It's a trade-off that makes perfect sense. Today's Ford Explorer swaps a little bit of towing capacity and off-road ruggedness for big gains in gas mileage, handling, and ride comfort. It's the best Explorer yet for the way drivers actually have used them for more than two decades.
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.
The Explorer's now based on a set of car mechanicals that underpin lots of Ford models, from the Taurus sedan to the Flex and Lincoln MKT crossovers. It's at its core a front-driver, with an option for all-wheel drive. The predictably safe, typically benign tall-wagon handling doesn't vary too much from model to model--but the powertrains do.The standard engine on the Explorer is a 3.5-liter V-6, shared with many Ford vehicles, from the Edge to the Flex. In the Explorer, it puts out a reasonable 290 horsepower, good for mid-eight-second 60-mph acceleration through a six-speed automatic transmission. If it sounds pedestrian, it's good to recognize that the six-cylinder's far more powerful on paper than the the V-8 in the prior edition. Acceleration from a stop is strong, and most models have a sport-shift mode for quicker throttle and shift responses, but these Explorers don't get shift paddles to go with the automatic. The transmission will hold lower gears when told, though, and that alone makes it more responsive than almost any competitive crossover.
In 2012, Ford came up with a small-displacement alternative to the V-6, all in the name of gas mileage. For solo commuters, it's worth a look. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, the optional engine actually has more torque than the 255 lb-ft available with the V-6. It's also a $1000 option that Ford thinks will pay for itself at the pump, since it's rated at 20/28 mpg. The downsides are many for the engine that's also found in Ford's Focus and Fusion: it's louder and more coarse than the six-cylinder, and makes some grouching, flapping turbocharger noises that upset the Explorer's more refined demeanor. To goose the available torque you'll have to leave the gearbox in Low--the lack of paddle shift controls is a glaring omission here. Towing capacity slides to 2000 pounds and acceleration with just an extra passenger or two slips into the ten-second range.
Now for 2013, there's another extreme in the form of the 350-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 Explorer Sport. It's only offered with all-wheel drive, and gets a raft of changes to go with its exceptional power (Ford says it's two seconds quicker to 60 mph than the standard six-cylinder model). Quicker steering, 20-inch wheels and tires, upgraded brakes, and a stiffer front body structure make it the closest thing to an Explorer SHO we'll ever get--and it feels like it, with even more rapid-fire responsiveness and sharp acceleration and grip. As long as you don't confuse it for the likes of the Grand Cherokee SRT8--it's not that fired up--the Explorer Sport doesn't just replace the old Explorer V-8, it's fair to say it replaces the Taurus SHO, delivering similar performance in a superior package.
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.