This isn't your father's Ford Explorer. New for 2011, the revamped and now smaller SUV is a huge step forward from the previous generations thanks to new technologies, new build materials, and new drivetrains. Depsite receiving flak for moving away from the body-on-chassis design of the previous Explorer, Ford felt the switch was necessary to be competitive in our gas-conscious world. For those who want a traditional SUV, Ford fills that niche with the tried and true Expedition. Coming in a smaller package, the Explorer no longer needs the big 4.0L V-6 or 4.6L V-8. Instead, Ford released the Explorer initially with the 3.5L V-6 that makes 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. Ford now also offers a turbocharged 2.0L Ecoboost I-4 capable of 237 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque at an impressive 1,750 rpm. Mating to the V-6 is a six-speed SelectShift automatic or the optional six-speed automatic, which is the only choice for the 2.0L Ecoboost. Compared to its predecessors, the new Explorer has a sportier feel, making it appeal to a younger and outdoor audience alike. Opening the doors reveals more of a car feel as opposed to the SUVs of the past. With plenty of options, the Ford Explorer ranges in price from $28,000 all the way up to the loaded model, which is more than $47,000.

We tested the 3.5L-equipped Explorer with the SelectShift six-speed transmission. The first thing we noticed is that climbing into the Explorer makes you feel like you are climbing down into a crevasse, as you had to step over the large and deep doorsills. Once in the seat, it was comfortable with plenty of legroom. Instead of a simple and unattractive dash of year's past, Ford went with a "control panel" look, like that from a 747 with buttons, knobs, lights, and gauges surrounding the driver. It took us a while to get acquainted with the interior, but after a few miles behind the wheel, we became familiar with it and found there were shortcuts for everything. Throwing it into Reverse brought up a very large, full-color backup camera on the in-dash navigation unit. We liked the large screen, but the software seems cumbersome. To fully utilize the new Sync system's endless abilities, a class might be in order for Explorer owners. Speaking of Sync, we could never get our phones synced up with the Bluetooth function. Other interior accoutrements included heated and cooled leather seats, a one-touch power liftgate, power-fold third-row seat, and mirrors with blind spot indicators.

The V-6 feels powerful, propelling the Explorer to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds, even with a 4,500-pound curb weight. Ford did their homework and decided most buyers of a midsize SUV don't tow as much as owners of ¾-ton trucks, which explains the Explorers' 5,000-pound maximum tow rating. After a week of testing, our average miles per gallon topped out at 19.2. Going over multiple terrains never creates anxiety thanks to the optional Terrain Management System. One turn of the dial helps the AWD handle mud, sand and snow by adjusting the engine, transmission, braking, and traction control performance. When we did pack up and head out of the city, carrying four adults was a breeze with the second-row bucket seats. Adults would be cramped in the optional third-row seats, but children would most likely feel right at home back there.

Our tester had most of the option boxes checked and came in at a jaw-dropping $46,520. Ideal for a family, the 2012 Explorer is a refreshing take on a 21st century SUV thanks to advanced technologies, safety features, and unique design.

2012 Ford Explorer
Base Price: $28,280
Price as Tested: $46,520

Engine
Type: 3.5L DOHC VCT V-6
Displacement: 3,497 cc
Compression Ratio: 10.8:1
Horsepower: 290 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 255 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Recommended Fuel: 87 Octane

Drivetrain
Layout: Front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive

Transmission
Standard: Six-speed Select Shift Automatic

Performance
Tow Capacity: 5,000 lbs
0-60: 7.9 seconds
1/4 mile: 16.1 @ 88.6 mph
Observed Gas Mileage: 19.2

PROS
Features; everything from heated and cooled seats to HID headlights and LED taillights

CONS
Complicated SYNC system, too much money for a mom-mobile

Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars