2011 Ford Edge: The popular crossover gets airborne

December 28, 2010: 3:01 PM ET

Sporting a glass cockpit with programmable touch screens, the Ford Edge offers space-age theatricality to the driving experience. But it may face some stiff internal competition when the Explorer is relaunched.

As CEO of Ford since 2006, aeronautical engineer Alan Mulally has adapted some airplane design ideas for automobiles. One of his first was standardizing the placement of controls on all Ford vehicles. You can find the windshield wiper switch in the same place on the Fiesta and the Taurus.

Relocating controls is child's play compared to Mulally's latest airborne adaption: Adapting the glass cockpit for drivers of vehicles like the 2011 Edge.

In an airplane's glass cockpit, as many as seven programmable computer screens replace dozens of mechanical gauges to display fight information for pilots as needed. The Boeing (BA) 777, which Mulally was the chief engineer on, is often described as the first airplane with a fully glass cockpit.

Both in theory and in practice, the glass cockpit makes a lot of sense. German luxury carmakers have struggled to reduce instrument complexity, resorting to combining controls for individual functions into a single knob that must be tilted and twirled in a complicated series of movements that defy intuition.

Ford's (F) glass cockpit, which it calls "MyFord Touch," is simpler and more straightforward. It also adds a welcome touch of space-age theatricality to the driving experience. The screen displays are bright, attractive, legible, and informative.

Like an airplane, MyTouch employs redundant controls: mechanical, touch-screen, and voice-recognition.

The mechanical switches are the most original and best thought-out. There are two sets, one on each end of the steering wheel spoke, and they correspond to the functions displayed directly above them. So instead of having to search the console or manipulate a knob, the driver merely manipulates four-way controllers to customize the screens in front of him.

Over the center console, the touch screen is rational, approachable, and fairly useful. But it suffers from the shortcomings endemic to such devices: It doesn't always respond to the first touch; it can confuse instructions from touches that are imprecise or fingers that are gloved; and the screen quickly develops a scrim of oily finger prints.

As for the voice controls, I have been suspicious of their effectiveness and dislike the sound of my own voice talking to an inanimate object -- much less having to frequently repeat instructions when misunderstood. Ford's system, however, can recognize 10,000 commands and is relatively responsive. It can come in handy when changing audio sources instead of taking your eyes off the road to fumble with the touch screen

Enough about MyTouch. What about the Edge? Based on the popular Ford Fusion, it seemed like an afterthought when it was introduced in 2007. Since then, however, it has become Ford's second most popular utility vehicle (after the smaller Escape). It handily outsold the old Explorer and demolishes the love-it or hate-it Flex.

The Edge is an SUV for people who hate SUVs. With its flat roof, prominent rear spoiler, and chiseled features, it presents itself as much as a sport wagon as it does a utility vehicle. Think of it has the high-fashion alternative, which perhaps explains its popularity with women.

It is a handsome piece, effectively updated for 2011 with a lower hood, narrower headlights, and a chrome grille. The instrument panel is trim and modern, and the rest of the interior is well executed.

Except for its looks, though, it is difficult to say where the Edge stands out. The Edge has great brakes but weighs more than 4,000 pounds and drives as heavy as it is. Its fuel economy is decent at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway, but cargo capacity is mediocre.

Bargain hunters should look elsewhere. My candy apple metallic Limited tester with its 3.5-liter V-6 engine carried a base sticker price of $34,220, and the addition of the extra-large sunroof and a few other options (though not all-wheel-drive) pushed the price up to an aggressive $40,390. MyTouch is standard equipment at this level; it is a $1,000 option when packaged with other options at less expensive trim levels.

Years ago, Ford dominated the high-fashion carryall market with wagons like the Country Squire, notable for its wood-grained body panels. Then the Explorer came along and changed everything with its command seating position, cavernous cargo capacity, and four-wheel-drive.

Edge may find itself in the Country Squire's position; the Explorer will be relaunched as a crossover this year and will also offer MyTouch as an option. Edge built up a loyal following in those years when it had less competition in the Ford lineup, but the fashion-conscious can be fickle shoppers.

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