Ford Explorer is among the best seven-passenger sport-utility vehicles available. It delivers the function and family-friendly features of a minivan with the rugged appeal of an SUV.
New for 2013 was an Explorer Sport trim with a twin-turbocharged version of Ford’s 3.5-liter V6 engine, a sport-tuned suspension and all-wheel-drive. Using Premium gas, Explorer Sport makes up to 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. A number of advancements introduced on the Sport edition were added to regular 2014 Explorers.
For 2015, a new optional appearance package for the SLT edition promises sport-inspired design details, including black bodyside cladding, 20-inch machined aluminum wheels, and leather-trimmed heated seats with suede inserts. Entry-level models now ride on 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Explorer gets major revisions for the 2016 model year.
Options on Explorer Limited models include a lane departure warning system, heated steering wheel, and a power tilt-and-telescoping steering column. All 2015 Explorer models come standard with a front-passenger knee airbag.
This current generation of the Ford Explorer, introduced for 2011, features a one-piece, unibody design rather than a ladder-type truck frame with a separate, bolted on body. The result is more car-like driving dynamics, as well as significant weight savings, which translates to better fuel economy.
Powering all 2015 Ford Explorer models except the Sport is 3.5-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, four-wheel drive is optional. Although the Explorer does not come with low-range gearing, 4WD versions of the Explorer get Ford’s Terrain Management system, which allows the driver to select from four modes for optimal traction in a variety of driving environments. It also includes hill start assist and hill descent control.
Fuel economy with the base V6 engine on front-wheel-drive Explorer models is an EPA-estimated 17/24 mpg City/Highway, or 17/23 mpg City/Highway on 4WD models.
Even with regular all-season 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.
For maximum fuel economy, front-wheel-drive versions of the 2015 Ford Explorer can be equipped with an optional 2.0-liter, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine. Making 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, it delivers an EPA-estimated 20/28 mpg City/Highway.
The 2.0 EcoBoost is sufficiently powerful, and acceptable if mileage is the absolute priority. Still, depending on gas prices and how many miles you drive, it can take time to recover the 2.0-liter engine’s $1,000 up-front cost in fuel savings. We prefer the standard 290-horspower V6 with its smooth, strong acceleration.
Explorer’s chassis is super rigid, which not only makes for great crash-test scores, but also a quiet cabin, excellent ride quality and solid handling that belies the Explorer’s considerable size.
Inside, there is plenty of 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 and build quality are quite good.
The base Explorer comes well equipped. The upgraded Limited trim is leather-upholstered, with heated-seats and offered with premium audio, navigation and rear-seat DVD entertainment. The MyFordTouch interface is optional, but can be cumbersome and at least a little annoying.
Other SUVs to consider in this class include the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot or Mazda CX-9. All provide similar or slightly better cargo space, but lack the history and cachet of the Explorer nameplate.
Ford Explorer is rugged but refined, familiar but fresh. It’s a foot longer than the Ford 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.
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 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. Rear taillights are LED, and also look good.
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 yacht.
Wheels are 17-inch steel with plastic covers on the base Explorer, 10-spoke 18-inch painted aluminum on the XLT, 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 or crab pincers, and don’t do justice to the car.
Fit and finish inside the Explorer are excellent, and we particularly like the Limited’s leather seats.
The front seats sit up high, which is good because the hood looks long from the driver’s seat. The slanted center stack has a clean design and uses stylish satin-finish trim materials. 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.
Cars equipped with MyFordTouch have two driver-configurable LCD 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. 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.
It can all be a bit overwhelming, as many of the features and functions 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.
We found the voice recognition system to be problematic.
In terms of spaciousness, the Ford Explorer cabin doesn’t disappoint. Second-row legroom measures an impressive 40 inches; third-row legroom comes in at 33.2 inches. 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.
Cubby storage adds convenience. A lidded bin in front of the shift lever is designed to hold two cellphones, and cup holders are provided to the right of the shifter.
The Ford Explorer has the practicality, function and family-friendly features of good minivans, with a more rugged appeal and real off-road capability.
The optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine packs significant wallop for its size. With a peak of 240 horsepower, the 2.0-liter 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.
Yet the problem with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine in the Explorer is that a lot of drivers will be keeping it floored a lot of the time. It often seems like it’s working really hard, with a lot of sound and fury to minimal effect. If fuel-economy is a very high priority, the 2.0-liter EcoBoost will get the job done. But we’d guess most owners would be happier with the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6.
Ford’s dual-overhead cam, all-aluminum V6 is quite efficient in is own right. 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.
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.
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.
The Explorer will tow 5000 pounds when equipped with the tow package, and includes trailer sway control, which works with the stability control. 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.
The Ford Explorer is large, good-looking and relatively fuel-efficient crossover SUV with a long heritage, which comes nicely equipped at any trim level.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Ford Explorer near Portland, Oregon, with Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles.