The Ford Explorer is in the ninth year of its life cycle. That is a long, long time in car years, but the mid-size Ford SUV still has some features and talents to recommend.
The current generation arrived in showrooms in 2011, and was refreshed in 2016. It’s been something of an anomaly in Explorer history: Most generations have been rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame SUVs, but the current one’s a front-wheel-drive unibody crossover. The new model that’s coming in 2020 will revert to rear-drive form, and will lead a luxury push at Ford in the next decade.
In the meantime, the 2019 Explorer gains a wider availability of active safety equipment (but not standard in all models, like the smaller Ford Edge), some new trim packages, and a power liftgate on the XLT. Not much incentive against waiting for the new one.
About the same size as a Honda Pilot or Chevy Traverse, the mid-size Explorer’s aged styling holds up; if anything, it looks classier than those crossovers that go off chasing edges. It carry seven people, has a vast 81 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded flat, and can tow 5,000 pounds. On a wheelbase of 113 inches, the Explorer is sixteen and a half feet long, and weighs 4,900 pounds fully loaded.
The base engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 used in other Fords, from Flex to Fusion. It makes 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, and can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, using the standard 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is available.
The popular 2.3-liter turbo-4 is standard on Explorer Limited AWD, and available on some other models. It’s the same engine that’s in the Mustang and Lincoln MKC, and is way better than the V-6. It makes 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, and has a cool exhaust note.
The high-performance engine is the twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 making 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque; it comes with Explorer Platinum and Explorer Sport AWD models. The Sport also gets 20-inch wheels, bigger brakes and a stiffer chassis. It can’t run with a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, but it’s got respectable acceleration for a sport SUV.
The turbo-4 is EPA rated at 22 mpg combined, but many owners report that their mileage doesn’t achieve the EPA rating. The twin-turbo V-6 gets an EPA-rated 18 mpg Combined city and highway, just two miles per gallon less than the base V-6, at 20 mpg Combined.
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 Explorer is available in base, XLT, Limited, Sport, and Platinum models.
The base Explorer ($31,990) comes standard with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine, front-wheel drive, cloth upholstery, air conditioning. All-wheel drive is available for all models. Front-wheel drive is standard. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Explorer XLT ($34,020) and XLT AWD ($36,170) upgrade with 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition, satellite radio, navigation, power liftgate, 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 twin-turbo V-6 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.
The revision in 2016 helped keep the Explorer from looking dated today, but its initial design did most of that, by being clean, classy and restrained, at a time when others were going all edgy and futuristic. The next Explorer will have a hard time doing as well, because who knows where design will go in the next decade?
From the shoulders up, the Explorer has timeless beauty for an SUV, with the most graceful pillars and 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 wheel wells and under the doors, but it’s not ugly like most.
Ford wants the Explorer cabin to be up there with Audi and BMW, but there’s work to do. It’s at least as handsome as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, while being a bit more contemporary.
Ford fits most Explorers with a big touchscreen for its Sync 3 infotainment system, which is an improvement over its older setupâ€”though we still prefer the simplicity of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
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 vision is good thanks to a high seating position, although there are over-the-shoulder blind spots thanks to those rear pillars.
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, since the seat cushion is somewhat short.
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 third row like so many is cramped for adults, but okay for kids, who 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.
The base Explorer V-6 is quick enough around town, but on a winding road under acceleration between the curves, there’s less torque at lower engine speeds. In this situation the Explorer demands constant downshifting of the transmission to find that torque, 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 turbo-4 has sharper acceleration with good low end grunt, 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 few cars that are still contenders after nine years of the same designâ€”especially not in a class with as many strong rivals as the mid-size SUV crossover niche. That the Explorer remains worthy says a lot.