2011 North American Truck of the Year – Ford Explorers

Updated: January 24, 2011

North American Truck

The Ford Explorer is the 2011 North American Truck of the Year.

Presented at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit January 10, 2011, this award is considered the most prestigious product in the auto industry because the journalists are completely independent of one another, working as freelancers or staff writers representing dozens of competing media outlets in the U.S. and Canada. New Car Test Drive is proud to be among them.

A jury of 49 automotive journalists awarded the North American Truck of the Year title through a series of votes for vehicles that were new or substantially changed for the 2011 model year. When it came down to the three finalists, the Explorer won by a wide margin. The Explorer garnered 253 points, leaving the Jeep Grand Cherokee with 138 points, and the Dodge Durango 99. Each of the 49 jurors cast 10 points, and they can be divided up.

All-new for 2011, the Ford Explorer is built on a unit-body platform, like that of a car. Available with a new 3.5-liter V6 or a new, fuel-efficient Ecoboost four-cylinder engine, the 2011 Explorer delivers excellent fuel economy for its class. The V6 is expected to achieve an EPA rating of 17/25 mpg City/Highway (though the federal agency hadn’t released the official numbers when this was written). A big cargo capacity and roomy back seats make the Explorer an excellent choice among midsize SUVs.

North American Car of the Year jurors showered the Explorer with accolades (see below), and we agree with them.

We were impressed with Explorer’s handsomely designed cabin and the quality of the interior. Underway, the new Explorer feels smooth and refined, and it’s quiet. In short, it’s very pleasant and everything seems to work well. All three rows of seats are roomy and comfortable. The biggest complaint we could muster was the heaviness of the doors, which qualifies as nitpicking. We think Ford deserves full credit for the fine job it did in designing the new Explorer.

However, we confess we voted for the Dodge Durango. Only one in five of the jurors agreed with us. So how did we wind up out there on the range, all alone with crickets and night sounds?

We voted for the Durango because we think it’s the best truck among the candidates that were up for the award. The key word here is truck. Here’s what we said when we cast our final vote for the Durango:

“The Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Dodge Durango are each worthy of the 2011 North American Truck of the Year title. Each is an impressive SUV. Each delivers the practicality we expect, but each surprised us with its quality cabins and smooth, responsive power trains. Each is an excellent choice for running people around and hauling stuff. Yet each excels at different needs, and that’s even more good news for the discerning consumer.

“The Explorer is the most efficient as a daily driver. The Grand Cherokee is the most capable in rugged terrain. The Durango is the best for towing. Towing a trailer calls for the power and stability of a truck, and many people need to tow trailers, so that’s what captured my vote as North American Truck of the Year. The Durango provides the needed power with its available 5.7-liter V8 and the all-important stability with its long wheelbase. A 2011 Durango is rated to tow up to 7,400 pounds.”

New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses praised the new Explorer up and down in our review, something he does not do routinely. But he also said this: “The 2011 Explorer is a looker. It truly looks 100 percent reinvented, Ford’s motto for the car. And it is a car; we can stop saying truck for almost every SUV now, and maybe even stop saying crossover, because they’ve just about all crossed over.”

In other words, the Explorer is a car, not a truck.

Don’t get us wrong. We have nothing against cars and we are not suggesting crossovers are bad. Quite the contrary: We think crossovers, those vehicles that are a cross between a sport-utility vehicle and a car, are the perfect solution for drivers who want a fuel-efficient vehicle capable of hauling the family with SUV-style room for cargo. Many drivers also appreciate the elevated seating position found in many crossovers. We’ll go so far as to say most people should own crossovers rather than trucks. It’s a good thing the country is moving away from the notion that trucks are a good choice for moving passengers around. Crossover SUVs are lighter and more fuel-efficient than trucks. Crossovers are a good thing.

But what about the truck buyer?

Trucks were invented to haul and tow things, and trucks are still needed for this. When you need a truck, a car will not do. The reverse is not true, however. A truck can do most of what a car can do, though perhaps not as well. So a truck is an impressively versatile vehicle. Take a crosscountry trip and you’ll see thousands of pickups and SUVs pulling trailers of all types. Set out across the Great Plains and there they are, strung out over the horizon: travel trailers, pop-up campers, boat trailers, car trailers, horse trailers, toy haulers packed with ATVs, dirt bikes and dune buggies, utility trailers stuffed with lawnmowers and other equipment. We’re a nation of trailers, and we need trucks to pull them. Keep your Explorer, where’s my Super Duty?

Here at New Car Test Drive we appreciate the amazing capabilities, incredible utility, and continuing innovation of trucks.

So we stand shoulder to shoulder with our mighty Durango, chin out, ready to hitch our wagon and hit the open road. We think the Durango is the best truck because it’s the best choice for towing trailers. It’s the best truck. And it’s in the game with the others in all the car measurements. Like the Explorer, the 2011 Durango benefits from a new unit-body chassis and an attractive new cabin lined with quality materials and fabrics.

For driving off road, we think the Grand Cherokee is the best choice among the finalists. We enjoy driving over rugged roads and appreciate the access off-road capability can provide to the places we love and the durability needed to tackle these challenges on a regular basis. So the Grand Cherokee is our runner up.

We think the Explorer is the best car, the best crossover, the best vehicle for everyday shuttling of people and cargo, which is what most people need and want. In a car.

As Rosanne Rosannadanna would say, it just goes to show you: What’s best for one person isn’t best for another. That’s why there are so many choices today. That’s why there are so many best-car lists. Explorer, Durango and Grand Cherokee are each winning products, depending on your needs. But the real winner here is the consumer, who benefits from the competition and the many choices we have today. In the end, you have to decide what’s best for you.

Here’s what North American Car of the Year jurors said after voting for the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer:

“Among the latest utility vehicles, the 2011 Explorer delivers a new standard in interior quietness, no matter the road (or off-road) surface,” wrote Lindsay Brooke, Automotive Engineering International.

“The perfect modern utility vehicle should offer car-like ride and handling, plenty of interior space, solid off-road capabilities and the latest in safety technology,” explained Karl Brauer from Edmunds.com. “Ford’s new Explorer offers all of the above, and in an attractive package both inside and out. The Explorer sets a new benchmark in safety features and will appeal to families looking for performance, comfort and fuel efficiency.”

John Gilbert, NewCarPicks.com, said, “The complete redesign for 2011 could boost the Ford Explorer back to its pinnacle of popularity, with new unibody design, and a potent new V6 or the coming EcoBoost 4 to enhance all of Ford’s latest technical connectivity, providing performance and useful features sure to be appreciated by occupants in all three rows of seats.”

“Responding to the crossover craze, Ford developed the latest Explorer off its fine Taurus platform, replaced the V8 with a muscular, yet fuel-sipping V6, and slipped in a turbocharged Ecoboost I4 option that delivers punch plus economy,” wrote Ken Gross, who writes for Playboy. “Dial-able all-wheel-drive settings, beaucoup electronic features and a very pleasing restyle should retain Explorer loyalists and attract new buyers.”

The three vehicles up for the truck award represented a “very strong field,” noted James Healey, USA Today’s Test Drive columnist. “Any of the finalists would be a credible champ, but Explorer seems to have the best overall blend of features and feel.”

“The new Ford Explorer redefines a market segment it largely defined in the first place,” wrote Jim Kenzie for the Toronto Star.

“Finally, the mea culpa for the charges that Explorer, like your pet dog, had a tendency to rollover unexpectedly on its own,” wrote Jim Mateja for The Chicago Tribune. “The complete package: room, comfort, performance, amenities, safety and technology.”

“Ford’s Explorer manages to make a radical shift in all the basics of this iconic nameplate without eliminating its original identity,” wrote veteran automotive journalist Dan McCosh. “The reincarnated SUV shifts from body-on-frame to unibody and sub frame, and from rear- to front-drive. These changes mean vastly improved ride and handling, combined with superior traction and control in moderately severe driving conditions. They also mean more room and slightly less weight. The new driveline takes these stop by improving fuel economy by more than 25 percent. If what once was the basic SUV is going to carry on in the future, the new Explorer is likely to lead the way.”

“The all-new Ford Explorer stands head and shoulders above the other two finalists for its combination of style, electronic feature content, and fuel mileage improvement over its predecessor,” wrote Jim McCraw, veteran freelance journalist and a contributor to New Car Test Drive.

“Now that it’s a crossover, I’m a Ford Explorer fan,” wrote Jayne O’Donnell, longtime automotive reporter for USA Today and other publications. “It’s nimble, quick and roomy. All the benefits of a utility vehicle without the truck-like downsides.”

“Ford reinvented America’s best-selling SUV for the 21st century,” Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press, noted. “The 2011 Explorer offers class-leading fuel economy and technology and features you can’t get in luxury crossovers that cost twice as much.”

Alex Taylor for Fortune Magazine wrote, “The 2011 Ford Explorer is nothing less than a revelation in dynamics, refinement, and efficiency. The ride is the best controlled and most compliant in its class, the entire vehicle, has been tuned and optimized to the nth degree, and fuel economy has been significantly improved. Mid-size SUVs don’t lead the sales charts these days but the Explorer could make a run for it.”

“Taking the Explorer out of the body-on-frame category and building it on the crossover platform probably made some Ford people nervous,” wrote Paul Weissler for Motor, a trade publication. “But although I wouldn’t do rock-climbing or severe off-roading with the Explorer, I certainly found the Terrain Management System (standard with AWD) a real convenience, as the Explorer cruised easily on some pretty rough trails and in sand, and also handled surprisingly well on twisty secondary roads. The V8 is gone, but the 3.5 V6 is more than enough performance for the crossover platform, and the 25-mpg fuel economy is an important plus (with the forthcoming 2.0 Ecoboost to improve even that number). If there’s an area in which Ford really excels, it’s with interiors, not just good looks, but those airbag rear seat belts (to go with being an IIHS safety pick), and of course, the SYNC system now comes with a touch screen.”

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