The 2016 Ford Explorer is moderately updated from last year's version; it's been in its current form since the 2011 model year, when it shifted from a loosely truck-based architecture to one derived from the Volvo XC90 first, then later the Ford Flex and Taurus, and Lincoln MKS and MKT.
You can draw the conclusions from there: the Explorer's no longer a rough-and-tumble SUV. It is a front-wheel-drive wagon with all-wheel drive, and it happens to be one of the more interesting crossover SUVs to drive thanks to boosted engines and a firm grip on ride and handling. Considering the way that owners actually use Explorer models—and have for decades—it's rightly tuned toward all-weather, on-road performance, with a good measure of trail capability baked in.
On the base Explorer, Ford fits a 3.5-liter V-6. It's been installed in Fords far and wide, from the Flex to the Fusion to the Taurus. In the Explorer, it's rated at 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, and is capable of mid-eight-second 60-mph acceleration through a 6-speed automatic transmission. If it sounds pedestrian, it's good to recognize that the V-6'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. Where this powerplant falls behind is in varying speeds you'd typically encounter on a twisting road. Slow the SUV down dramatically, manhandle the shift lever to get it to downshift, and the Explorer limps back up to speed, lagged by its lax shift speeds as much as the thinner torque it develops at the low end of its powerband.
Ford has offered a turbocharged inline-4 as an upgrade, but this year's twist is more displacement, more power, and better low-end performance than either the past offerings. The new 2.3-liter turbo-4 is related to the one in the Lincoln MKC and Ford Mustang; it's rated at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft, both figures up by 40 over the old 2.0-liter turbo-4. It's better in every respect, from the throaty, amplified engine noise it pumps into the cabin, to the sharper acceleration and grunty low end it gives the Explorer—it cooperates particularly well in Sport shift mode, pulling out of curves with more authority than does the base V-6. It's also now offered with an option for all-wheel drive, something that was blocked with the former turbo-4. If your driving style is even slightly enthusiastic, it's worth considering over the base engine.
For 2014, Ford introduced a new 350-hp, twin-turbo-V-6 in the Explorer; this year, the engine is uprated to 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. This powertrain'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 V-6 model). The result is a crossover SUV that feels far more fired up than the old Explorer V-8; just don't expect it to chase a Grand Cherokee SRT. It's not far from being the utility-minded version of the Taurus SHO; the Explorer Sport that gets the twin-turbo six also gets quicker steering, 20-inch wheels and tires, upgraded brakes, and a stiffer front body structure.
All Explorers have a MacPherson strut front suspension with isolated subframe, with an independent multi-link rear setup—and stabilizer bars front and rear. The Explorer Sport gets its own unique (quicker) steering gear, and its own suspension hardware, as well as a front strut tower brace and stiffer stabilizer bar.
In fact, Ford's tweaked the electric power steering on the entire lineup this year, slowing it down a bit on some models. It doesn't change the capable feel tuned into all the controls. 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 park assist options, which uses cameras to maneuver the steering while the driver keeps tabs on things with the brake pedal.
Meanwhile, on the off-road front, the Explorer remains happily in tune with the needs of most crossover SUV drivers. Towing capacity peaks at a middling 5,000 pounds, and there's no true low off-pavement gear ratio—but the 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.
The centerpiece to the system is 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.