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 2011 Ford Explorer

Not so long ago, the terms "sustainable" and "sport utility vehicle" would have seemed mutually exclusive; like a chocolate teapot. How things change. Scratch the surface of the 2011 Ford Explorer and there are features we would expect in a new generation of Toyota Prius hybrid rather than an all-American SUV.

Take the humble seat. Normally, cushions and backs would be padded with petroleum-based polyurethane foam. But in this instance, Ford employs a product that is 40 percent soy. Look on the Explorer's cabin floor, that carpeting is 25 percent recycled fibers. It means less waste, less energy spent, fewer emissions (Ford claims a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions equal to the annual output of 965 typical American households).

A most impressive piece of good housekeeping is the noise-dampening fender baffle, just behind the front wheel arch. It's made from leftover steel used in the construction of Ford's F-150 pickups. Again, less waste and 119 fewer tons of virgin steel used in a year, which is roughly equivalent to 150,000 vehicles.

A turbocharger is a device that uses the pressure from exhaust gases to force more air into an engine. The result is more power, especially that satisfying low-end shove. But it doesn't need to be working all the time, just when called upon. The option engine in the 2011 Explorer is a highly efficient, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a turbo. In conditions where it doesn't have to work hard, it behaves like a normal four-cylinder engine, so it uses far less fuel than something that has eight cylinders on the go all the time. But when the turbo kicks in, just by pressing the throttle pedal, there's a whole lot more muscle available. It's a classic win-win situation.

Other areas where fuel can be conserved are aerodynamics and weight. An SUV will usually have all the sleekness of a fridge freezer. The design of the new Explorer's side mirrors, front air dam and rear roof spoiler contribute to the vehicle being four percent more fuel efficient in this respect. Its drag coefficient is 0.35, which is not far off that of an average sedan. And although a seven-seater SUV with all-wheel drive is never going to be called graceful, the use of lightweight high-strength steel and an aluminum hood help mitigate some of that bulk.

"Ford has made tremendous strides, not only in improving fuel economy in the new Explorer, but also in using more environmentally friendly materials," said Jim Holland, one of the Blue Oval's chief engineers. The company claims that 85 percent of the 2011 Explorer is recyclable. Seems like this well-known SUV has been fully rehabilitated and is now ready to be part of 21st-century society.

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Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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