The Ford Explorer, about the same size as a Honda Pilot or Chevy Traverse, has made a graceful transition to from a rear-wheel-drive to a front-wheel-drive family hauler (with all-wheel drive available). Though not as rugged as it used to be, it is a mid-size crossover SUV that can tow 5000 pounds and carry seven people, and has a vast 81 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded flat.
The current generation began with model year 2011, with its transition from traditional SUV to car-based crossover, and was last revised for 2016. Mechanically, it’s long in the tooth, but there is no question the styling holds up; if anything the Explorer looks classier than those crossovers chasing edges.
Base engine is a 3.5-liter V6 used in other Fords, from Flex to Fusion. It makes 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, and can accelerate the Explorer to 60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds, using the standard 6-speed automatic transmission.
Front-wheel drive is standard, all-wheel drive is available.
The popular EcoBoost four-cylinder 2.3-liter turbo is available on some models, standard on Explorer Limited AWD. It’s the same engine that’s in the Mustang and Lincoln MKC. It makes 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, and is way better than the V6, starting with its exhaust note.
Offering high performance is the twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 making 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque; it comes with Explorer Platinum and Explorer Sport AWD models. If they made an Explorer SHO it would have this engine. The Explorer Sport with this twin-turbo V6 gets 20-inch wheels, bigger brakes and a stiffer chassis. It can’t run with a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, but delivers respectable acceleration performance.
The twin-turbo V6 gets an EPA-rated 18 mpg Combined city and highway, just two miles per gallon less than the base V6, at 20 mpg Combined. The EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder rates 22 mpg, but many EcoBoost owners report that their mileage doesn’t achieve the EPA rating.
The Explorer earns five stars in its NHTSA crash rating in every category except rollover, but SUVs never ace that one. With the IIHS, the Explorer got top scores in the moderate-front overlap, side impact and roof strength tests, but only Marginal in the small-overlap crash test, which relatively few ace.
The Ford Explorer ($31,990) comes standard with the 3.5-liter V6 engine, front-wheel drive, cloth upholstery, air conditioning.
All-wheel drive is available for all models. Front-wheel drive is standard.
Explorer XLT ($34,020) and XLT AWD ($36,170) upgrade with 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition, satellite radio, navigation, and 10-way power driver’s seat.
Explorer Limited ($42,090) features leather seating, 20-inch wheels, heated steering wheel, interior ambient lighting, heated and cooled front seats, heated second row, power folding third row, 12-speaker Sony sound system. Limited AWD models come with the 2.3-liter turbo engine.
Explorer Sport ($45,950) and Platinum ($53,940) get the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 and all-wheel drive.
There’s a Sport Appearance Package for lower trims, rendering a more aggressive look with 20-inch wheels, a gray grille insert and black cladding, black roof rack, and gray leather seating with gray suede accents and contrast stitching. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
For being in the eighth year of its generation, the smooth styling holds up. It was revised for 2016, so it’s not so old, more like distinguished. Distinguished by being classy and subtle, showing restraint at a time when others are going all overboard on edgy and futuristic.
The roofline window-line, from the shoulders up, has timeless beauty. It’s the most graceful pillar/roofline in the game. With tinted rear glass and the small roof spoiler, it flows like a hawk.
There’s continuous cladding from the front to rear bumpers, over the wheelwells and under the doors, but it’s not intrusive.
On a wheelbase of 113 inches, the Explorer is sixteen and a half feet long, and weighs 4900 pounds fully loaded.
Ford wants the Explorer cabin to be up there with Audi and BMW, and they say they will stay on it until it is. It’s at least as handsome as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, while being a bit more contemporary, as revised for 2016.
But if it’s going to be tops, the infotainment must be tops, and Ford’s Sync 3 isn’t. It’s way better than the previous painful MyFord Touch, but we wish Sync 3 were simpler. It isn’t a better alternative to Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
There are a lot of control knobs and buttons on the dash, intelligently put there for 2016.
With tight door seals, engine mounts that absorb vibration, and acoustic glass all around (except for the Base), it’s soft and quiet in the cabin. Forward visibility is good thanks to a high seating position, although there are over-the-shoulder blind spots thanks to those rear pillars. Beauty has a price.
The front seats (heated on most models) are supportive and comfortable, with soft cushions, the right amount of bolstering, and high soft armrests. The rear seats provide plenty of legroom but need more padding; the horizontal cushion is short and slanted awkwardly, and there’s not enough width in the center for an adult.
Rear bucket seats are available, which are more comfortable and open the access to the available third row. That reduces the seating capacity to six, but it’s a more convenient use that works for many. The dual-panel moonroof really opens things up.
The third row like so many is cramped for adults, but okay for kids, who (if you don’t have the rear buckets) climb back there over the forward-flipped second row.
The third row folds forward, with available power, to create a vast 81 cubic feet for cargo with a floor that’s nearly flat. There’s still 21 cubic feet even with all rows up.
It’s easy to find the limits of the base V6. It’s quick enough around town, but on a winding road under acceleration between the curves, there’s not enough torque at lower rpm, demanding constant downshifting of the transmission to find it, and the shifts are slow unless you’re in Sport mode, which most models have. That mode brings quicker shifts and throttle response. Paddle shifters aren’t available at all.
The 2.3-liter four-cylinder turbo has sharper acceleration with good low end, so it spurts away from corners. It loves Sport mode. It has a sweet sound: throaty, with amplified engine notes piped into the cabin. If you’re the least bit enthusiastic about driving, you need this engine.
The suspension uses MacPherson struts in front with an isolated subframe, and multi links in the rear, with anti-roll bars at both ends. The Sport gets a quicker steering rack, firmer suspension bits, and a strut tower brace with stiffer anti-roll bar in front.
The Explorer’s off-road capability is modest. Rugged terrain is not its forte. But it will get you and six friends or family through the snow to a ski resort, and back down off the icy mountain safely, an achievement maybe not so modest. The system has Normal, Mud, Sand, and Snow modes, and electronically varies the throttle and braking to deliver the best traction.
There are many tough competitors in the class, and Explorer has aged, but it remains a solid choice. Graceful, brawny exterior, sports suspension with the right bits. Can seat six, happily. Vast cargo space. Six-speed automatic, Sync 3 infotainment are the weak spots.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports.