- Associated Press - Monday, July 26, 2010

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — The Ford Explorer, the hulking family-hauler that helped launch the SUV boom in the early 1990s, is back. And it hopes to define a new generation of more streamlined, fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles.

Ford begins a marketing campaign Monday for the 2011 Ford Explorer, which will be in dealerships this winter. The automaker promises a utility vehicle with seating for seven that has similar fuel economy to a Toyota Camry sedan. Pricing hasn’t been announced.

It’s an important vehicle for Ford, who says the Explorer is its best-known product after the Mustang.

“Explorer is really still the backbone of the brand,” Ford’s marketing chief Jim Farley said recently at a gathering to introduce the Explorer to the media.

The new Explorer has been completely redesigned. The most obvious difference: It’s built a car platform, not a truck one, so it sits lower to the ground and has a smoother, more fuel-efficient ride. The new Explorer shares a platform with the Taurus X sedan.

Ford is taking a risk with customers who expect a truck-like SUV. The new Explorer will have less towing capacity than the outgoing model — 5,000 pounds, versus 7,115 pounds — and it won’t offer a V-8 engine.

Ford’s challenge is to match the idea of the Explorer to this product,” said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “It’s a good test for Ford to determine what an SUV is these days.”

Trends in the market suggest most buyers aren’t looking for the power of traditional SUVs and would prefer a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas said that a decade ago, 85 percent of all SUVs sold were truck-based; last year, just 23 percent were.

Pipas said there is also a trend away from the McMansions and big vehicles of the 1990s, when people measured their wealth by home and car size.

“It’s a different world,” he said. “People are much more thoughtful about their consumption, and the new Explorer is in line with that.”

The new Explorer has a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, which has the power of a V-6 — 237 horsepower — with better fuel economy. The government hasn’t issued fuel economy ratings, but Derrick Kuzak, head of global product development at Ford, said the engine would be similar to a 2010 Toyota Camry sedan with a V-6 engine. That Camry gets 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.

The Explorer also has a 3.7-liter V-6 that gets 290 horsepower — the same as the current V-8 — and 20 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing V-6.

The Explorer has some new safety features, including inflatable seat belts in the back seat that help protect occupants’ heads and chests in a crash. A curve control system helps keep the car on track when the driver goes too fast into a tight curve. And its MyFordTouch dashboard system allows drivers to change the temperature, make calls and hear text messages using voice commands.

Ford said the new Explorer is also a capable off-roader, with a system that lets drivers switch the SUV to various modes, whether they’re driving on sand, snow, rutted roads or downhill. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was also redone for a more car-like ride, has a similar system.

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