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Ford Is Hoping to Give the Once-Great Explorer a Second Life

When sport utility vehicles ruled America’s roads in the 1990s, the Ford Explorer was king, rolling off dealer lots by the hundreds of thousands every year.

But in the era of higher gas prices and eco-consciousness, the Explorer has flopped. During last year’s cash-for-clunkers program, more Explorers were tossed in the scrap heap than any other model, by far.

With sales a small fraction of those in the glory days, executives at the Ford Motor Company seriously considered burying the Explorer alongside the likes of the Escort and Thunderbird, once-great nameplates that outlived their usefulness.

Ford Explorer
Vladimir Artev | Epsilon | Getty Images
Ford Explorer

Instead, the Explorer is getting a second life in 2011 as a more fuel-efficient crossover. Ford, emerging from the recession with considerable momentum, is betting that shoppers will be more willing to check out its new and revamped models than a few years ago, even an Explorer that Ford intends to market as a sport utility vehicle.

It is a move with some risk, auto analysts say, on at least three fronts. First, reviving nameplates that have greatly faded is a difficult task in the auto industry, where bad memories are often long-lasting.

Second, pouring resources into the Explorer breaks with Ford’s much-heralded strategy of focusing on vehicles with global scale and appeal, and finally, the jury is out on whether even North Americans are ready to re-embrace the sport utility vehicle in significant numbers.

“The vast majority of people don’t need a four-wheel-drive, off-road-capable truck,” said Aaron Bragman, a product analyst with the research firm IHS Global Insight. “Americans still like that go-anywhere idea, but traditional S.U.V.’s have that negative image.”

Ford intends to market the Explorer heavily around its fuel-economy ratings, something it never did before, both because the numbers were so low and because few buyers cared. In the past, Explorers had an average rating of about 15 miles per gallon. Though Ford is being tight-lipped about the specifics of the 2011 model, the most efficient version is expected to get about 28 miles per gallon in highway driving, the best in its segment.

“The fuel economy itself will be a message,” Ford’s head of marketing, James D. Farley, said in an interview.

Ford says its research shows that the Explorer still has a place in an increasingly crowded and competitive market, though the company has no aspirations of recapturing the model’s past market share. Nothing on the market today is as popular as the Explorer was in the heart of its 10-year run as the nation’s best-selling S.U.V.; sales peaked at nearly 450,000 in 1998. Only 52,190 were sold last year.

Still, Ford says four million people still own an Explorer — more than six million have been sold since its introduction two decades ago — and the new version could post big numbers and profits for Ford if even a fraction of those past customers decided to upgrade.

In addition to the new Explorer’s considerably higher fuel economy, Ford is hoping to entice those customers by transforming the boxy and rather simplistic-looking vehicle into a sleeker, car-based crossover with high-tech features.

“Everyone who owns one of those four million Explorers right now, as they’re driving them around, most of them love the vehicle but they also feel like they’re sacrificing, whether it’s image or fuel economy,” Mr. Farley said. “We can offer them something where they don’t have to feel that way anymore.”

It is a tricky marketing challenge, analysts said: Ford must overcome the model’s deep-seated reputation as a gas guzzler while not alienating consumers who still want the capabilities of a full-blown S.U.V.

To that end, Ford plans to characterize the new Explorer as an S.U.V., even though it technically will not be an S.U.V. because it no longer uses the traditional body-on-frame architecture of that segment. (It is built on the same underpinnings as the Taurus, a full-size sedan.)

At the same time, if Ford delivers on the promise of improved fuel economy, the new model’s rating would be 25 miles per gallon in highway driving, with an optional EcoBoost engine increasing mileage even more.

Where gas prices fit in

“If it’s up in that range, it will probably allow the vehicle to clear a hurdle and put it back on the consideration list for some people,” said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

Yet for past customers, Mr. Bell said, “I can’t imagine that their original Explorer experience was so phenomenal that they’re just dying to get back in one.”

The new, seven-passenger Explorer is roughly the same size as the outgoing model, though slightly shorter and wider. Among its new features is a series of touch screens, which Ford is introducing throughout much of its lineup starting this year, inflatable rear seat belts and a “terrain management” system to enhance its off-road driving abilities.

The Explorer, scheduled to go into production near the end of this year, will be one of several models assembled at Ford’s plant in Chicago, where Ford is adding 1,200 jobs and investing $400 million.

Just a few years ago, with Ford running low on cash and S.U.V. sales plummeting as gasoline surged to more than $4 a gallon, Mr. Farley and his colleagues were not sure they wanted to save the Explorer.

The company was plotting its future around an array of small, fuel-efficient cars that could be sold around the world, and the Explorer did not fit any of those criteria. But internal research convinced Ford that its lineup at North American dealerships would have a sizable void without the Explorer, even though the vehicle has virtually no audience in Europe and Asia.

And the company has had some success in reinventing brands: Ford brought the Taurus name back from the dead, and the Explorer itself has battled adversity before, after a string of fatal rollover crashes caused the recall of millions of Firestone tires a decade ago.

“It’s not going to light the world on fire; it’s not going to be even a faint shadow of what it once was,” Mr. Bell said. “But if they can build it in a profitable way at vastly smaller volumes, then I think it can contribute.”