Exploring New Territory

June 10, 2011
Filed under Trailer Reviews

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With SUVs continuing to play a significant role in today’s automotive market, there is a corresponding desire among many RV enthusiasts for lighter-weight trailers to tow behind them. Not all SUVs are capable of or set up to haul anything, let alone a 4,000- to 5,000-pound trailer. However, Ford’s completely re-engineered 2011 Explorer is more than up to the challenge, with its advertised tow rating of 5,000 pounds.

After putting one of Ford’s new XLT 4WD models through an initial solo run around town, silly clichés began streaming through our heads such as, “this isn’t your Dad’s Explorer” and “you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” In other words, the reinvigorated Explorer with a transverse-mounted, 3.5-liter, 290-hp aluminum engine, mind-bending electronic amenities and generous passenger/cargo capacity represents a whole new ball game. The latest Explorer incarnation doesn’t even appear to share the same “gene pool” as its predecessors.

Ford engineers hit all the right benchmarks when they redesigned the latest Explorer — both inside and out. First they abandoned the dated body-on-frame setup of older models for a more contemporary, unitized configuration designed for increased rigidity and less rattles. Essentially, the vehicle shares the same platform as Ford’s latest Taurus sedan, though ride height has been raised and speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering combine for better control and predictability.

The test 4WD XLT carries a base price of $33,190, and includes a generous array of standard features such as an AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius-equipped media package with six speakers, a 4.2-inch color LCD touch-activated screen in the center of the dash and a backup camera among other niceties. With a Comfort Package ($3,220), Class III trailer tow package with engine oil cooler ($570), a navigation system ($795), and blind-spot monitoring capability thrown in as options, the final tab climbed to a suggested retail of $38,750.

Cab seating in the Explorer is comfortable and includes stitched leather upholstery, electrically adjustable front seats and an easily readable tachometer/speedometer gauge (which lights up like a video game when you hit the ignition) cluster forward of the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Also present is a voice-activation interface that can be used to control navigation, cell phone, music and other electronics.

There was enough seating in our vehicle for about six to seven people with the two rear seat rows in use. For our purposes though, we kept the third row folded down, which created a generous cargo space for hauling extra gear. If even more room is needed, the second row of seats folds flat as well, allowing for more than 80 cubic feet of cargo volume.

CrossRoads currently offers 12 lightweight floorplans from 20 through 32 feet; all are fully loaded and less than 5,000 pounds. Enabling such ultralight architecture is all-aluminum framing, a composite 2-inch-thick aluminum floorboard matrix decked with 1?4-inch lauan and 5-inch-thick crowned rafters. Polystyrene and fiberglass insulation is used throughout, while gelcoat Filon fiberglass roof and side walls provide the trailer’s rigid exterior shell.
We tested the 21-foot 11-inch Slingshot GT21FD, which was laid out with a forward lounge area appointed with a U-shaped convertible dinette and a compact, streetside mid-coach galley. It had a private bathroom in the rear streetside corner with tiered curbside bunks in the opposite corner.

The trailer has a base price of $18,883, and comes with standard features such as an AM/FM/CD stereo with MP3 input, 13,500-BTU air conditioning and an 18,000-BTU forced-air furnace. With an options package that contains a 19-inch LCD TV ($413), spare tire and carrier ($254), microwave oven ($145) and an outside shower ($138), the trailer rings in at $19,883.

Central Coast Drive-About
Intending to see if Ford’s towability claims of 21?2 tons of payload are accurate, we hooked up our crimson-hued Explorer to the aerodynamic Slingshot for a romp around one of our favorite central-coast road courses. If the Ford had the chops to successfully haul our 3,800-pound trailer (full water and LP-gas cylinders) plus the added weight of two adults and cargo over the challenging course, the company’s optimistic assertions would most assuredly be confirmed.

As we took off on our road trip, the Explorer’s highway feedback registered firm, yet supple, without excessive road surface noise or vibration. The vehicle maintained a cat-like grip on all roadways we traversed, while imparting a sense of confidence to the driver.

Ford has lavished the 2011 Explorer with a dazzling array of amenities and a few gadgets to wow even the most jaded consumers. Although our vehicle was rated as a four-wheel-drive, Ford has tended to blur the meaning of this term with its unique traction control setup called Terrain Management System (TMS); thus, the Explorer no longer includes a transfer case or low-range gearing.

Instead of a shift or transfer case lever to choose a specific two-wheel or high/low four-wheel-drive mode, the “shift-on-the-fly” TMS uses an electronically activated selector knob that directs a computer-assisted, all-wheel-drive process. The knob offers driver’s control settings of “Mud and Ruts,” “Snow and Gravel,” “Sand” and “Normal.” These accordingly direct the vehicle’s throttle responses, traction cues, transmission shift points and steering feel to deal with most terrain challenges one might encounter.

Another built-in innovation that should appeal to trailerists is Ford’s proprietary trailer sway control (TSC), which takes some of the anxious moments out of towing. When the TSC detects any type of trailer sway, it automatically reduces engine speed and selectively applies the vehicle’s brakes to help maintain stability and control.

Driving up the coast with the Slingshot in tow was a pleasurable experience. The two vehicles moved fluidly together. The combo was easily guided through freeway traffic as well as along narrow and winding country roads, with confidence-inspiring stability and plenty of available power on tap.

Steep grades didn’t slow us much either, as the Ford toted the laden trailer up several 7-percent inclines at the legal towing limit of 55 mph at 3,800 rpm with pedal to spare. Having to speed up to avoid a slower truck on one occasion, we peaked out at 60 mph at 4,400 rpm.

Later on in the trip, we were able to clock the Ford with trailer in tow at 15.8 seconds in a 0-60 mph dash on a level stretch of highway, with a 40-60 mph interval of 7.6 seconds. For our money, that’s a pretty solid testament to the Explorer’s power and hauling abilities.

For towing downhill, Ford’s TMS features a “Hill Descent” control button. With the flick of a finger upon approaching an extended downgrade, the vehicle will automatically maintain its average speed. Also, with the “Tow/Haul” function engaged, one can also downshift the transmission by tapping the brake pedal. On one section of 7-percent highway grade, the Explorer held our loaded combo to 55 mph at 3,000 rpm.

Whether cruising down the freeway or negotiating the tighter confines of a crowded campground, the Ford and Slingshot were a dream team. Smooth, powerful, precise in navigating tricky terrain and capable of making tight U-turns with an impressive 39-foot turning radius, the Explorer proved itself to be a dependable people hauler and towing companion in no uncertain terms.

Surf, Sand and Sun
After arriving at Jalama Beach campground north of Point Conception, we chose a site on a bluff overlooking a wide expanse of the blue Pacific. The Slingshot was easily backed into our narrow site allotment, and we finished off by unhooking, leveling the trailer, and cranking down its included scissor-type support jacks for added stability.

Our next step was to pull a pair of folding chairs out of the unit’s roomy front pass-through storage compartment. In all, the front bay offers up to 38 cubic feet of exterior cargo room that is handily accessible from either side of the trailer.

Interior decor treatments on the test Slingshot are of darker tones of the company’s Maple and Sunflower decor. Cabinets and wood trim are dark brown, while fabrics and upholstery display varied hues of the same theme. Most hardware and faucets are brushed nickel, while the floor is decked with resilient, tile-patterned linoleum. Although lighter decor treatments are more to our personal tastes, this particular package admirably masked much of the flotsam and jetsam tracked in over several days of active, seaside recreation.

Modest-size picture windows of the handy pop-out type graced both sides of the forward lounge area and allowed excellent views of our surroundings. No cranking or fussing with recalcitrant slider latches here. Just the turn of a wrist, a push outward on a notched guide piece, and voilà … fresh air. When it came time to batten down the hatches, the windows snicked shut as quickly and efficiently as they had opened.

Seating in this floorplan has been tended to nicely with an expansive, U-shaped front dinette area that includes a 37 x 44-inch tabletop. This location proved to be a great place to enjoy a relaxed meal, or for use as a platform for our laptop and newspapers. Although the dinette served the two of us quite efficiently during our time aboard, it could more than accommodate four or more users, depending on their size.

Directly adjacent to the dinette is a mid-trailer, streetside galley. Even with its modest dimensions, the area still sports a three-burner stove top, gas oven below and overhead microwave that offers a multitude of cooking alternatives. Cabinetry above and beneath the linoleum-decked countertop is also available for stashing modest numbers of pots, pans and other foodstuffs, though space is still at a premium. Even considering its compactness, the galley provides about 10 square feet of usable counter surface for meal prep and other related chores.

Our first order of business after settling in was to put something together for dinner. Since we had shorepower available and a full-service kitchen, mealtime was a breeze.

After dishes and whatnots were cleaned up, we opted to kick back and enjoy a DVD for the evening. Although this step was not necessary at the time, we converted the dinette to the unit’s main 58 x 92-inch king bed for an ideal place to spread out and relax.

To accomplish this, we folded up the legs on the table, removed back support cushions from the dinette’s seats, and laid them atop the now lowered table surface. We then folded down the 19-inch retractable flat-screen TV from its recess in the ceiling above the dinette, and were all set for an undisturbed evening of movie watching.

When night fell, the inviting front bed proved to be a comfortable arrangement that provided several nights of good sleep. As designed, the rear corner bunks are also capable of accommodating two sleepers on the bottom, double-size 50 x 74-inch mattress, while an additional person can flake out on the overhead 28 x 78-inch section. Although we did not have a chance to use the bunks, they did make convenient places to throw extra stuff that wouldn’t fit into a cupboard or closet.

One thing we would like to have seen in the forward lounge/sleeping area is a pull-down shade for the curbside front door. As it was, the shadeless door window tended to let in unwanted light at times such as early in the morning when we were still fast asleep.

Another nice inclusion in this model is a compact, full-service private bathroom. It has a 20 x 40-inch tub/shower with 6 feet 4 inches of headspace, a diminutive corner washstand with overhead medicine cabinet and a tight though adequate 18 inches of clearance in front of the stool. When beach camping with all the sand, salt and dust, it was enjoyable to have this convenient little place where we could freshen up.

Besides many smaller interior recesses, drawers and overhead cabinets for storing a variety of incidentals, there are also two large floor-to-ceiling shelved closets that can be converted for hanging clothes. Overall, the trailer can hold enough combined cargo inside and out to reasonably support extended camping trips with ease. With a cargo-carrying capacity of 3,568 pounds, it is unlikely that one can overload this unit beyond its gross vehicle weight rating of 7,368 pounds, which the Explorer limited to 5,000 pounds for the test unit.

There was a whole lot to like about the attractive, lightweight Slingshot — as a towable and a compact, efficient camping companion. Hitched to one of Ford’s dashingly redesigned Explorer XLTs, there are not too many new frontiers that this action-packed combo can’t successfully challenge.

CrossRoads RV, (888) 226-7496, www.crossroadsrv.com
Ford Motor Company, (800) 392-3673, www.ford.com

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