With its 113-inch wheelbase, the Ford Explorer is bigger than it’s ever been, about the same size now as the Chevy Traverse and Honda Pilot.
Explorer looks rugged, but that’s deceiving. In fact, it should be viewed as a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive family wagon. It’s not rough and tumble like it used to be, back in the day when it was body-on-frame, and had locking hubs and a low-range transfer case. With the right options, today it can tow 5000 pounds and seat seven people, but so can the Kia Sorento.
For 2016, Explorer got a light re-do, including smoother bodywork, nicer and quieter interior, new available engine, and Sync 3 infotainment system. For practical purposes the generation stretches back to 2011, when it went crossover.
For 2017, Explorer offers a new 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. Otherwise, it carries over unchanged.
Base engine is a 3.5-liter V6 that’s used in many other Fords, from Flex to Fusion. It makes 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, and can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds, using the standard 6-speed automatic transmission. It comes as front-wheel drive but all-wheel drive is available on upper models.
A popular engine is the four-cylinder 2.3-liter turbo, available on some models and standard on Explorer Limited AWD. This EcoBoost four can be found in the Lincoln MKC and Ford Mustang, and in the Explorer makes 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s better than the V6 in every aspect, including the sound that comes from the tuned exhaust system.
The most powerful and most fun engine is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 making 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, in the Platinum and 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, but it’s still a long way from the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT.
Naturally, fuel mileage for that engine is the lowest of the three, at an EPA-estimated 16 City, 22 Highway and 18 Combined miles per gallon. The base V6 doesn’t do much better, at 17/24/20 mpg, while the EcoBoost turbocharged four 19/28/22 mpg. It’s worth noting that many EcoBoost buyers complain that their mileage doesn’t match the EPA rating.
The Explorer earns five stars in its NHTSA crash rating in every category except rollover, but we can’t think of any tall SUV that gets five stars there. 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.
One feature that might enhance safety but doesn’t factor into crash ratings is the Explorer’s Curve Control within the stability control; it adapts throttle and brake to upcoming corners. Also standard is trailer sway control.
The Ford Explorer ($31,160) comes standard with the 3.5-liter V6 engine, front-wheel drive, cloth upholstery, air conditioning. Explorer XLT upgrades with 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition, satellite radio, navigation, and 10-way power driver’s seat. Explorer Limited 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.
All-wheel drive is available for all trim levels, including Explorer XLT AWD ($35,775).
Explorer Limited AWD models get the 2.3-liter turbo engine. Explorer Sport and Platinum ($53,235) get the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 and come standard with all-wheel drive.
Explorer’s styling might be considered authoritarian, with sharp corners and clean edges, as well as a textured grille and a lot of cladding. It’s sixteen and a half feet long, and weighs from 4400 to 4900 pounds. It’s not exactly rugged, and it’s not much like what made the Explorer successful back in the day. Explorer Platinum models get LED lighting and distinctive trim that say more about today’s Explorer.
The cabin of the Ford Explorer ranks with those of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango in its handsomeness, even a bit more contemporary, with metallic plastic on the center stack. Ford says it wants the Explorer to be up there with Audi and BMW, and will keep improving until it is.
It’s got some room to go, namely in polishing the Sync 3 infotainment system. It was a huge step last year to get rid of the painful MyFord Touch system, but Sync 3 still isn’t a better alternative to Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. There are more real buttons than touch-screen functions, which is good.
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 thick rear pillars.
The front seats (heated on most models) are supportive and comfortable, with soft cushions, the right amount of bolstering, and high and soft armrests. The rear seats provide plenty of legroom, but they aren’t so comfortable. They could use 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, and they work better; your big SUV loses a seat, but it’s also easier to reach the third row. 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.
The base V6 engine is quick enough from a standstill with your foot on the floor, but on a winding road requiring acceleration between the curves, the weak torque on the lower part of the powerband will have you flailing the shift lever. Most models have a sport mode, and its quicker throttle and shift responses help some; but without that sport mode, the shifts are slow. One really good thing is that the transmission will hold its lower gears when told. No paddle shifters here.
The 2.3-liter four-cylinder turbo is way better. It not only gives sharper acceleration, it sounds sweeter, throaty, with amplified engine notes piped into the cabin. It’s got good low end and spurts away from corners. It loves sport mode. If you’re the least bit enthusiastic about driving, you need it.
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 (and it always has been). It’ll get you and six friends or family through the snow to a ski resort, and more important, back down off the icy mountain safely. The system has Normal, Mud, Sand, and Snow modes, and electronically varies the throttle and braking to deliver the best traction. Rugged terrain is not its forte.
The Explorer has a lot of competition nowadays. We think the EcoBoost 2.3-liter turbo is the way to go, but research the fuel mileage issues first. We wish it were more off-roady, the 6-speed transmission had paddle shifters, the Sync 3 infotainment system were simpler, and the second-row seats more comfortable.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with driving impressions by The Car Connection staff.