The Ford Explorer is a popular choice for SUV buyers. Does it stand out enough to be the compelling one?
What is it?
The Explorer is essentially a tall-wagon version of the Taurus sedan. Historically the Explorer has been a top seller for Ford, and this mid-sized, three-row SUV still has plenty for the buyers of the breed to appreciate.
Pricing and trims
The Explorer is available in five trims, with a range that runs from the $31,050 XLT to the $52, 970 Explorer Platinum 4WD, the latter of which was the base for our tester.
The Platinum’s abundant stitching reinforces the upscale intentions.
The Platinum includes a wide range of standard features, like the dual-panel moonroof.
Options included the $395 Ruby Red paint, which sparkled in the sun. The second row had the $695 bucket seats and $150 console. Total 2016 price was $55,155.
The 2016 Explorer performed well in test conducted by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). It was just Marginal in the rigorous small overlap test, and its active safety features are on the low side of the functionality the IIHS seeks, but it did well otherwise.
Ford’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 cranks out 365 turbocharged horses, and as a result, the Explorer has strong takeoffs and lots of surge for passing. Its power feels like a match for the Explorer’s substantial weight – Ford quotes it at 4,900 pounds – but you are aware that you’re moving a lot of metal as the Explorer picks up steam.
Towing capacity for the EcoBoost V6 is 5,000 pounds, and mileage is similar to the GMC Acadia, which both post 16 mpg in the EPA city test. Both are significantly less than the Honda Pilot‘s rating, which charts at 19 mpg.
The Explorer’s six-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly, and requests for a lower gear were honored quickly. The Platinum’s four-wheel drive has a Terrain Management System that Ford says adjusts to its conditions 20 times faster than the blink of an eye.
We had no occasion to evaluate the different modes during the Explorer’s sunny stay here in the Bay Area, but those modes include snow, sand and mud, and it defaults to normal when the Explorer is restarted.
Ride and handing
You’d think that the tested Explorer’s 20-inch wheels would give a harsh ride, but this SUV had a supple ride, and it handled well, too.
The Explorer’s massiveness is the first thing you notice behind the wheel. It’s a WIDE vehicle, with just under 79 inches to aim through the holes in traffic. That’s about as wide as an 1970s full-sized sedan, and it’s actually 0.1 inches wider than Ford’s full-sized Expedition SUV. It’s something to consider if you have a narrow garage.
Couple that width with the Explorer’s near-5,000-pound curb weight, and you become grateful for the well-tuned suspension, which gives a compliant ride and keeps the Explorer level in curves. The Explorer’s sheer bulk discourages one from probing the limits, but there’s enough starch in the mix to keep it feeling capable.
Swing open the front door, and your eye falls to the snazzy quilting in the seat bolsters’ white leather. “Oooo,” was the first response of a friend who is hardened by the procession of test cars through here. The Platinum’s digs are delicious at first sight.
The Platinum’s seats have massagers in the cushions and three-portion lumbar supports in the backrest. It’s fun to get dialed in, but you can’t help but notice the narrowness of the seats themselves, especially as they’re plunked into an interior that’s as wide as just about any SUV you’d consider.
Not a dealbreaker, and you might not notice the stool-like feel if you’re not a six-footer like your reviewer, but it felt like a curious design decision all the same.
Finding a proper driving position was easy, thanks in part to the Platinum’s standard adjustable pedals.
Second-row seats were low to the floor but had good back support. The optional console was nice for the armrest, but it blocked access to the third row, and the armrest didn’t lift up for storage.
The second-row seats folded and powered forward at the touch of a button for easy access to the third row.
The third row was hospitable for even tall adults, and its ample 33.3 inches of legroom is about what you’d find in the back seat of a compact sedan, like the Ford Focus.
There are 21 cubic feet of cargo space when all the seats are up, which again mirrors what you’d find in a 1970s full-sized sedan. Here, that space is configured with a deep well and lots of height.
The third row powers up and down in various configurations with the help of buttons on the cargo wall.
Infotainment and controls
Ford’s SYNC system has taken its licks for an overly complicated menu flow and annoyingly insistent voice warnings, along with a screen that’s less responsive to the touch than, say, Chrysler’s Uconnect system. This will be fixed in the Explorer for 2017, when it gets the resoundingly improved SYNC 3.
The 2016 soldiers on with the previous system, and while familiarity breeds contentment, it can take a while to get truly comfortable with it. Ease of use is possible, just commit yourself to a close reading of SYNC’s manual to educate yourself on this system’s occasionally quirky logic.
The 500-watt Sony sound system is a Platinum exclusive, and it sounded terrific both at moderate volumes and scream-along full blast.
The backlit buttons on the center stack lit up a Christmas tree at night, and again, they operated smoothly, once you learned their somewhat random positionings.
The gauges incorporated a center information panel and alerts in the gauges’ centers.
Second-row passengers have their own climate controls, along with USB ports and an AC power point.
The Explorer rides a middle ground in the SUV market. It’s less expensive than the larger Expedition, but it’s still plenty big. It’s much more powerful than the Honda Pilot, but it weighs much more as well, which knocks down its fuel economy by comparison. The sheer quantity of luxury features in the Explorer Platinum may be what sways buyers to this particular trim.
The Platinum is attractive, with exciting detailing and a beefy presence.
And the Platinum is impressive when you open the door, as illustrated by the illuminated sill plates with cool blue EXPLORER lettering. There’s a lot for your eye to like.
Unfortunately, not all that your eye fell upon was pleasant. The strong contrast of brushed-aluminum and shiny trim on a black backdrop highlighted the mismatch of the instrument panel to the passenger door. Once seen, it remained an ever-present flaw.
The driver’s door trim was similarly misaligned. Again, hard to un-see.
Then on the day the Explorer was picked up, I motored up the third row to check if anything had fallen into the bin below, and it turned out that something had – this bit of homemade-looking wiring had come loose and drooped down.
The electric-tape crudity of it aside, the fact that this wiring was ready to hook whatever you might try to slide under the seats if you didn’t see it first was completely unbecoming of a $55K vehicle of any kind, made by any manufacturer.
We’d excuse these niggles if it were a first-year production car, but the Explorer is a market veteran, and these details should have been long settled by now.
These disappointments aside, the fact that the larger Expedition is the same width and is much roomier inside would have me leaning toward a lightly optioned Expedition over the premium Explorer Platinum. The Expedition has fewer compromises, and it’s more satisfying overall.
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2016 Ford Explorer Platinum 4WD
Base price: $52,970, including $945 destination charge
Price as tested: $55,155
Ruby Red Metallic: $395
2nd Row Bucket Seats: $695
2nd Row Console: $150
California Emissions System: No Charge
Front License Plate Bracket: No Charge