Practicality and personality.Ford didn't invent the SUV genus, but they did set the spark to it with the original Explorer. Since the first models rolled off the line over 30 years ago, there's been some revisions – from body-on-frame to unibody, from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive once again – but its overall mission hasn't changed. Practicality and personality remain the two cornerstones to the Explorer's success.
Both are present and accounted for in the 2021 Ford Explorer, which sees no notable changes from last year's full-on redesign. Last year, the Explorer showed up with new looks, more tech, and a fierce new ST model. Dare we hope that the Explorer ST might trigger a Honda Pilot Type R or Toyota Highlander TRD?
The answer is probably not. Ford, for its part, has transitioned the Explorer back to a rear-wheel-drive platform – a rare move in today's overwhelmingly front-wheel-drive environment – and the return to such an inherently sporty layout opens the doors to such a performance model as the ST. Trying to get a FWD platform up this level of performance would require a budget that the bean counters would waste no time refuting.
Power aplenty. We've talked about it enough at this point, so here are the details: a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 putting out 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque gives the ST its motivation. That power gets through a 10-speed automatic transmission shared with the rest of the lineup. 0-60 mph happens in less than six seconds and top speed is a respectable 143 mph, so there's no excuse to be late to soccer practice.
The ST pairs this high-output powerplant with its own extra-firm suspension. It makes the ST noticeably stiffer than the rest of the lineup but doesn't compromise usability. The ST is very much drivable on the daily, as long as the biggest potholes and sewer caps are avoided.
Most other models use a 2.3-liter turbo-four. There isn't anything modest about this engine, which manages to churn out an even 300 hp. That's enough chutzpah to make any sort of in-town or highway maneuver a fairly effortless exercise, despite the Explorer's two-ton bulk.
Neither spirited launches from stoplights nor steep grades have this engine laboring; it just happily keeps feeding the transmission whenever the driver dips their right foot into the throttle. The 10-speed automatic, for its part, clicks off endless seamless shifts regardless of driving conditions.
The 2.3-liter models run generally smaller wheels with more tire sidewall, which helps cushion the ride. A decent-length wheelbase and freshly redone chassis further lend the Explorer some prim-and-proper road manners across a variety of pavement conditions.
Hybrid woes. The one powertrain to let us down is the plug-in hybrid model, which is limited to just the, ah, Limited trim. It isn't just its mediocre mileage that has us shaking our heads. It's the lack of refinement.
Frankly, it feels as if the R&D budget dried up about 85% of the way to project completion. Compared to the buttoned-down ST and the properly fleshed-out lower trims, the Explorer Hybrid is chunky and clunky.
Most of the blame can be cast on the 3.3-liter V6 and single electric motor. It had a propensity for shuddering between 15 and 40 mph, severely hampering the driving experience. And tolerating that for a mere 28 miles per gallon combined, according to the EPA, isn't acceptable in our opinion.
For context, the primary competitor to the Explorer Hybrid, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, returns 35 mpg combined. That material 7-mpg difference translates to 25% better fuel mileage, which is enough to notice at every fill-up. Among hybrid buyers, that matters.
Quality, features, and value. Ford has been inching its prices up for years, and some models are encroaching luxury-car territory. Take the Explorer ST, for instance. It starts at over $52,000 before any options; start checking boxes, and $62,000 comes soon enough. It's a nice SUV, but does it really merit such an outlay? We don't think so, good as it is to drive.
A better value is something like the XLT trim. Starting at around $37,000, it gets features like heated seats, an 8-inch touchscreen with Ford's Sync 3 software, USB ports across the front two rows, upgraded cloth upholstery, and 17-inch wheels.
To get standard heated front seats in either a Toyota Highlander or Chevrolet Traverse, you'll need to fork over about $40,000, though doing so also nets you leather and a few other goodies missing on this Ford. On the flip side, a Honda Pilot EX comes equipped similarly to the Explorer but rings in around $36,500; it's a similar story with the Subaru Ascent Premium, which is priced at just under $36,000.
All this goes to show the Explorer is priced right in the heart of the market with its mainstream trims. That's good and all, but we still have some nits to pick with the quality of the materials and final assembly.
Especially on lower trims, Ford seemed to put the cheapest plastic they could find in the most blatant of areas. The worst offender is the touchscreen surround, which almost had us cringing; vending machines use nicer plastic around their buttons. Most of the aforementioned competition has certainly done a better job trimming their interiors, and the kicker is they've done so at the same price point as the Explorer or less.
Final thoughts. Ford needs to take a mulligan on the hybrid, and revisiting its liberal use of cheap plastic may be a good idea, but, otherwise, the 2021 Ford Explorer is a strong contender in a very crowded, competitive segment. The ST, pricey as it may be, is another feather in its cap; we aren't expecting a proper competitor to come dethrone this hot number anytime soon.
The original Explorer would never recognize the ST model as its own kin. Yet that level of product evolution is exactly why the Explorer has managed to remain so popular among consumers. The 2021 model is the latest result of this constant improvement, and shoppers would be wise to check out this latest rendition of the SUV that gave this segment its staying power.
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