The Explorer relaxes at the frosty Hôtel de Glace just outside Quebec City.
To shamelessly rip off a famous cliché, that’s basically how I felt on a recent, mid-February press trip to Quebec City courtesy of Ford of Canada. The one-day event (with two days of travelling) was to promote the 2011 Ford Explorer, the family-oriented people-hauler with “lifestyle” pretension aimed squarely at Albertans.
Even though I’m the editor of one of the foremost car blogs based in all of downtown Edmonton, it was still a bit of a shock to be invited to something meant for real auto journalists. Just to be clear, I am no auto journalist. This is my hobby, my pastime, my passion. That anyone listens to me at all is a minor miracle. That auto manufacturers are slowly taking notice frankly defies explanation.
So, what follows is an account of my first, but hopefully not last, press trip.
The white Explorer meets some full-size competition in front of the opulent Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.
I hardly came from humble beginnings, having travelled to some 30 different countries in my meager 24 years of existence, but even I was taken aback by the unbridled lavishness of the whole press trip. I don’t think unmarried, 35 year-old dentists travel this well. Actually, they probably do. I stayed at two different Fairmont Hotels, was driven from the airport in a chauffeured Town Car, had dinner at the Hôtel de Glace, sipped drinks from tumblers made of ice, ate meals that only a foodie could fully appreciate, and was generally treated like a prince. All, presumably, so that I would be assuredly smitten with the latest Ford.
Bonus points for attention to detail.
Throughout the trip, I couldn’t understand why The Blue Oval was going to all this trouble to promote a vehicle as competent and well rounded as the Explorer. Surely, my Albertan readers, with their love of all that is truck, should love this unibody brute. A vehicle with this level of research, development, technology, and safety should speak for itself, I thought.
For starters, the vehicle rode surprisingly well, even on the Limited’s 20” rims and Continental winter tires, with the suspension proving both acquiescent and pliable. This compliance didn’t compromise off-road capability, though, primarily because all 4×4 Explorers come standard with the same Terrain Management system that Land Rover uses, including a spiffy Hill Descent Control feature. A splendidly simple control knob that tucks in under the driver’s right hand is used to control these multi-surface technologies.
The other systems and features in the interior were more of a mixed bag. The quality of the plastics on the dash and armrests, as well as the general fit-and-finish of the Explorer, put it comfortably in Acura and Lexus territory, if not BMW and the benchmark Audi. For a “domestic” manufacturer, that’s flat-out spectacular.
The seating position in the Explorer left me amazed that anything so big could feel so resolutely car-like. Were it not for the 2 rows of seats behind me, and my inability to see the edges of the Explorer’s strapping frame, I might’ve never guessed that I was sitting in a full-fat crossover. One thing that I didn’t have to guess was the comfort of the driver’s seat. It wasn’t 20 minutes before I was shuffling about like a father waiting to see his newborn son for the first time. The seat attacked my lower back with a fervor rarely seen outside of Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, or Tunisia. While my 6’1”, 190 lb dimensions aren’t what I would call average, my much shorter, much older, and heavier set co-driver experienced the same lower back attack.
The MyTouch entertainment/climate control system played a central role in my interaction with the Explorer. Overall, I found the system to be formidable in its scope and customization, so much so that it was bafflingly, yet understandably, complex. There was just no way to avoid it. Ford took a few gambles with the system in an effort to reduce button clutter on the dash, such as integrating the seat heaters, volume adjustment controls, and navigation on the MyTouch system. Where other manufacturers leave some of the driver controls to physical buttons, Ford stacked it all in MyTouch like 5-layered bean dip. Given time, MyTouch became more comfortable and its layout became familiar. I’m just concerned that 40-60 year-olds, the target market, won’t be quite as patient and accepting of anything so technologically advanced.
Speaking of technologies, the Explorer’s safety arsenal was so extensive that it made me question Volvo’s place in the market. With everything from Curve Control, which reduces understeer on highway off-ramps, to AdvanceTrac, which prevents you from dying, it seemed as if every safety gizmo available on a new Volvo was also available on the new Explorer. The Explorer also has the added advantage of reliability and much better residual values.
The downside of all these technologies is that too many of them rely on the brakes. After ripping up an 8km stretch of widened ski-doo path through the closely set Charlevoix forests, the brakes were cooked to medium-well; their distinctive smell overpowered the sweet tire à sucre that awaited us at the top of the track. To be sure, we tested the Explorer under extreme conditions, but no more extreme than the marketing for the vehicle. If buyers are truly going to use the Explorer to tow boats and off-road through a forest (and if they aren’t, why not buy a Flex?), they need to be confident that the Trailer Sway Control and Terrain Management System aren’t going to rob them of the brakes when they need them most. To be sure, even at medium-well, the brakes were still capable of bringing the Explorer to a stop, they just took a little more effort and required more distance to do so.
The biggest concern I have is that, while the Explorer is visually well differentiated from the Flex and targeted at an important market segment, it didn’t feel all that different from that boxy breadvan that Ford already has in its line-up. I have no doubt that my fellow Albertans will gladly open their wallets for this vehicle, but they would do so for anything with the “Explorer” badge on it, and miss the very capable Flex in the process. The Flex is not only the most comfortable vehicle in Ford’s line-up, even according to Ford’s own marketing people, but it’s also available with the 3.5L twin-turbo EcoBoost engine – perfect for the enthusiast who didn’t use a condom. And then had quadruplets. This having been said, the late-availability 2.0L EcoBoost promises to make a strong fuel-efficiency argument for the Explorer, but I would be surprised if that engine stayed exclusive to the Explorer for long.
In the end, the Explorer made Volvo look bad and its own Flex look good. Whether or not that was the point of my Quebecois experience, ou c’était juste pour pratiquer mon français, I don’t know. What I do know is that despite being a small fish, Ford indulged me into feeling like a big one.