Ford Explorer Enters the Crossover War

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The introduction of the 2011 Ford ( F) Explorer captured the public's imagination earlier this week.

In fact, a recent report by Edmunds.com indicates that consumer consideration of the Explorer has nearly doubled as consumers await the vehicle's arrival, which won't hit until December. The spike in interest came even before the 2011 Ford Explorer introduction, which was rolled out in nine cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Dearborn, Mich., as well in splashy campaigns on Facebook and YouTube.

(That's Frank Davis, head of product development for Ford North America, pictured above as he unveiled the new Explorer Monday in Venice Beach, Calif.)

Edmunds.com senior analyst Karl Brauer said the new Explorer continues the trend of automakers moving away from SUVs, which are built on truck platforms, to crossover vehicles, built on automobile platforms. While signaling big environmental and global themes, the switch to crossovers also insinuates savings in money spent on gas; the 2011 Explorer, while larger than previous models, will have as much as 30% better fuel mileage than earlier Explorers up to 2010.

But that's not to say that the vehicle will have a clear path to consumer's garages. Rather, the Explorer, which shows up in showrooms this fall, faces stiff competition from a number of vehicles. One competitor, the Edge, is also made by Ford.

Here is a look at the crossover competitors the Explorer will face.

Ford Edge

The Ford Edge is Ford's leading crossover, with about 88,000 sales in 2009. The play between these two Ford models is something to watch in the future: "Now, the Explorer will cannibalize that," Brauer said, noting that the differences in the two models aren't too great.

The Edge, which starts at $27,220, is $1,000 cheaper than the Explorer, which starts at $28,190. The Edge is also smaller, with five seats, compared to the Explorer's seven. According to Brauer, the Edge will work for people who feel that "the Explorer is too unwieldy, maybe harder to fit into the garage, and for those who don't need three rows of seating."

Chevy Traverse

Sales of GM's Chevrolet Traverse totaled 91,074 in 2009. The vehicle is a direct competitor to the Explorer, but at 5,055 pounds, the Traverse is heavier by a few hundred pounds. It's also longer: The Traverse comes in at 205 inches; the Explorer, 197 inches.

"The Traverse has done well for GM," said Brauer. "It is very large physically, but drives smaller than it looks."

Toyota Highlander

Sales of the Toyota ( TM) Highlander, one of Toyota's most popular vehicles, totaled 83,118 in 2009. Launched in 2001, the Highlander seats up to seven people and is 188 inches long. "It's not as big as the new Explorer and it doesn't have the terrain management nor the hill-descent control, but it does have the Toyota reputation," said Brauer.

Toyota's reputation has definitely taken a hit during the past year, but import buyers are often strongly committed to their brands, enough so that the improvement in competing vehicles made by U.S. manufacturers may not immediately register with them.

Honda Pilot

At first, the Pilot was a leader in the crossover SUV market, but more recent models haven't driven as well, said Brauer. "It hasn't got the same dynamic as Honda had with the first vehicle," he said. Additionally, the 2011 Pilot lacks the off-road capability of the Explorer and other competitors.

Still, sales of the Honda Pilot, which starts at $28,045 and is 190 long, totaled 83,901 in 2009. Obviously the vehicle appeals primarily to import buyers and Honda loyalists.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.