By Julie Wernau and Mary Jane Grandinetti, Tribune reporters
7:32 PM PDT, July 26, 2010
The way Ford Motor Co. figures it, Americans still want to tow and drive off-road with their SUVs, but they could do without all that gas-guzzling.
Throw in an electronics system that can understand up to 10,000 commands ("I'm hungry. Find me an ice cream parlor," is one) and a dial-by-terrain four-wheel drive system, and you have the 2011 Ford Explorer, unveiled in dozens of cities across the country on Monday.
In Chicago, where the vehicle will be built, the Explorer burst through a faux wooden crate stamped "Special Delivery: Chicago Assembly Plant" at Millennium Park, as vamping guitar music played.
"I believe it's the most dramatic reinvention yet," Bill Ford, the automaker's executive chairman, said of the long-awaited remake of the industry's best-selling SUV.
Just two years after $4-a-gallon gas caused the near collapse of the sport utility vehicle market, sales in the segment are on the way back up with moderating gas prices and more fuel-efficient offerings.
But in an increasingly crowded crossover market, Ford is just one of many carmakers looking for better gas mileage without sacrificing power. The Explorer can get the same gas mileage as a Toyota Camry if consumers opt for a souped-up four-cylinder EcoBoost engine. With a standard V-6 engine, however, it is still a gas-guzzler compared with compact vehicles and hybrids. Still, the new engine is a far cry from the original V-8.
"We're going to see all of the automakers move in this general direction because in 2016 the federal government puts in new fuel economy standards in cars and trucks," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.
"It really tries to fill that bridge between value and functionality and utility and having decent gas mileage," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for Truecar.com. "Consumers want the best of both worlds, and it's hard to give them that."
The Explorer can tow about 5,000 pounds, about 2,000 pounds less than the current model. But the base price is about $1,000 lower, at $28,995.
The Explorer is also part of a newer trend in the crossover market. Previously crossovers were designed with the power of a car but with rugged SUV bodies. Now designers try to keep the power of an SUV with the lightness and efficiency of a car. The Explorer's main competitor, the Chevrolet Traverse, is built around the same concept.
The Explorer is also expected to compete with the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Jeep Grand Cherokee, said Jim Farley, Ford group vice president of marketing, sales and service.
Farley is less concerned about the new crossover cannibalizing from Ford's other car-based SUVs, particularly the Edge, which comes with two rows of seats, and Flex.
"And we expect a third of Explorer sales to be from outside North America," Farley said of the areas that are not traditional SUV strongholds.
Luxury features on the vehicle include the second generation of Ford's Sync system, MyFord Touch. It adds climate control, navigation and more audio options to the system that integrated music and phone via voice command.
"You ask for what you want, you get it," said Jim Buczkowski, Ford director for electrical systems.
The Explorer also introduces an industry first — rear inflatable seat belts to spread impact forces across five times more area than conventional seat belts.
"Ford has changed everything about the all-new Explorer, yet it's instantly recognizable as a Ford Explorer," said Moray Callum, executive director of North America Design.
"It reminds us of Suburbans," said Herb Nichols, who stopped by the Chicago event with his wife, Annette, to check out the new vehicle.
Nichols said the four-wheel-drive capabilities of the vehicle and slimmer design, all on a car chassis, appealed to them because they are looking to downsize from their Chevy Suburban now that their children will be at college. But they might be looking to go even smaller, he said.
Of the 6 million Explorers sold since the model was introduced in 1991, 4 million are still on the road, with 160,000 repeat customers a year. In the Explorer's heyday, more than 420,000 were sold each year, and while that has since dwindled to a fraction of that number, it remains one of Ford's best-sellers.
"The Explorer name is really a mass-market consumer name," said Toprak at Truecar.com.
Toprak said Ford has wisely invested in marketing that name, which could help launch sales figures when the vehicle enters dealerships this winter.
Explorer production to add jobs
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said there was stiff competition to bring the vehicle to Chicago, a move that will add 1,200 jobs to the South Side assembly plant where it will be made. Ford's Chicago Heights stamping plant will supply most of the vehicle's body parts. Ford said other parts made by companies in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan are expected to create "approximately 600 additional jobs.''
"We worked with UAW, we worked with Ford Motor Co., we worked with all kinds of local government, Mayor Daley, and we put together an incentive package," the governor said.
James Tetreault, Ford vice president for North America manufacturing, said moving Explorer production to Chicago included an analysis of the supply base, the quality and production capabilities of the plant, union agreements, and trade and international agreements.
Jan Allman, Chicago assembly plant manager, said the facility is in a "big training mode.'' "We're taking transfers and calling people on indefinite layoffs, and now we're contacting local employment agencies for applications," she said.
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