Whether you call it a crossover or a sport-utility vehicle, or even a truck, one thing's for sure: the 2012 Ford Explorer isn't as off-road ready as the last-generation ute was, and it's better for it in nearly every way.
Without the body-on-frame design it sported through the 2010 model year, the current Ford Explorer simply handles more like a passenger car, with a much smoother ride, and much more responsive steering, while generating much better fuel economy numbers.
The base powertrain is a 3.5-liter V-6, familiar to anyone who's been in a Fusion or an Edge. With 290 horsepower, it's coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, whether it's motivating the front wheels or all four wheels. It's a sweeter version of the same powertrain that's been in the Ford lineup since the 2005 model year, running more quietly, and in fact, more powerful than the V-8 in the last-gen Explorer. There's strong acceleration off the line, and on some models, even a Sport mode that tweaks the transmission and throttle to give it even more urgency, though the Explorer doesn't get paddles for shifting as the Edge and even the Flex do. Still, it will aggressively hold lower gears when told, and that alone makes it the most responsive Explorer drivetrain ever.
New this year, and yours for about $1000, is EcoBoost, an intriguing option. Nevermind the lack of a V-8 option: with EcoBoost, you get a turbocharged four-cylinder and 240 horsepower, with 270 pound-feet of torque, beating the 255 lb-ft available with the V-6. Pay more for this powertrain and you could recoup the investment at the pump, since it's rated at 20/28 mpg, versus 17/25 mpg for the front-drive V-6 model. The turbo four is considerably noisier than the six, with some wastegate flapping and four-cylinder grouching, but the added torque gives it a goose at lower engine speeds. Without those paddle controls, you'll have to leave it in Low and let the computers decide where to shift--but still we're impressed with even the idea of a four-cylinder Explorer, and much more so with its quick, enthusiast responses. It'll be fascinating to us, to see how many of you are actually willing to spend more for gas mileage alone.
One downside to the EcoBoost: with it, the Explorer's towing capacity drops from a peak 5000 pounds down to 2000 pounds. And even if you've piled on a passenger or two in the EcoBoost model, the penalty exacted on acceleration is noticeable.
Since it's embraced a four-cylinder--and, Ford says, so have shoppers across the spectrum--getting over the Explorer's front-drive model and its lack of a true off-road gear seems like an old canard. Suffice it to say, this Explorer won't be running the Paris-Dakar rally, but it's so much happier in its urban duties, you'll rarely miss the off-roading except in extreme circumstances. In its basic front-drive versions, the Explorer's electric power steering and terrifically settled ride give it a nimble feel that's more like that of the smaller Edge. The Explorer carves into corners with zeal, and the steering unwinds with a feel that's closer to natural than some hydraulic-steer vehicles. The electric steering also means the Explorer can park itself--with the Active Park Assist options, which uses cameras to maneuver the steering while the driver keeps tabs on things with the brake pedal.
For off-roading, the hardcore dustheads may seek out a Grand Cherokee, or even a Land Cruiser or Range Rover, in search of the perfect rock-slider. That's not the Explorer's new mission, but still, it can slosh through enough mud and ruts to get a family of seven to any ski resort or any bed and breakfast that doesn't require an overnight National Park Service permit. It may drive more like a car, but the Explorer thinks like the Mercedes ML-Class, using its anti-lock sensors and drivetrain to simulate differential locks. It still has almost 8 inches of ground clearance, and with all-wheel drive, the Explorer gets a multi-traction drive system that spins from Normal to Mud and Ruts, Sand, and Snow modes, tailoring power and braking to suit the conditions. In esoteric instances, those electronics can't quite match a really well-trained off-road driver, since they require a little slip in the system to start working. For the remaining 95 percent of us, it's welcome relief to worry less about descending a hill with brake and engine modulation instead of simply flicking a switch.
Dynamically, it's a big win for Ford. And if you're arguing over the lack of a low-gear ratio and frame rails and skid plates, you're less likely to have been shopping an Explorer in the first place.