Technology alters perceptions of vehicle quality. Consider a brief history of a longtime staple of family transportation, the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
When it was introduced in 1991, it was little more than a compact pickup truck that could carry passengers and cargo under one roof — not much different from similar products offered by General Motors, Jeep and Isuzu.
But the Explorer had better styling inside and out and what might be called better family detailing — comfortable seats, multiple storage areas and drink holders, and enough passenger space to separate squabbling children.
It became an instant hit, taking third place in sales among all U.S. trucks in 1991 — a darn good performance by anyone’s reckoning.
Over the years, the Explorer grew and declined in popularity, each change heralded by changes in technology and public perception of what is needed and wanted in a purported “go-anywhere” vehicle.
Safety and fuel economy became paramount concerns.
Ford responded by increasing vehicle stability — four-wheel anti-lock brakes and eventually electronically controlled stability and traction. Would you believe that the first Ford Explorers were bereft of air bags? They were. Ford, pushed by consumer advocacy groups and the federal government, fixed that problem in 1995 with driver and front-passenger bags.
Nowadays, front, side and head air bags are common, and all Ford Explorer models for 2013, offered with front-wheel and all-wheel drive, will come with front knee-bolster air bags as well.
Fuel economy was a tougher nut to crack, largely because it existed as a conflict in consumer expectations. Many Explorer buyers wanted the vehicle to live up to its name — to go anywhere rolling over anything. For them, a rugged, ladder-frame, truck-based vehicle was more important than extra miles per gallon.
But reality intervened. Fuel prices rose and economic markets began wobbling shortly after 2005. Consumers wanted a “go-anywhere” vehicle that could go anywhere as long as it had the gasoline, still offered at the lowest prices in the developed world, to get there. The Explorer moved from its heavy, less fuel-efficient truck-based platform to lighter, car-based, more fuel-efficient unitized body construction.
In the interim, most things SUV had fallen into disrepute. Marketing people didn’t even want to use the term “sport-utility vehicle” anymore. They preferred a newly crafted marketed euphemism, “crossover utility vehicle,” which is the corporately assigned category in which we found the subject of this week’s subject vehicle, a front-wheel-drive Ford Explorer Limited, sitting on an Enterprise Rent-a-Car lot in Northern Virginia.
We were hauling the remains of childhood back to their rightful owners in New York — high school and college textbooks, outmoded laptops and computer peripherals, and other detritus of an overspent youth. The Explorer Limited seemed perfect for the job — enough utility, plush interior for the wife-daughter organizers of this particular excursion, and 17 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway using less-expensive regular-grade gasoline.
There was a problem.
The rented 2012 Explorer Limited came with a first-edition version of the “MyFord Touch” infotainment/mobile communications system. I knew this before securing the rental but put it out of mind. I made a serious mistake in doing so.
That first MyFord Touch system, intended to keep driver and passengers electronically connected to everything important in life while on the road, has been roundly criticized, for good reason, for not working as advertised. Ford has been hustling to make software and other fixes to improve MyFord Touch. But the jury is still out on the success of the company’s efforts in that endeavor.
Better, easier-to-use infotainment/
communications systems, such as GM’s CUE (Cadillac User Experience, or Customer User Experience in other GM models) have since eclipsed MyFord Touch.
I knew all of this, but this was a stuff-hauling trip. What mattered, I thought, was power. The rented Explorer Limited had enough of that—a 3.5-liter V-6 producing a maximum 290 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque. It accelerated and handled nicely on the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 87 and handled the various inclines, twists and turns of the Hudson Highlands with aplomb.
But that faulty MyFord Touch system ruined it all. Mouthy passengers complained loudly because the system would not work with their Bluetooth phones, or other electronic equipment. They tossed aside iPhones and iPods in utter frustration. They declared the rented Explorer Limited, a vehicle excellent in my thinking in most respects, “junk” and “obsolete.” A daughter asked: “How can anybody get any work done in this thing?”
I was shocked. I once thought that the work of driving was driving, that the quality of any vehicle was resident exclusively in its drivability. That, apparently, is no longer the case. Technology has again altered consumer expectations. A vehicle that cannot multitask, especially in infotainment/
communications, is no longer worth its cost.