Out of the box, the Ford Explorer has demonstrated itself to be one the best, seven-passenger sport-utility vehicles available. It delivers the function and family friendly features of a minivan with a more rugged emotional appeal, off-road and towing capability for those who need it, and SUV mileage that was unheard of back in the day.
The venerable Explorer was essentially re-invented for 2011, and Ford might have taken a pass on further improvements for 2012. The opposite is true. In addition to an expanded palette of paint colors, the 2012 Explorer is now offered with an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Ford's so-called 2.0 EcoBoost is the first four-cylinder in an SUV of the Explorer's size in a long, long time. It has more power than the standard V6 in the previous-generation Explorer, with half the displacement, and it delivers the highest EPA mileage ratings in this class: 20/28 mpg City/Highway.
This latest-generation Explorer has a one-piece, unitized body and frame like the typical sedan, rather than an old-school, ladder-type truck frame with a separate, bolted on body. It's four inches longer and five inches wider than the previous (pre-2011), body-on-frame Explorer, with third-row seating standard, yet it's 100 pounds lighter. Both the 2.0 EcoBoost and the standard 3.5-liter V6 are more powerful than previous-generation engines, yet mileage improves up to 40 percent.
The 2012 Explorer is available in base, XLT and Limited trim levels. All are great looking, rugged in a familiar SUV way, but also fresh and aerodynamically refined, and all models seat seven. This big SUV actually looks smaller than it is.
Inside, there is class-leading legroom in the second row, real space for passengers in the third, and up to 80.7 cubic-feet of cargo space. It can be reconfigured in seconds, with split rear seats that fold with a button on each side and bounce back up with the pull of a lever. The interior is smartly styled and well finished. The materials are good and the build quality great.
The base Explorer comes well equipped, with all the essentials, plenty of niceties and no overly complicated controls. The leather-upholstered, heated-seat Limited is luxury grade. It's offered with nearly all the bells and whistles, including premium audio, navigation and rear-seat DVD entertainment. The optional MyFordTouch voice/touch control interface can be cumbersome and at least a little annoying, but its leading-edge quality will appeal to some buyers, and it has undergone its first round of refinement and improvement for 2012.
The 2.0 EcoBoost is sufficiently powerful, and acceptable if mileage is the absolute priority. Still, if gas costs $4 per gallon and you drive 15,000 miles a year, it will take more than three years to recover the four-cylinder's $1,000 up-front cost in fuel savings. We prefer the standard 290-horspower V6. It delivers smooth, strong acceleration, and ranks near the top of the class in both horsepower and fuel economy: 17/25 mpg.
Explorer's chassis is super rigid, using twice as much high-strength steel as the old. That makes for not only great crash-test scores, but also a quiet cabin, excellent ride quality and solid handling that belies the Explorer's considerable size.
All-wheel drive is available on all models with the V6. The all-wheel drive maximizes traction with a fancy electronic system called Terrain Management. Even with regular all-season tires rather than specialized tires, the Explorer will blast through sand or traverse deep ditches and steep hills, no problem. We know. We did it. And it has the smoothest ride we've encountered over such terrain.
Ford claims the Explorer has 10 segment-exclusive features or systems, starting with a couple of safety standouts: the optional inflatable rear seatbelts and standard curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory. Beyond the required complement of front, front-side and head-protection airbags, it has an extra knee-protection airbag for the front passenger and all the electronic traction and stability systems, including rollover mitigation and trailer sway control.
Ford Explorer ($28,870); XLT ($32,345); Limited ($37,855)
The Ford Explorer is a looker, rugged but refined, familiar but definitely fresh. Five new metallic paint colors for 2012 enhance its polished appearance.
Re-invented for 2011, the current Explorer is 4 inches longer and 5 inches wider than its body-on-frame predecessor. It's a foot longer than Ford's Edge crossover, a few inches shorter than the Dodge Durango SUV and about eight inches shorter than the Chevy Traverse. Yet it's several inches wider than all of them.
Explorer's width is evident in its confident stance, but its smooth styling cheats the eye. It has beefy but smooth proportions, with fluid lines that are more aerodynamic than before. Details such as the liftgate spoiler and flexible lower front air dam (in black) were tweaked in the wind tunnel.
Beautiful headlights complement the graceful fenders and transform the inherently square nose. The amber indicators sweep back like narrow wings atop tidy main projector beams. The plastic grille is gray on the base Explorer, body-colored on the XLT (the best looking), and satin-chrome on the Limited. The hood looks short from the side but long when looking straight down it. It's got two parallel humps and a scoop in the center, smoother than it sounds. Rear taillights are LED, and also look good. Black rockers on the sides allegedly lift the eye, but do they? We still like body-colored better.
The window outline is clean, bold and symmetrical, with blackened A-, B-, and D-pillars, and body-colored C-pillars that slant down and back and impart forward motion to the vehicle. With standard dark privacy glass, from the shoulders up, in white at least, the Explorer looks like a sleek and powerful yacht.
You'll also see themes from other Ford products. The fender flares are inspired by the Mustang, body sides follow the lines of the Taurus, and the three-bar grille strikes clearly of Range Rover (until recently part of the Ford family). There's a rich, shiny brownish color called Golden Bronze Metallic that we swear we've seen on Range Rovers, only it looks even better on the Explorer.
Wheels are 17-inch steel with plastic covers on the base Explorer, 10-spoke 18-inch painted aluminum on the XLT (best looking), and 20-inch painted aluminum with spokes like flower petals on the Limited. The optional 20-inch polished aluminum wheels have spokes like shriveling flower petals. No wait, those spokes now look like crab pincers, or no, make that a dentist's tooth extractor tool. They'd don't do justice to the car.
And it is a car, if you define truck by a ladder frame with a separate, bolted-on body. If that's the definition, we can stop saying truck for most SUVs now, and maybe even stop saying crossover, because they've just about all crossed over. The body-on-frame structure is just for pickups anymore, or a few big, aging SUVS. Virtually every manufacturer is building SUVs with a one-piece, unitized body-frame because they're stiffer, and with today's high-strength steels, they're lighter.
The reinvented Explorer uses twice as much high-strength steel as the old one, and throws in Boron steel because its strength is not only high. It's also thin so it bends more easily to form the Explorer's chassis curves, allowing the fenders to wrap gracefully and fade away at the corners. Such curves also help to transmit crash energy down and outside, away from the cabin.
There's a lot that's good inside the Explorer, and only one thing that really gives pause, but we'll start with all the space.
How about outstanding second-row legroom, at nearly 40 inches, and good third-row space at 33.2 inches? Two 12-year-olds will be happy in the third row, with that legroom to squirm in and their own cupholders and bins. Because the rear doors swing wide and open easily, and because the second-row seat flips forward in a heartbeat, reaching the rear row is an easy climb, even for adults.
Cargo volume measures 21 cubic feet behind the third row (comparable to trunk space in a big sedan, and among the best in Explorer's class), 43.8 cubic feet behind the second row (comparable to a compact SUV or crossover with the rear seats folded), and 80.7 behind the front seats. The cargo space is substantially less than what's available in GM's longer trio of crossovers (Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave), but competitive with the rest of Explorer's competition. There's a little bit more maximum cargo volume in a Dodge Durango or a Honda Pilot.
Still, it's very easy to change configurations in the Explorer. The second seat folds like magic at the touch of a button on each side, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever.
The front seat elevates high, which is good because the hood looks long from the driver's seat. The Explorer will be a versatile family vehicle, so the seats have memory in the XLT and Limited, while the steering wheel and pedals adjust for different drivers in the family. The ratcheted headrests are great, because they meet safety standards but don't push your head down at the chin. It's a problem with other vehicles that Ford solves with ratchets.
Ford says its goal was to make the Explorer's interior look expensive, like a BMW X5 or Audi Q7. They've succeeded, at least on the Limited, although 40k-ish is expensive enough to warrant looking it. All the panels inside Explore fit precisely. The Limited's leather seats are perfect (and optional on the XLT), both in bolstering and stiffness/softness. They're heated on XLT, heated and cooled with perforated leather on Limited.
When the driver surveys his or her domain, it all looks satisfying, with a clean and slanted center stack using stylish satin-finish trim materials, and attractive climate vents and audio speakers. The doors have metal speaker grilles, and curve into the dash panel. There's a big glovebox with a shelf, leather grab handles and armrests on Explorers with leather interior, and long door pockets with space for a bottle.
One reason we like the base model is its conventional gauges, relatively simple 4.2-inch LCD screen at the top of the center stack, and familiar mechanical knobs below. The base Explorer doesn't come with the MyFordTouch driver connect technology, and neither does the XLT, unless it's chosen as an option.
MyFordTouch has two driver-configurable LCD cluster screens in front of the driver on either side a big speedometer, and an 8-inch color touch screen at the top of the center stack. Already our driving is distracted. The screens come in four quadrants and colors: yellow for phone, red for audio, blue for climate and red for navigation. You have to scroll through a lot of stuff to get information, for example engine temperature, and even after you figure it all out, it can take your focus off the road to perpetually configure.
Many of the features and functions, say climate or audio settings, can be adjusted in four separate ways: by voice command, by thumb buttons on the steering-wheel spokes, by touching the display screen itself or by using the buttons in the switch stack below, should you choose to do it the old-fashioned way.
It's a bewildering at first, mostly in terms deciding which of the four options to use for the intended adjustment. There's a satisfying little blip sound when you make positive contact with a function on the touch screen, for example the climate system. Still, the touch screen doesn't work as well as the buttons below, at least not for us, but even the buttons take some getting used to. Actually, they are more like touch areas, without a mechanical switch to operate. The driver must use a carefully pointed fingertip to find the touch points where the switch actually works.
The voice command is also problematic. During one test, we drove for the morning with a Ford representative, and for the afternoon with a fellow automotive journalist who has a clear radio voice, and Voice Command didn't work for any of the three of us. Well, less than half the time.
We said, Climate, and it replied, Climb in. We said, Seventy-two degrees, and it replied, Eighty-two degrees. We repeated, slowly and with careful articulation, and it stuck to its 82 degrees. We said, Sixty-five degrees, and it replied, Fifty-six degrees is not a valid temperature. It got frustrated with us (maybe it just didn't like our smart-mouthing it), and once told us in no uncertain terms, Say yes or no. We are not making this up. And it wasn't just a war over temperature, it was a war over everything. It got worse before it got better. We wanted points of interest on the map display and it demanded we give it an address for navigation. Finally we stopped talking to it.
Ford has updated the MyFordTouch software for 2012, creating more distinct graphics, easier-to-use menus and allegedly better voice commands than the original scheme. All future updates will be available for free download and installation via a USB thumb drive, and the 2012 updates are available to 2011 MyFordTouch buyers.
In other words, MyFordTouch is already getting better, and with time and familiarity, the various operations get easier, whichever means you choose to control them. In some cases MyFordTouch can be fun to use in a high-tech way. Still, a lot of buyers will be a lot happier with the base system. The problem is that a lot of the bells and whistles offered on the Explorer are only available if you take MyFordTouch.
In short, we are not fans of the voice commands or MyFordTouch, but we really like the rest of the Explorer cabin.
The re-invented Ford Explorer reminds us why sport-utility vehicles started climbing up the sales charts back in the 1990s. It's an excellent choice for active families, particularly if there are more than two kids.
The Explorer has most of the practicality, function and family friendly features of good minivans, with a more rugged emotional appeal and real off-road capability for those who need it. Yet the Explorer is smoother and more car-like than SUVs back in the day, and it gets much better mileage. With the optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine, it gets better mileage than ever.
New for 2012, the 2.0 EcoBoost is one of the most sophisticated engines in Ford's lineup. With features like an advanced turbo-charging system, fully variable valve timing and extra-efficient direct gasoline injection, it packs significant wallop for its size. With a peak of 240 horsepower, the 2.0 EcoBoost makes 50 fewer horsepower than Explorer's standard 3.5-liter V6, or 17 percent less. Yet the four-cylinder is nearly 50 percent smaller than the V6 by displacement. It has more torque than the V6, and better EPA mileage ratings.
Ford pitches the EcoBoost as the best of all worlds, with the power of a V6 and the economy of a four-cylinder. The marketing claims are true, sort of. If an engine is running at full throttle and producing 240 hp, it's using essentially the same amount of energy (or gasoline) whether it has six, four or two cylinders. So if a driver uses full throttle and all 240 horsepower a lot of the time, actual fuel economy gains with the EcoBoost will be much less significant.
But that doesn't mean there are no fuel savings. The four-cylinder will use less fuel than the V6 when it's idling, coasting down and sometimes when cruising at a steady pace, and if the driver is more judicious with the throttle in daily driving, the EcoBoost engine could deliver substantial fuel economy gains. Ford claims that, at 20 mpg City, 28 Highway, the Explorer EcoBoost has higher EPA mileage ratings than any seven-passenger crossover or SUV.
The problem with the EcoBoost in the Explorer is that a lot of drivers will in fact be keeping it floored a lot of the time. While we like this engine in Ford's smaller Edge crossover, we're less enamored in the Explorer. The Explorer is larger, punching a much bigger hole through the air than the Edge, and about 500 pounds heavier. The 2.0 EcoBoost will get and keep the Explorer rolling in satisfactory fashion, to be sure, but for a lot of drivers that will mean a fairly constant, heavy foot on the gas pedal, and that could obviate the purported fuel savings. Moreover, the 2.0 EcoBoost often seems like it's working really hard in the Explorer, with a lot of sound and fury to minimal effect.
Consider some numbers. Base on the EPA's combined mileage rating, the four-cylinder Explorer will use about 650 fewer gallons of fuel than a front-drive V6 over 100,000 miles. At $4 per gallon, that's $2,600 less spent on fuel, though those lifetime savings are reduced by an extra $1,000 at purchase for the 2.0 EcoBoost engine. Put another way, at $4 per gallon and 15,000 miles per year, the four-cylinder Explorer will save its owner just under $300 a year in fuel costs, and it will take 3 years to recover the up-front cost of the 2.0 EcoBoost option.
Bottom line on the four-cylinder: If fuel-economy is a very high priority, the 2.0 EcoBoost will get the job done. But we'd guess that most owners will be a lot happier with the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. And owners who want all-wheel drive will have to take the V6, because AWD isn't offered with the four-cylinder.
Ford's dual-overhead cam, all-aluminum V6, called Ti-VCT, is quite efficient in is own right. The company already claimed the best fuel-economy ratings in larger, seven passenger SUVs with this engine (17 city, 25 highway). Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, the V6 is smooth and responsive, with good acceleration and plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to fifth gear.
We drove nearly 200 miles in a V6 Explorer, mostly at about 60 mph on casual two-lanes with about a dozen freeway miles running uphill to 80 mph, and averaged about 17 mpg. Before we got on the throttle on the freeway, we saw a 20-mpg average.
Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) results it hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. It takes corners and undulations flat, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering allows it to turn relatively tight and quick.
The front suspension uses short and long arms with a fat 32mm stabilizer bar. Engineers gave the rear suspension a name, SR1, because for each wheel movement, the shock absorbers are tuned to make the same motion in the same cadence, which they say eliminates undesirable ride motions. It must be true because we felt no undesirable motions when we drove the Explorer.
Not even off-road. We sampled the AWD Explorer on an off-road course, and we've never tested anything off road that absorbed deep ruts and huge humps so smoothly. We're talking 10 mph here. It was as if the Explorer had a few extra feet of travel in the suspension.
The Explorer's optional all-wheel drive system has no transfer case. That saves weight, and minimizes the fuel-mileage penalty that invariably comes with AWD. Instead, the Explorer maximizes off-road traction with a fancy electronic-control system called Terrain Management.
There are four modes to the system, which the driver sets with a knob behind the shift lever. In the Normal mode, on dry pavement, the vehicle runs at about 90 percent power to the front wheels, 10 percent to the rear. Torque shifts to the rear as needed, if the front wheels lose traction and can't do as much work. Normal mode is what you'll use most of the time, rain or shine.
The Snow/Gravel mode allows less wheelspin, provides conservative throttle control, and enables earlier transmission upshifts. This should help stabilize handling, making the Explorer easier to control in sloppy conditions, though you'll still need to exercise care when slowing down.
The Sand mode provides more aggressive throttle, holds the transmission in gear longer, and desensitizes traction control. Because, unlike in snow, to make progress in sand you need wheelspin. Mud/Ruts allows more torque as throttle increases. Stability control is desensitized to help maintain momentum over soft or uneven surfaces.
It all works very well. Even with all-season tires (as opposed to all-terrain tires which improve traction in snow, sand and mud), the Explorer blasted around a sand pit no problem. With the AWD model, you'll never fear going to the beach and exploring. Go have a family picnic atop the far dune. If your family travels include far-flung adventures off the paved path, the AWD is a valuable tool.
Terrain Management also includes Hill Descent Control, which proved itself on a steep downhill on the off-road course, holding the Explorer's speed to 4 mph without driver input. It's proven itself in many vehicles we've tested, including many Land Rovers. On an icy hill, it could save your life or at least help you avoid crashing and damaging your vehicle. If you think you'll need this feature, it's worth learning how to use it most effectively.
Of course, the standard front-drive Explorer and its various traction enhancing systems do an excellent job in their own right, even in a driving snow, if the travel surface is pavement. Based on the EPA ratings, the AWD model will use about 300 gallons more fuel over 100,000 miles, if you never take it off road, and it costs $2,000 more to begin with. In California, Texas, Florida or large swathes of the South, if owners rarely leave the pavement and plan no significant towing, we'd recommend the front-wheel drive.
The Explorer will tow 5000 pounds when equipped with the tow package, and it includes things you might wonder how you lived without. There's trailer sway control, which works with the stability control, and is another thing that could save your life, or your trailer and whatever it's carrying. There's also a rearview camera with zoom, which will guide you to position the hitch ball directly under the trailer hitch cap, and make you feel like an astronaut docking his spacecraft.
This latest-generation Ford Explorer is larger, better looking, quieter, more powerful and far more fuel efficient than the pre-2011 models. The 2012 Explorer 2.0 EcoBoost option delivers a class leading 28 mpg Highway EPA rating. The Explorer offers lots of choices: three trim levels, two engines, front- or all-wheel drive and plenty of class-exclusive options. The base Explorer in particular jumps out. It's a fully quipped, state-of-the-art seven-seat SUV for under $30,000, with a smooth, powerful V6 that gets an EPA-rated 25 mpg Highway.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Ford Explorer near Portland, Oregon.