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New Ford Explorer has bolder look, more engine choices

Ford plans a Platinum version of the Explorer that will push the price north of $50,000

Ford Motor Co. unveiled a restyled version of its standby Explorer sport-utility vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, offering consumers more engine choices and a more luxurious trim level.

With the updates to the current model, introduced four years ago, Ford hopes to keep pace with stiffer competition from Jeep's Grand Cherokee, the Honda Pilot and expected new entrants into the mid-sized SUV market from Volkswagen, Chrysler and General Motors.

The restyled Explorer will go on sale next summer.

Ford has crafted a new front end for the SUV, making it look bolder and squared compared with the current softer, rounded look. It also gave the rear liftgate a more sculpted and geometric design. The exhaust pipe tip is integrated into the bumper. Ford also is offering new wheel designs at each trim level. The roof and the doors remain the same.

The automaker will retire the anemic four-cylinder engine offered with the least expensive, two-wheel-drive version of the current Explorer. In its place comes the same 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that has seen success in the new Ford Mustang and the Lincoln MKC crossover.

Ford estimates the engine will produce 285 horsepower and 300-pound-feet of torque in the Explorer, though the figures are not finalized. Ford said it would provide good fuel economy and enough power for the all-wheel-drive version of the SUV and some towing capacity. It will be mated to the same six-speed transmission that comes in the current vehicle.

"This is opening up the Explorer to customers who would have never considered a four-cylinder engine before," said Craig Patterson, Ford's utility marketing manager.

Ford also plans to offer a Platinum version of the model. That will be the top trim level and will push the price north of $50,000.

Ford is on track to sell more than 200,000 Explorers this year, the best showing for the SUV since 2005. It is the bestselling midsized SUV in the U.S.

The Explorer, now in its fifth generation, has done well despite the current version marking a dramatic departure from earlier models. The Explorer is no longer a boxy, old-school sport-utility based on a pickup truck but rather a modern crossover with sleeker, curvy styling.

That was a change that worried Ford, Patterson said, but consumers took to the new design.

The old Explorer altered the car market. It came with many of the creature comforts of a sedan — including designer themes such as the Eddie Bauer edition — and interior space rivaling a minivan. Despite a safety scare involving Firestone tires on the vehicles, it turned into a sales behemoth and spawned the SUV revolution.

Explorer sales peaked in 2000 at 445,157 vehicles and accounted for 13.1% of Ford sales. Although the current model came with the risk that Ford would offend its traditional customer base — a generation raised on big pickup trucks and SUVs — it has outsold the previous generation.

Although no longer a pillar of the Ford lineup — the smaller Escape SUV outsells the Explorer by a wide margin — the Explorer occupies an important slot in Ford's lineup, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Automotive.

"While the attention right now is on compact crossovers, the midsized SUVs like the Explorer can do things that the small ones can't — mainly carry more people and more stuff," Brinley said. "There is still demand for that."

And with a high average sale prices, the vehicle remains an important source of profit for Ford.

The new model is coming out at a time when sales of midsized SUVs have barely budged. They are up about 1% this year compared with the first nine months of 2013, but the overall market has risen 5.5%.

As a group, the midsized SUV makes about 10% of U.S. auto sales. Virtually all the growth in the SUV/crossover segment of the market has come in smaller vehicles, which have become popular among empty-nesters, retirees and young buyers.

Ford has tremendous "brand equity" in the Explorer, said Jake Fisher, automotive test director for Consumer Reports. But "a great name" won't allow an automaker to skate in the viciously competitive auto market, Fisher said.

"The whole package needs to get better," Fisher said. "The Explorer has a lot of tough competitors."

The Explorer lags behind rivals in visibility from inside the cabin and lacks the "roominess" of other midsized SUVs, he said.

Ford also needs to upgrade both the Explorer's powertrain and fuel economy, Fisher said. Putting other Fords through the paces on Consumer Reports' Connecticut test track has shown that Ford's turbocharged EcoBoost engines are not as efficient as the powertrains of rival vehicles, he said.

The midsized SUV market is going to become even more challenging over the next several years.

Volkswagen is moving in, Brinley said. Chrysler, which does well with the Jeep, plans to add a Chrysler-branded SUV, and GM plans another entry from Chevrolet, she said.

"The new entries will shake things up a bit," Brinley said.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesjerry

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