic of the

Explorer's cabin. The touch-capacitive HVAC controls replace the traditional buttons and knobs, while the eight-inch nav screen neatly incorporates the audio controls. The steering wheel is just the right size and thickness, and we were particularly impressed with the comfortable but supportive seats. After roughly four hours of total seat time, we had little in the way of complaint.

This is a seven-passenger vehicle, which means we were compelled to cram ourselves in the back to see how much space was actually on offer. The only real issue was getting into and out of the third row. The second row seats were reluctant to flip up, which gave us an entry

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and exit space similar to what is found on a Lotus Elise. Although we made it, the third row is still suited mainly for kids.

While the cabin is nice to look at, we did have a few small complaints. Some of the plastics, notably around the center stack and console, feel a bit on the cheap side, and overall fit didn't seem quite as snug as it should have been. Of course, these are things we noticed thanks to Ford's comparisons with BMW and Audi. Comparing the cabin against its primary competitors

(Toyota 4Runner, Chevrolet Traverse, and Jeep Grand Cherokee/Dodge Durango), the Explorer comes off looking pretty good. Looks aren't everything, though, so Ford went to work in the powertrain department.

Gone are the 4.0-liter V-6

ford explorer and 4.6-liter V-8, having been replaced by a standard 3.5-liter V-6. The new 3.5 generates 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, which is a considerable improvement on the old 4.0-liter's 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. It does

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lose out a bit to the V-8 though, which boasts 292 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. This loss of power should be tolerable based on savings at the pump; the new 3.5-liter gets 17 miles per gallon in the city, and in front-wheel-drive trim will

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hit 25 mpg on the highway (4x4

models get 23 mpg on the highway), compared to the 14- and 19-mpg ratings on the old V-8. If you want more economy, a 2.0-liter EcoBoost will be available in mid-2011.

A big contributor to those

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