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MOTOR TREND.COM march 2011 41

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(first test) ford explorer

FORD IS QUICK to point out that the Explorer is the third-most-recognized nameplate in its lineup, after F-Series and Mustang. But that doesn't tell the whole story. As recently as five years ago, the Ford Explorer (as a single model—we don't consider the F-150 and F-250/3S0 the same mcdel) was the best-selling vehicle in the Ford stable In fact, it was the best-seller in the segment it created back in 1991. But when the Firestone tire debacle occurred and sales fell off a cliff, the Explorer name and brand were left to stagnate.

The rise of gas prices and crossovers, compounded by the global economic upheaval, signaled the end of the Explorer as we knew it. When Ford CEO Mulally called for a return to nameplates with name recognition .Taurus and Explorer were the first to be bandied about. Now their fates are intertwined.

7he new Explorer is built on the Taurus sedan platform, winch contributes strengths as well as weaknesses. To give the Explorer a taller ride height and better ground clearance than that of its Taurus sibling, significant changes were made to the suspension attachment points and arm lengths. The wheelbase of the new vehicle is shorter by 1.1 inch, but overall length has increased by 3.7 inches. This means approach and departure angles are not as good as before, but we're guessing customers for the new Explorer won't be exploring many serious back-country trails.

Most of the Explorer's time will be spent in civilization, and it shows. Cornering and road feel on twisty mountain roads and around town are vastly improved and more predictable than in previous body-on-frame models, because the Taurus' stiffly tuned uriibody chassis was widened more than 6 inches for Explorer duty.The new speed-sensitive electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering likely will be a benchmark fui Ihe segment, as il allows for smooth, predictable changes in direction at slow and high speeds. During our figure-eight testing, the new chassis stayed quiet and predictable, even when we tried to toss it into the corners. The computer system smooths out any unnerving weight-toss by braking an individual wheel as needed, without being too intrusive.

The base engine will be the all-new (for Explorer), all-aluminum, transverse-mounted 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with Ford's new computer-controlled intake valve timing system, rated at 290 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Clearly this engine is tuned to make top-end poweT, but it's helped by a six-speed transmission with a nice and strong 4.48:1 first gear.When launching cff the line, you feel like you have tons of torque, and because sixth i3 the only overdrive ratio (at 0.74:1), there are plenty of gear choices, making a hard pull up a long hill feel strong and confident. Al Lhe Irack, the newV-6

NEW ARRIVAL Ford's all-aluminum transverse-mounted 3.5-liter V-6 base engine is tuned for top-end power and plenty of torque. The Explorer reaches 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, faster than most of its rivals.

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