Ford begins a marketing campaign Monday for the 2011 Ford Explorer, which will be in dealerships this winter. It's an important vehicle for the automaker. Ford 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 on a car platform, not a truck one, so it sits lower to the ground and has a smoother, more fuel-efficient ride.
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. People are much more thoughtful about their consumption, and the new Explorer is in line with that," he said.
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 terrain management 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.
Pipas said it's unlikely the new Explorer will ever reach the sales heights of the old version. In 2000, its peak sales year, Ford sold 445,157 Explorers. By last year, sales had slipped to 52,190. That's partly because there are more options in the market - Ford now makes the seven-passenger Flex, for example, that competes with the Explorer - and because of changing trends.
But Erich Merkle, president of consulting company Autoconomy.com, said Ford could easily double its current sales.
There's at least one built-in fan base: Current Explorer owners. Because the Explorer was such a big seller, with 4 million of the 6 million sold still on the road, Ford sees 140,000 Explorer customers returning to its showrooms each year, Farley said.