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.