Re-inventing the Ford Explorer

  • 26-Aug-2010 05:41 EDT
2011 Ford Explorer.jpg

Instead of an auto showing unveiling, the all-new 2011 Explorer made its public debut via Facebook followed by reveal events throughout the U.S. and Canada on July 26.

New engines, more extensive use of lightweight metals, and a patented shift-on-the-fly terrain management system highlight the next-generation Ford Explorer as the former frame-based SUV re-emerges for 2011 as a unibody crossover SUV.

Derrick Kuzak, Group Vice President of Global Product Development for Ford, said the reinvented Explorer still "can go where the pavement doesn't" but with better fuel economy.

Replacing the 2010 Explorer's 4.0-L V6 and 4.6-L V8, which produced 210 hp (157 kW) at 5100 rpm and 254 lb·ft (344 N·m) at 3700 rpm and 292 hp (218 kW) at 5700 rpm and 315 lb·ft (427 N·m) at 4000 rpm, respectively, are a 3.5-L V6 and a 2.0-L EcoBoost inline four.

The standard V6 with twin independent variable camshaft timing (Ti-VCT) will provide an estimated 290 hp (216 kW) at 6500 rpm and 255 lb·ft (346 N·m) at 4000 rpm. The turbocharger, intercooled, and direct injected four-cylinder with Ti-VCT will produce an estimated 237 hp (177 kW) at 5500 rpm and 250 lb·ft (339 N·m) between 1750-4000 rpm. Both engines mate to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Although Ford officials did not release mpg estimates at a July Explorer press event, Kuzak said fuel economy numbers are expected to be best-in-class, with the V6 projected to increase fuel economy by more than 20% and the I4 by more than 30%.

Explorer's new terrain-management system adapts responses of the engine, transmission, AWD, traction, and yaw control systems to particular driving conditions. Settings for sand, snow, mud/ruts, and normal modes are selected by turning a dial on the center console. Pushing the dial's center button activates hill-descent control. According to Don Ufford, Chief Engineer of Vehicle Engineering at Ford, "The intelligent 4WD system eliminated the need for a two-speed transfer case."

Nearly half of the fifth-generation Explorer's body shell is made of high strength steels (HSSs). For instance, the A-pillar outer reinforcement as well as the B-pillar outer reinforcement is stamped boron, and the front bumper is boron.

According to Andy Sarkisian, Ford Safety Planning Manager, "By using HSS, including the hydroformed steel that's used for the front frame rail, we're able to achieve crash performance characteristics without having to up-gauge, which would add weight to the vehicle."

Other than the body shell, lightweight metals are used for the hood (aluminum) and the third-row seat frame (magnesium). Compared to its predecessor, the 112.6-in (2860-mm) wheelbase vehicle is about 100 lb (45 kg) lighter.

Two safety features debut on the Explorer. Curve control technology activates when excessive vehicle speed is sensed as the Explorer enters a curve. The system automatically reduces engine torque and engages the four-wheel braking system. Rear inflatable seat belts, featured last year on AEI Online (, also premieres.

The midsize Explorer gets the automaker's first North American application of a variable-displacement air-conditioning compressor. On the V6 application, the compressor is controlled internally, while the I4's compressor uses external control, according to Frank Fusco, Chief Functional Engineer for Climate Control at Ford.

Denso designed the base compressor and collaborated with Ford engineers on vehicle integration. According to Chris Rainey, Manager of Compressor Engineering, Thermal Group at Denso International America, "The compressor (on the V6) is powered by the engine accessory drive belt, same as the current Explorer, and has an internal valve that adjusts the compressor displacement to match the a/c cooling load requirements and improve fuel efficiency."

In contrast, the externally controlled I4 application "allows the vehicle to 'tell' the compressor how hard to work. This gives Ford engineers much more control of overall power management for fuel economy and a/c control. The external controlled compressor does require significant software and electronics improvements/additions compared to traditional compressors," noted Rainey.

Next-generation Sync technology relies on a vastly improved voice interface, enabling the driver to control climate, navigation, and audio systems as well as a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone with greater word-choice flexibility than the previous system.

According to Brian Radloff, Director of Embedded Solutions Architects at Nuance Communications, "Our first-generation voice interface handled about 100 commands, but Nuance's second-generation software recognizes about 10,000 voice commands. It's not so much about added functionality as it is about saying the same things differently. For instance, if you want a cooler interior, you can say 'make it colder' or you can say 'set temperature at max.' It's no longer necessary to say a command one particular way."

The voice-recognition system also adds Nuance's dynamic speaker adaptation algorithms to improve the interpretation of voice commands.

Said Jennifer Brace, Ford user-interface engineer, "Within as few as three voice commands, the system will start to learn your speech pattern, so it becomes easier for (the system) to recognize what you say."

The 2011 Explorer will be assembled at Ford's Chicago manufacturing facility. Production is slated to begin later in 2010.

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