Forget about the Explorer being somewhat related to pickups; that's already several years in the past. The Explorer's now based on a set of Volvo-derived car mechanicals that underpin lots of Ford models, from the Taurus sedan to the Flex and Lincoln MKT crossovers. At its core the Explorer is 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.
Are Ford Explorer owners going to venture very far off road? Ford has chosen wisely here, in trading off some of the Explorer's potential off-road ability and towing capability for big gains in gas mileage, handling, and ride comfort. Considering the way that owners actually use Explorer models--and have for decades--it's right in tune with respect to performance.
The standard engine on the Explorer is a 3.5-liter V-6, shared with many Ford vehicles, from the Edge to the Flex. With 290 horsepower, it's 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 the name of gas mileage, there's another option. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque actually has more torque than the 255 lb-ft available with the V-6, yet it's a little less certain if you plan to haul a heavy load of passengers around on a regular basis. If you're the solo-commuter type, it's a $1,000 option that will actually pay off for itself pretty quickly, as it's rated at 20/28 mpg. Overall, this engine makes some grouching, flapping turbocharger noises that upset the Explorer's more refined demeanor. Paddle-shifters would have made this combination more drivable than it is, but they're not included; and keep in mind that towing capacity slides to 2,000 pounds.
Last year Ford introduced a new 350-horsepower, twin-turbo-V-6 Explorer Sport model; it's offered only 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). Consider this a utility-vehicle version of the Taurus SHO; it gets quicker steering, 20-inch wheels and tires, upgraded brakes, and a stiffer front body structure. The Sport is far more fired up than the old Explorer V-8; just don't expect it to chase a Grand Cherokee SRT8.
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.
The 2014 Explorer 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. 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. There's 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.