What a difference a year makes. Just take a look at a 2010 Ford Explorer parked next to a totally redesigned 2011 model.
The one to the left is dingy, broken-down, a half-rusted tailpipe sticking out. Body panels don't align and the sad faux- wood plastic on the dash is peeling off. This example is a rental, but still. Tragic.
On the right is the newly invigorated Explorer, sheathed in curving metal and black glass. Wider, curvier, sophisticated. The digital controls on the interior look as if they could operate the space shuttle.
Only a year separates the two but in terms of appearance and workmanship they might as well have been made in different decades. Hot and not.
The original 1991 Explorer launched the SUV craze in America, becoming a sales juggernaut through the early 2000s. But by the fourth generation in 2006, the lack of design love was glaringly obvious. Nobody cared, least of all Ford.
Full stop. My 2011 Limited AWD test model starts at $37,995 ($43,060 as tested), and every detail has been obsessed over. (The base begins at $28,995.) From the classy, restrained front grill, painted the same color as the body, to the shiny five- spoke rims, it's completely re-envisioned.
While the back window on the 2010 model had naked, exterior-mounted hinges on the glass ("Whatever," one imagines a previous engineer muttering), now we get a one-piece lift-gate that opens automatically, triggered by the key fob. A rear roof spoiler adds to the sleekness.
East Coast Suburbanite
The changes aren't merely cosmetic. The body-on-frame construction favored by pickup trucks has been dropped for a unibody frame shared by the Taurus sedan and Edge crossover.
Rootin', tootin', Wild-West options like rear-wheel-drive and a V-8 engine have been jettisoned. The Explorer has gone East Coast suburban with standard front-wheel-drive and a V-6. Gas mileage is 17 city, 25 highway — 20 percent better than the outgoing model.
All-wheel-drive is a $2,000 option, but even then torque bias is directed up front unless it senses wheel slippage. Soon the Explorer will be offered with a four-cylinder, 237-hp EcoBoost engine with improved mileage (and a higher sticker price).
Despite its cowboy image, the Explorer was never a hard- core off-road machine. But with three rows of seats fitting up to seven, it's clear this version is primarily a family mover.
It even drives like a soccer-team mobile — albeit a grossly oversize one. Wondrously wide, it fills the lane like an overstuffed sausage.
Take it along narrow mountain roads, as I did and you'll find it founders in fast turns like a listing ship. Point it up steep slopes and the motor's skimpy 255 pound-feet of torque labor against both gravity and its own 4,500 pounds. Not quite up to the job.
Once you breach the crest and start rolling down the other side, all that weight similarly works against you, slinging you downward. Fortunately the brakes are very good, with a linear feel and toothsome stopping power.
I drove it in the snow, the big 20-inch tires crunching through an icy crust. The Explorer no longer has a two-speed transfer case (a hallmark of a true-blue 4X4 off-roader). Wheel spin is controlled electronically and you can dial in traction modes for snow and mud. After a few dozen slippery feet I thought better of it, and reversed slowly out.
Family vehicle, I reminded myself, and for that it is quite likable. Seating is comfortable all around and it's certifiably snazzy inside. Entertainment and navigation systems are linked by the available MyFord Touch system, delivering a full-on digital, interactive experience. Information is spread across two separate screens.
If you're not sure how comfortable you are with the latest technology, a few minutes with the Explorer will put you into one camp or the other, inspiring adoration or fits.
You can pick which gauges you want to see, for example, choosing to view the tachometer and temperature or banish them.
I spent a bit of time playing with the voice activation, which is so integrated into this system that it will allow you to choose a specific satellite radio station or turn off the A/C. No need to take your eyes off the road.
Annoyingly, every time you trigger the voice button on the wheel, there's a pause and then an automated voice instructs you to speak your command. The moment in-between can seem like an eternity.
You can also call up the weather forecast or find nearby movie theaters. It'll even list the films and their show times. You could perform that with your smart phone, too, of course, but somehow it just seems cooler to have your car do it for you.
The 2011 Ford Explorer Limited AWD at a Glance
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 in about 8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 17 city; 23 highway.
Price as tested: $43,060.
Best features: Attention to detail, good looks, comfy seating.
Worst features: Lots of body roll, a bit too wide.
Target buyer: The family that likes to imagine climbing mountains, but won't.