Ford Takes Explorer on High Road With ‘Nirvana’ Leather

Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer sport-utility vehicle, hauling in huge profits for a quarter century, is going upscale next year with a luxury version swathed in “Nirvana” leather.

The updated 2016 Explorer debuting in the middle of next year will feature a “platinum edition” with a Sony stereo, a 365-horsepower, twin-turbo engine and the first-ever brushed aluminum Ford logo on the steering wheel, the company said yesterday. Though Ford hasn’t set specific prices, it said the Platinum will start at more than $50,000. The highest-priced Explorer now is the Sport version, which starts at $43,100.

Once a relic of the 1990s SUV craze, the Explorer roared back four years ago after Ford rebuilt it on the mechanical foundation of the Taurus sedan, with better fuel economy and a smoother ride. Sales have increased 9 percent this year, almost twice the growth of the total U.S. market, as it sells in numbers Ford hasn’t reached in a decade. Analysts say the priciest versions generate $10,000 in gross profit per vehicle.

“The Explorer has been fundamental to Ford’s success,” Jim Farley, the automaker’s global marketing chief, told reporters at a briefing in advance of the updated SUV’s debut today at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “It has been a huge contributor to our financial results.”

Ford now is seeking to increase that contribution with the Platinum. The automaker realized it needed to aim higher when it noticed 20 percent of the buyers of the Sport edition traded in a luxury car and almost all the buyers of that version ordered it fully loaded, according to Matt Zuehlk, the marketing manager for the new platinum version.

Demanding More

“We learned from them that we’re not giving them enough,” said Moray Callum, Ford’s chief designer. “Expectations on that car are higher.”

The Platinum Explorer is taking on the Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit and GMC Arcadia Denali. The starting price of each is more than $50,000.

American car buyers are embracing SUVs again as the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. fell to $2.88 on Nov. 17, down 10 percent from a year ago, according to the AAA, the largest U.S. motoring group. Worldwide, SUV sales are up 88 percent since 2008, Farley said.

‘Hungry’ Buyers

“Ford’s revamped Explorer launches into a market hungry for SUVs,” Karl Brauer, an analyst for KBB.com, said in an e-mail. “Now it’s evolved into a modern crossover SUV, with car-like ride and handling, improved fuel efficiency and all the latest safety tech, positioning it to succeed during the SUV’s second coming.”

Moving up into luxury territory, though, might put the Platinum Explorer in competition with Ford’s Lincoln luxury line, which is attempting a turnaround with SUVs such as the compact MKC, featured in widely parodied commercials starring actor Matthew McConaughey. Next year, Lincoln will debut a redesigned MKX mid-sized SUV similar in size to the Explorer.

Both Lincoln SUVs offer models with “Venetian” leather, which it said comes from less than 1 percent of the world’s raw hides because it must meet such stringent standards for softness. Meanwhile, the Explorer Platinum’s “Nirvana” leather is “the softest leather ever offered on any Ford product,” Christopher Svensson, the Explorer’s chief engineer, told reporters yesterday.

“We see Lincoln as a different price point and a different customer,” Farley said, adding that the MKX will have two rows of seats, while the Explorer has three.

Finding Balance

The Explorer’s latest redesign is intended to balance the SUV’s toughness and its upscale aspirations, Callum said. A dome was added to the hood to suggest the powerful engine beneath it, while the skid-plate to protect the SUV’s undercarriage during off-road excursions was painted silver to match the brushed-aluminum accents on the Platinum edition.

“We’re trying to make sure it still looks capable and that it’s not getting soft in its old age,” Callum said.

Ford has sold more than 7 million Explorers since it debuted in 1990 and became a symbol of that decade’s decadence. Sales crashed when gas prices soared in the middle of the last decade, helping to drive Ford to the brink of bankruptcy. Overhauling the Explorer and other models with a focus on fuel efficiency helped the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker avoid the Chapter 11 filings that befell the predecessors of General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NA in 2009.

The 2016 Explorer will be offered with an optional 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine that will match or exceed the 28 highway miles per gallon the current model achieves with its most fuel efficient engine, Farley said.

Almost 1 in 4 models Ford sold worldwide last year was an SUV, Farley said. By 2020, Ford expects 29 percent of its global sales to be SUVs, he said.

“That’s almost a third of our sales,” Farley said. “This vehicle has become so critical for us.”

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