For more than a dozen years, the Ford Explorer has been the best-selling SUV in America. In fact, it's the sixth best-selling vehicle. It's become the standard-issue suburban family hauler. Though capable as a tow vehicle and able to venture off the highway, most Explorers spend their lives shuttling people, collecting groceries and performing the duties station wagons performed when Baby Boomers were growing up. The Explorer answers this call admirably and comfortably, and that's a big part of the reason it's so popular.
The Explorer is roomy and comfortable. It can seat seven people when equipped with the optional third-row seat, which folds flat into the cargo floor when not needed. On the other hand, Eddie Bauer and Limited models are luxurious vehicles with available second-row sport bucket seating.
Buyers can choose between V6 and V8 engines, but the V6 provides plenty of power. The V8 isn't needed unless you're pulling trailers or live in the Rocky Mountain states where the air is thin. Part of the reason for this is a superb five-speed automatic transmission. Explorer's wide track and long wheelbase give it a solid, stable stance, while its independent rear suspension (an unusual feature in a mid-to-large-size SUV) gives it a smoother ride and better handling than SUVs with traditional live rear axles.
Safety features abound. AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control is now standard on all Explorers. This sophisticated system not only senses and corrects potential skids and slides, but also monitors for potential rollovers. Onboard electronics determine if one or more wheels is about to lift off the ground, then reduce power and/or selectively brake one or more wheels to re-settle the Explorer back on all fours. We recommend the optional Safety Canopy airbags, which are designed to provide some protection in the event of a rollover. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are also standard, and a tire pressure monitor comes on all but the base model.
The Explorer is rated to pull trailers up to 7,140 pounds when properly equipped, and though it does not excel at off-road travel, it can go most of the places most of us need to go.
With its wheels pushed out toward the corners, the Ford Explorer looks stable and comfortable. Low frame rails keep its front and rear bumpers at about the same height as those of a Ford Taurus, improving safety for the non-SUV drivers around you.
Explorer's styling is fresh and contemporary. Though ubiquitous, it is a handsome, good-looking vehicle. Front and rear fascia are smoothly integrated, while jeweled headlamps and tail lamps give it a sophisticated look. Various combinations of bright, blacked-out, color-contrasting or color-coodinated trim distinguish the XLS from the XLT from the Bauer from the Limited. Wheel treatments are also different at every level.
Pushing the Unlock button on the key fob illuminates the approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors (except XLS), enhancing security and making it easier to find your way at night. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. The keypad doesn't improve the appearance of the Explorer, but it continues to be a popular feature among loyal Ford owners.
The Explorer is a comfortable vehicle, even on long trips. We found the cloth seats in the XLT comfortable, firm, and supportive, with lots of adjustments. The same held true for the leather seats in the Eddie Bauer model.
Adjustable pedals, a tilt steering wheel, and long seat travel help the Explorer fit a wide variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning, something few manufacturers get right. Nicely designed cubbies with rubber mats provide space for a wallet, sunglasses, a pen, cans, and bottles. A relatively large center console keeps odds and ends in check. The interior door handles seemed a bit awkward at first, but that went away with familiarization. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but wouldn't accommodate the one-liter size. The front power outlet was positioned well for a cell phone, but like most, was a reach for a radar detector. The trip computer came in handy, calculating the distance to an empty fuel tank. The optional six-disc in-dash CD player sounds good and is easy to operate, with large, clearly marked controls.
The second row of seats is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom. Many people prefer the second-row bucket seats available on Eddie Bauer and Limited, which are more comfortable but only accommodate two passengers.
Seatbelts use retractors and pre-tensioners designed to reduce injuries in a hard crash. The second-row center seat has an integrated shoulder belt, a feature not found on all SUVs. All occupants should always wear their seat belts as they are the first line of defense in an accident.
Third-row seating is available. In fact, the decision to add third-row seating drove the design and engineering of the current Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while also making it fold quickly into the floor when it isn't needed. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back into the third row, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom and hip room are significantly compromised. It isn't comfortable for an adult. There's little shoulder room, and the seat itself is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need to carry six or seven adults on a regular basis, you may want to consider a bigger SUV, such as the Expedition, or a minivan, such as the Freestar.
The best thing we can say about the Explorer's third row is that it's no worse than the way-back accommodations in GM's stretch-wheelbase Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL. Head, hip, and leg room in the Explorer's third row measure 38.9, 45.4, and 34.9 inches, respectively, versus the Envoy XL's 38.5, 45.9, and 31.2. Yet the Explorer rides on a relatively handy 113.7 inch wheelbase, vs. the awkward 129 inches of the extended TrailBlazer and Envoy. It is a tribute to the clever design of Explorer's independent rear suspension that it allows interior space comparable with that of a much longer, live-axle SUV.
There's not much cargo space behind the third row, but it easily folds away. Simply squeeze a lever and lightly push the seat forward. With some practice, it's possible to unlock the rear hatch, open it, and flip the third row out of the way with one hand, important when juggling an armload of groceries. The third-row bench folds neatly into the foot well.
Well, maybe not so neatly. In fact, neither the second- nor the third-row seats fold perfectly flat, so the load surface slopes back toward the rear hatch. A sliding cover bridges the gap between the two folded seats, but you could
The Ford Explorer is smooth and stable on the highway and handles well on winding roads. The available V8 engine offers excellent acceleration out of corners. Ride quality and handling are quite good, greatly improved over pre-2002 models.
The Explorer rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs all around. It's a sophisticated setup and it works very well. Nearly all of Explorer's competitors are independently sprung up front but most use a live axle in the rear. Explorer's more expensive independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. That means both ride and handling are better.
The Explorer delivers a smooth ride on rough roads. Bumpy corners don't upset it, and it feels stable in fast, sweeping turns. The Explorer is very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. We felt safe and confident while pulling a trailer on a daylong drive through a violent tropical storm in Tennessee. Just knowing the Explorer had automatic 4WD and ABS was comforting when it was raining buckets. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt. But the ride is more comfortable, less jouncy than in some imported SUVs.
The Explorer's standard engine is a modern 4.0-liter V6 with overhead cams and aluminum heads, rated 210 horsepower. Acceleration with the V6 is quite respectable, thanks to the 254 pound-feet of torque it generates at 3700 rpm. You can hear and feel the V6 under full-throttle acceleration and it isn't as smooth as Toyota's V6, but it is entirely within acceptable bounds. You're not likely to need the V8 unless you're towing or live at high altitude.
The optional 4.6-liter V8 provides quick acceleration performance. A modern and sophisticated engine, the V8 is all aluminum for lighter weight, with single overhead camshafts. Like the V6, it makes itself heard and felt under full throttle, but otherwise it's smooth. The V8 produces 239 horsepower at 4750 rpm and 282 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It performed well while towing an empty car trailer across the U.S., though we felt the weight of the trailer on long, steep grades at higher altitudes. According to the trip computer, I was averaging 14 mpg while pulling the trailer.
The real star in the Explorer drivetrain is its sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission. It's smooth and responsive, quickly downshifting when the gas is mashed. It detects the driver's intentions and upshifts later or earlier, depending on what the driver is doing with the throttle. It's a great transmission and makes the V6 and V8 engines feel strong. Turning around and maneuvering in crowded parking lots is easy in the Explorer, with its relatively small turning radius. The optional Reverse Sensing System ($255) alerts the driver to objects behind the vehicle and is handy when maneuvering in tight quarters. (It can be turned off when you are pulling a trailer.) Though not billed as such, this system enhances safety by detecting people, including small children, behind you.
Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes provide stable stopping without drama even at threshold braking (slamming the pedal to the floor and keeping it there until the vehicle stops). Electronic Brake Force Distribution is standard, a great feature as it transfers braking force to the wheels with the best grip to improve stability and reduce stopping distances.
AdvanceTrac, Ford's electronic stability control system, is standard on all Explorers and enhances the capabilities of 4WD models. The system includes electronic traction control that regulates side-to-side torque distribution better than traditional mechanical systems. AdvanceTrac also applies braking selectively when it detects wheelspin. By stopping the spinning wheel, the system sends torque to the wheel that has the best traction.
Off road, the Explorer does no
The Ford Explorer helped usher in the era of the sport-utility as a family vehicle, and was the first SUV to break into the list of the 10 best-selling vehicles in America (in 1991). It was completely redesigned for the 2002 model year. The current Ford Explorer rides smoothly, handles well, and the interior packaging is well thought out and executed. It's a great vehicle for long trips. Comfortable and convenient, it quickly becomes an old friend.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Los Angeles.
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|Build & Price|
2014 FORD EXPLORER$32,496 | 17,194 mi
2013 Ford Explorer$25,981 | 50,656 mi
2013 FORD EXPLORER$26,998 | 45,178 mi
2013 Ford Explorer$27,958 | 34,606 mi
2013 FORD EXPLORER$29,999 | 38,416 mi
2013 Ford Explorer$30,603 | 33,078 mi
2013 FORD EXPLORER$31,990 | 23,213 mi
2013 FORD EXPLORER$38,885 | 20,729 mi
2012 FORD EXPLORER$27,996 | 14,656 mi
2012 Ford Explorer$28,588 | 43,494 mi
2012 FORD EXPLORER$30,987 | 29,686 mi
2012 Ford Explorer$32,550 | 34,820 mi
2012 FORD EXPLORER$38,995 | 13,720 mi
2011 Ford Explorer$24,997 | 43,720 mi
2011 Ford Explorer$28,850 | 51,014 mi
2011 FORD EXPLORER$28,995 | 19,580 mi
2011 FORD EXPLORER$29,987 | 31,420 mi
2011 Ford Explorer$30,493 | 43,812 mi
2011 FORD EXPLORER$30,887 | 36,673 mi
2011 FORD EXPLORER$33,995 | 43,137 mi
2010 Ford Explorer$14,900 | 78,219 mi
2010 FORD EXPLORER$22,995 | 76,284 mi
2008 Ford Explorer$13,995 | 106,251 mi
2008 Ford Explorer$14,999 | 98,368 mi
2007 Ford Explorer$12,995 | 80,960 mi
2007 Ford Explorer Sport Trac$13,721 | 116,258 mi
2006 Ford Explorer$7,799 | 129,073 mi
2002 Ford Explorer$4,500 | 120,113 mi