When the 2011 Ford Explorer starts rolling off the production line this year, it's going to be a very different creature from the much-loved current version, with one of the biggest changes being to the way the vehicle is put together. The new model will eschew the rugged body-on-frame construction of "real" SUVs and use the more car-like unibody construction found in crossovers.
Now, at this stage in the game, the difference between the two is more a matter of perception than anything else for most people. For the vast majority of drivers today, a sturdy crossover can provide more than enough capability for their needs. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, as an example, is built with unibody construction, and it does pretty well on the ol' macho meter.
Which probably explains why the Blue Oval is making such a big deal out of the '11 Explorer's terrain management system. The basic story here is that Ford is forgoing some of the usual driveline components used in SUV four-wheel-drive setups, including a weighty transfer case, and leveraging the vehicle's engine and braking control systems to manage traction.
But what's really impressive is the way the Blue Oval is spinning its new system for avoiding wheel spin.
Ford is touting the Explorer's "terrain management" system as an efficiency booster, since its lighter weight makes for less poundage to push around, and thus better fuel economy. It's an ingenious ploy that's all the more effective because of another of the system's features.
That terrain management functionality is controlled by a console-mounted knob that allows drivers to tailor the Explorer's performance to different road conditions. But instead of calling the separate modes something like "4X4 High" and "4X4 Low" as the Blue Oval did in the past, and as some rivals still do, the Explorer gets right down to the nitty-gritty with settings for "Snow," "Mud" and "Sand," as well as a separate mode for "Hill Descent" and, of course, normal driving.
As Ford mentions, this will be less confusing for drivers and allow them to more effectively optimize the Explorer's traction. But more importantly, it also subtly reinforces the idea that the vehicle, unibody construction or no, is well at home in the snow, mud and sand. Just like a "real" SUV.
I'm still thinking that if you want a big family hauler that goes the full monty in terms of all-out SUV performance, you better get your Explorer now, rather than later. But there's no denying this nifty bit of marketing spin will be able to convince most drivers the new model is still a credible truck.
While taking nothing away from the vehicle's ability to travel 1,320 feet in a blaze of glory, Ford has been steadily evolving the Mustang since the current generation debuted in 2005. In the intervening years, the reborn muscle car has become an all-around performer that is just as capable of handling the curves as it is the quarter mile.
To further prove this point'”and start building buzz among potential European customers'”a Mustang will be raced in the 2010 FIA GT3 European championship series. That means instead of competing against the Camaro and Dodge Challenger, it will face off against cars like the Porsche 911, Audi R8, Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Ferrari 430 Scuderia and even a Lamborghini Gallardo.
The Mustang GT3 racer will get non-production upgrades like a 5.3-liter V8 capable of 560 horse and, yes, a modern transaxle, but success in this series would mean a lot for the production model, both in Europe and over here.
Not that Ford needs much help in Europe. Riding a string of 10 consecutive month-on-month sales increases there, the Blue Oval was Europe's best-selling automaker in March, while also achieving its best market share results in some 12 years.
This stuff doesn't always mean that much for the U.S. market, but it's worth pointing out that sales of the new Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta, two highly acclaimed small cars that will soon be on sale here, were responsible for a lot of the automaker's European success. In fact, the Fiesta put up the best sales month ever recorded for a Ford product in March.
And those kind of results require no marketing spin at all.