Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review: 2012 Ford Explorer 3.5 V6

Photos by Ulysses Ang
It’s Tuesday morning. By all intents and purposes, the roads should be bustling with traffic: jeepneys plying their route, cars headed to school or to work. But this Tuesday is not your ordinary Tuesday. The monsoon downpour caused heavy floods last night and today, no one can go to work. In other words, today’s going to be hell. Going in and out of Marikina is a task left to the toughened, heavy-duty vehicles and the all-new Ford Explorer.

If there were any doubts as to how this “softened” Explorer can tackle these kinds of challenges, this exercise pretty much puts them to rest. Plowing through the gutter-deep floods, the Explorer safely went through without difficulty. Slotting the six-speed automatic into manual mode and leaving the rest of its high-tech drivetrain on automatic (including the Intelligent 4WD system), the Explorer simply glided through the flood waters with no part of its undercarriage getting sloshed. Its water treading ability is almost amphibious vehicle like—something Christopher Lao simply wished he had this fateful morning.

However, the all-new Ford Explorer isn’t just your typical “tough-as-nails” SUV. It still has the rock-crawling, flood-busting capabilities of its truck-based ancestor, and yet, this one’s the most comfortable, most compliant, most fun-filled seven-seat SUV you can drive today. Simply put, if there’s an award for the most improved vehicle in history from one generation to the next, the Ford Explorer gets that merit. And this isn’t some Jeremy Clarkson hyperbole. This conclusion is reached after putting the all-new Explorer through its paces with no less than 1,680 kilometers on two continents and on varying road conditions.

 

Just a week before the freak monsoon rains, on the other side of the world, the Explorer was busy frolicking through the vineyards of Napa Valley, California. This town, a mere two-hour drive north of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco has become a staple of sorts whenever there’s an itch to jet set to the United States for a short vacation. With GPS in hand, the Explorer sets off one, clear Friday morning in search of great food, great wine and an elusive Welsh Corgi named Trixie.

Upon leaving the hotel near the San Francisco International Airport, it’s immediately clear that the Explorer is happy to be on wide, open roads. Despite a reduction in engine size, the 3.5-liter V6 fitted with twin-independent variable camshaft timing (Ti-VCT) on this range-topping Limited 4WD is perky. The 290 horsepower (294 PS) output and 346 Nm of torque make quick work of overtaking and the available power throughout the engine rev range is great. In addition, the shift to a light-weight, uni-body construction means less weight, taxing the engine less while improving acceleration and fuel economy. On the highway, the Explorer can easily top double digits in km/L figures—around 10.6 km/L in this case.

Of course, much like the rest of automotive-dom, buyers aren’t swayed by the engine alone. First and foremost, the car’s got to look good. Thankfully, the Explorer delivers on that in all caps and with an exclamation point. On the streets of Yountville, an upscale town filled with high-end eateries and cafes, the Explorer is well-received despite the multitude of other high-end vehicles. And it shouldn’t come as any surprise as the Explorer is penned by Jim Holland, the ex-Land Rover designer whose CV includes the current Range Rover and Expedition. Shunning the boxy look of the previous Explorer, the all-new model takes on a distinct, futuristic appearance. The most obvious characteristic of the Explorer is the front-end: dominated by the trademark three-bar design in the middle with perforated mesh work. Flanking it are stepped-style headlamps and at the top is a sculpted hood with a clamshell-like opening. Over at the sides, the Explorer’s roof is made to ‘float’ thanks to blacked-out pillars; while at the back, the same stepped-style tail lamps are fitted with LED clusters and decked out with a single horizontal chrome bar.

The high-tech look and feel is continued inside the Explorer’s driver-centric, car-like cabin. The bargain fit and finish is no more and in its place is something decisively upmarket with a combination of soft plastics, matte-aluminum-like trim pieces and on the Philippine spec model, beige seats and wood accents. It looks and feels cozy with the amplest of room on all three rows even for the biggest of body frames. Though high above traffic like a traditional SUV, the driving position feels very European—not that far off from say, the Ford Focus. And with full adjustments to the front seats (10-way for both driver and passenger), steering column (tilt/telescopic) and pedals (electronically adjustable), finding the perfect driving position is effortless.


 

The space-age interior of the Explorer is capped off by its integral communications and entertainment system called MyFord Touch. Touted as the next-generation of Ford Sync, MyFord Touch is a collaboration with Microsoft and simplifies (well at least, in theory) things like audio-visual entertainment (complete with 2 USB inputs, an SD card slot and RCA-type A/V input jacks), hands-free calling and even vehicle settings and health reports. All of this information is available through an 8-inch colored touch screen on the center stack and two 4.2-inch driver-configurable LCD screens on the gauge cluster. Though easy to use and intuitive, the response time of MyFord Touch is still something to be desired. There’s discernable lag in response time of up to two seconds which can be discomforting when you want to skip two consecutive tracks of Lady Gaga on your iPod.

Three pounds heavier, ten days of wining and dining and Trixie remaining elusive, it was time to face reality and head back home to Manila. With the launch of the all-new Explorer just a couple of months away (October to be exact), Ford Philippines gave a sneak peek of what’s to come. And it can be summed as: déjà vu. Waiting  at the Bonifacio High Street parking slot is a White Platinum Ford Explorer decked out almost exactly as the Ingot Silver unit which gallivanted the vineyards of Napa barely more than a week earlier (the only difference being the alloys which have a chrome-like finish here compared to the US spec’s painted ones).

At 2,004 mm in width (excluding the mirrors), the Explorer seems a bit too big for Philippine roads but after a handful of kilometers and some getting used to, it becomes second nature. Thanks to the responsive steering and chassis, the next thing you know, it can start jostling with jeepneys, buses and trucks. It’s an on-road bully with everything else staying a half meter away. Perhaps its only kryptonite is parking spaces, which always end up on the tighter side of the spectrum. Luckily, fender benders are avoidable thanks to the Explorer’s standard rear parking sensors and camera.

 

Designed now for the urban jungle rather than the mud/foliage variety, the Explorer can tackle floods and potholes with none of the float associated with large SUVs. It’s mighty comfortable and fully-loaded too with tri-zone climate control, heated/ventilated seats, a full-length moon roof among other interesting features. It almost makes the larger Expedition a frivolous purchase. ‘Almost’ because despite the surefootedness provided by the Land Rover derived Terrain Management System, the “low-profile” 255/50 R 20 tires isn’t enough for serious off-roading. You’ll probably need to invest in a second set of all-terrain rubber.

Naysayers and doubters have all expressed their opinion that the era of large SUVs has come to an end. However, the 2011 Ford Explorer simply proves them wrong. In whatever condition, wherever on the globe it may be from sunny California to flooded Marikina, the Explorer has got the chops to take on the world. It proves that Ford can continue the Explorer’s tradition of being a go-anywhere, do-anything family SUV with seating for seven while practically re-engineering the entire package this time around. If it can breeze through heaven and tackle hell, what more can you ask for? Indeed, it’s like no other vehicle on planet earth, and that’s one adjective  hard to top.

 

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