Ford takes its Explorer into a new realm

DEARBORN, Mich. — The Ford Explorer used to be one of the best-selling vehicles in the U.S., but as demand for big, truck-like SUVs fell, so did its sales.

Now Ford is trying to breathe new life into the Explorer by reinventing it as a more car-like, fuel-efficient utility.

Ford began a marketing campaign Monday for the 2011 Ford Explorer, which will be in dealerships this winter.

The automaker promises a utility vehicle with seating for seven that has similar fuel economy to a Toyota Camry sedan.

At $28,190, the base price also is $1,000 less than the 2010 Explorer.

It's priced competitively, midway between the Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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.

The new Explorer shares a platform with the Taurus X sedan.

Ford is taking a risk with an important vehicle, which is Ford's best-known product after the Mustang. Some buyers looking for a truck-like SUV will be disappointed. 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's 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.

As a result, 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, outselling everything in the U.S. but the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado pickups. 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, 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, Ford's marketing chief Jim Farley said.

"Explorer is really still the backbone of the brand," Farley said.

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