Ford updates looks of Explorer SUV with new grille

NEW YORK -- Ford has once again made some changes to its Ford Explorer SUV.

The modest updates to the midsize SUV include a new grille and redesigned fog lamps. It also will be offered in four new colors and with five new wheel choices.

Besides the version sold in showrooms, it has become one of the nation's most popular police cruisers. The changes come ahead of the New York Auto Show.

The Explorer helped define the SUV segment and sales in the U.S. peaked at 445,000 in 2000. Nearly 7 million have been sold since the SUV debuted in 1990. But gas prices forced Ford to rethink the family vehicle to make it more fuel-efficient and nimble to drive. Crossovers of all sizes have surged in popularity because they fill that bill.

The current Explorer debuted in the 2011 model year and made the dramatic change from being a body-on-frame truck to a car-based crossover, which saves weight and improves fuel economy. It received tweaks to update its looks two years ago.

Since then, Dave Sullivan, auto analyst for AutoPacific, said the Explorer has been a popular and successful vehicle. Ford sold more than 248,000 Explorers last year, or 0.3% fewer than the prior year.

But the Explorer will now come under increasing pressure from a number of other new SUVs, including a freshened lineup from General Motors.

Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president of sales and marketing, said Ford plans to continue to reinvest in its SUVs because it expects sales will continue to grow.

SUV sales accounted for 26% of the market in 2006 and have grown over the past decade to 40% of U.S. sales, with pickups and cars accounting for the rest. Over the next five years, LaNeve said, SUV sales are likely to exceed 45% of new vehicle sales.

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