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Pushing the new Ford Explorer out of the SUV closet

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Posted: 9 am ET

The upcoming 2011 Ford Explorer, far from being the traditional SUV it appears to be, is actually leading a double life. It's public face is a flagship American SUV, posturing about off-roading, mountain biking and kayaking in ads. But truth be told, it would rather be driving sedately down a nice suburban road somewhere, loaded up with a few adults and kids and a few bags of groceries. Not getting the hint? Ok, here it is: The 2011 Ford Explorer is a secret station wagon!

The Ford Explorer hides behind some trees.

The Ford Explorer hides behind some trees. Courtesy: Ford.

Yes, the Ford Explorer has officially been outed. While its predecessors were built body-on-frame style like pickup trucks, the 2011 Explorer will be built on the Ford Taurus car platform. You may call it a crossover, but I'm not entirely convinced by that term. Is it based on a car platform? Does it have a large cargo compartment ending in a hatchback?  Yep, sounds like a station wagon to me. Sure, automakers may add a little extra sheet metal and make the driving position higher to try and pass it off as an SUV, but at it's heart it's more Woody than Willys.

To me the Ford Explorer embracing its inner family hauler is a good thing. Why should American drivers be dragging around a heavy, mileage-destroying truck frame with them just to go to the grocery store or commute to work? Why should they have to put up with the increased risk of flipping on the highway? How many times in a typical Ford Explorer's life will it be asked to tow 7,000 pounds? It's time for us to stop pretending we want a rugged 4x4 and start admitting we want the better efficiency,  practicality, on-road performance and  handling a station wagon offers.

The SUV phenomenon was always more about marketing than reality anyway. Car buyers who grew up in station wagons didn't want to drive their father's or their mother's car, so they bought SUVs instead. Unfortunately, SUVs are way better at things we'd like to imagine ourselves doing -- hauling a big boat for a fishing trip, off-roading with our buddies, camping in the Pacific Northwest -- than they are at performing the duties people actually need their autos for -- commuting, hauling people and stuff in comfort and safety, and merging onto the highway. So automakers have been trying to slowly nudge Americans back to the cars that actually meet their needs without exposing them to the psychological damage that would result if they looked around and noticed they were (horror of horrors) driving an automobile similar to what their parents owned.

The Ford Explorer is the result of this process -- an SUV facade built on a car platform -- and I for one, couldn't be happier about it.

What do you think? Would you be less likely to buy an Explorer now that you know it's not a true SUV?

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June 16, 2010 at 9:16 am

Some great insights that everyone always knew during the SUV craze, but still didn't change people's buying habits. But whatever your environmental or economic ilk, there's always going to be a niche for vehicles that can do things and go places that what amounts to a refashioned 1980 AMC Eagle cannot. It makes sense for Ford to go in the direction they're going, and as a shareholder I am glad they are doing it, but I am also glad they offer crew cabs on their trucks so you can haul both people and junk. For what it's worth, you should write a similar article about the marketing vs. reality for diesel engines and truck buyers.