New Ford Explorer, Not A Hybrid, Boosts Fuel Economy By 30 Percent

Smaller engines, turbo-charging, and lighter weight add up to big fuel economy gains, even without a hybrid system.

There was a time when automakers could meet fuel efficiency standards by shifting to smaller cars. No longer. Thanks to the so-called “footprint formula” used to establish higher fuel efficiency standards, automakers will need to make big gains in all segments in order to meet tougher efficiency levels starting in 2012. That’s why small cars like the gas-powered Honda Fit, which is rated at 35 MPG on the highway, might be offered as the Honda Fit Hybrid to push the MPG even higher. At the same time, full-line carmakers, using every efficiency trick in the book, will make their larger vehicles go further on a gallon of gas.

Case in point: The next-generation Ford Explorer, once the poster child for SUV-obsessed America, will move to a car-like unibody construction and add an EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission as its standard powertrain. As a result, the 2011 Ford Explorer should turn in combined highway-city fuel economy above 20 MPG.

Creativity is the key to improving efficiency. Ford has gone through the entire vehicle and put it on a weight-reduction program, using lightweight steel, aluminum and composites to drop weight—and thus maintained its heavier predecessor’s performance with a smaller powerplant.

Other factors boosting the fuel economy are twin independent variable camshaft timing, electric power-assisted steering, advanced battery management, fast engine warm-up and aggressive deceleration fuel shutoff. The Explorer also features Ford’s first U.S.-application of a variable-displacement air conditioning compressor that reduces parasitic engine drag.
This year’s 4.0-liter V6 Explorer is EPA-rated at 14 MPG city and 20 MPG on the highway. A 30 percent improvement would mean the 2011 2.0-liter EcoBoost model should deliver about 18 MPG in the city and 26 MPG on the highway. The EPA has not yet certified official fuel economy numbers.

Big Sellers Matter

The current Explorer’s seven-passenger capacity and towing abilities are expected to be maintained in the new models. Before you start thinking the Explorer’s off-road capabilities might be compromised by the move to unibody construction, note that the Jeep Grand Cherokee—which has impeccable off-road credentials—has featured a similar structure throughout its modern life.

Does this news have anything to do with hybrids? No. But hybrid fans should recognize the importance of fuel use reduction across the entire U.S. lineup. The Explorer for years had a place in the top 10 best-selling vehicles in the U.S., selling almost 3 million units in its first seven years on the market (1991-1997). This year the Explorer sold more than 31,000 units in the first half of the year, a boost of 30 percent compared to last year, but far off its heyday. It is currently the third best-selling Ford SUV, trailing the car-based Escape (which has a hybrid model) and Edge. All cars and trucks, with or without electric-drive, need to go on a diet. The Explorer’s 30 percent gain in fuel efficiency deserves praise.

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  • Shines

    This is exactly the problem with American auto purchasing. What percentage of the 31000 Explorers sold so far this year will ever actually carry 6 or 7 passengers? What percentage will ever tow anything? I suspect it is less than 10%. So why do we buy these things? Safety? At what cost to the envioronment and national security.
    I can give Ford (and GM) credit for improving fuel economy even on these big vehicles but we are generally fuelish to buy these things. Didn’t I see the Explorer on the list of most traded in in the cash for clunkers program? And most folks traded theirs for a mid sized car or smaller vehicle? I hope we are learning…

  • ex-EV1 driver

    The Jeep Grand Cherokee sucks offroad. I don’t know anyone who uses one for anything that a car or mini-van couldn’t do. I assume that the unibody explorer will be the same. Of course the body-on-frame Explorer never was any good offroad either. It was softened up to keep urbanites safer on the road and lost any of the reasonable offroad capabilities that it’s Bronco II predecessor had.

  • JamesDavis

    Ford, ever since I got my drivers license at 16, I am now 59, except for two cars, I’ve owned a Ford; because of my 1965 Ford Mustang, I now own a 2005 Ford Mustang because you have always been an intelligent auto maker and you had the best body design and performance of any of the other auto makers. I know that you are Mr. Ford’s grandson and you have most of his intelligence, but you are not exercising your granddad’s intelligence by bringing his company into the 21st Century. By now, you should be producing the best electric cars in the world. I loved the 1964 Ford Cobra and I would love that car as an electric. I want to stay with you, Ford for the rest of my life, but if Telsa lowers their price on their roaster to around 25, I will leave you in a heart beat. If you make that 64 Cobra an electric, I will be with you for the rest of my life…and since I am a National and International digital publisher, I have a lot of friends around the world and I will refer them to you.

  • Anonymous

    rather than impressed by the saving… i’m more shocked by the inefficiency that has been allowed in the previous designs.

    as obama says, start taking off the subsidies for gas. i’m sure the market/people will adjust just fine if it’s done gradually.

  • van

    Making it lighter should put it closer to being powered with a hybrid drive train. Instead of a 30% improvement over the 4 liter six, we might see a 50% improvement (21 city/30 highway). The performance price would be a loss of towing capacity.

  • Charles

    < < The performance price would be a loss of towing capacity. >>

    That may not be so. The current Ford and Toyota systems would be limited as seen in the Escape and Toyota SUVs. If Ford up sizes it 6 speed dual clutch automatic transmission and goes the Kia hybrid way, of clutch between the drive motor and engine maybe there would not be such a towing penalty.

  • tw8s

    From a national gallons-per-year consumption perspective, it makes sense to focus on the larger vehicles with mpg numbers in the teens. A 25% improvement from 15 to 18.8mpg saves as much fuel per year as a 67% improvement from 30 to 50mpg, i.e. hybrid mileage. Hybrid share per year is increasing, but there will probably be 4X, 6X, 8X(?) sub-20mpg vehicles sold for the next several years.

  • Dom

    What I think is funny is that half the tricks automakers use on hybrids to boost fuel economy have nothing to do with the powertrain and can easily be done to regular gas only vehicles, and this Explorer is an example of that.

  • veek

    – Perhaps you are referring to the Jeep Cherokee, rather than the Grand Cherokee. The Cherokee vehicle, no longer produced, was an eminently capable and respected off-roader, although its unibody was nearly as heavy and rigid as a comparably sized framed vehicle. Subaru also has a pretty good off-road capability with a unibody, although it is not properly geared for true off-roading (some people will, of course, probably say that their Subaru “has beaten a Jeep/Humvee/ATV/etc.”).
    -The current Explorer was a bit large and softly sprung to be at the top of its class for off-roading, but it is considerably more capable than a sedan or minivan (especially if you fit a locker), if only because it had a viscous clutch, a locking center, and a granny low.
    -Interesting that as small cars have been gaining weight over the last few years (compare the weight of today’s Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla with that of their predecessors), the opposite now seems to be happening with larger cars.

  • Anonymous

    20mpg COMBINED is not impressive. With my Toyota RAV4 I get >way more than 20mpg city and way more than 30mpg on the Highway (actual mpg, not what the Manufacture claims). I have the V6 with three rows. Ok the third row is mostly good for kids, not adults, but still this is a good, fast car with good milage. 20mpg COMBINED does not impress me.

  • Anonymous

    ” Before you start thinking the Explorer’s off-road capabilities might be compromised by the move to unibody construction, note that the Jeep Grand Cherokee—which has impeccable off-road credentials…”

    What Jeep grand Cherokee can or cannot do off-road may not be that relevant to a Ford Explorer.
    Usain Bolt has two feet. Many of us, I believe, also have two feet. Usain Bolt can ran 100m in less than 10sec. Not many of us can.

    I think the unibody construction may have a larger impact to the longivity of the body (without deform) if one use it daily as an off-roader or tows a trailer frequently.

  • veek

    Anonymous: Does the RAV4 have a compound low? If not, it is definitely not the same as a vehicle like the Explorer or a Cherokee. I have an Escape hybrid, which actually betters the mileage of the RAV4, but without a locking center diff or a granny low, there is no way I would take it on a difficult access road or 4WD trail. The Explorer also carries more people and gear, and selecting an off-road vehicle is as much a matter of compromise as anything else (a goat is a far better method for carrying heavy weight over hiking trails, but this convenience comes at a cost in what else they cannot do).
    What a vehicle can or cannot do off-road makes a big difference if your two feet have to carry about 50 pounds several miles, especially if the weather is bad. The type of construction is one of many factors in the expected durability of a vehicle. Jeep uses both methods and has done well with both.

  • kengrubb

    Since so few SUVs ever venture offroad or tow, the Explorer remains for the most part a people hauler.

    My 2005 Saturn Relay, with a 3.5L V6 regularly delivers 28 MPG highway.

    I’ll be much more excited by a PHEV EcoBoosted Ford C-Max.

  • Max Reid

    Wonderful, if the lighter weight using composites combined with ecoboost, car chassis could boost Explorer to #1 among Truck based SUVs.

    Even some business could end up buying this instead of the pickups with their V8s.

  • Hybrid’sSUCK

    Yeah, because listening to OBAMA is a GREAT idea.

  • Anonymous

    actually, we had to settle for a smaller vehicle(even though we really need something larger that fits 6 or 7) because the price is outrageous for larger vehicles.

  • tapra2

    Ford has gone through the entire vehicle and put it on a weight-reduction program, using lightweight steel,CWDev

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