The Car Connection Ford Explorer Overview
The Ford Explorer is a popular family vehicle, and it's been that way for decades. The mid-size crossover was originally introduced in the 1990s as a truck-based, sport-utility vehicle, but in recent years it had been transformed into a more car-like crossover SUV with very good performance, and less of an emphasis on off-road driving.
Over the past decade, the Explorer took a turn toward the more carlike side and was moved to a front-wheel-drive-based platform; it also embraced Ford's turbocharged engines, branded EcoBoost, as well as a much stronger set of safety features than in the past.
For 2021, the Explorer stands pat aver a significant overhaul just a year before. The new Explorer scopes in on family detail better than it has before.
MORE: Read our 2021 Ford Explorer review
The new Explorer
The Explorer's trajectory took another pretty significant turn for 2020, with the arrival of a new-generation Explorer that's built on a fresh platform that's primarily rear-wheel drive, with four-wheel drive optional.
Although the new one looks much like the outgoing Explorer—almost to a fault—it actually crossfades familiar cues with some quite different proportions, led by a wheelbase that's about 7 inches longer, plus a slightly more chiseled, squared-off truck look overall. Inside the new Explorer takes the opposite path, adopting a more horizontal, lower-and-layered look to the instrument panel and building in some warm, soft-touch (albeit all rather dark-toned) materials throughout.
The new Explorer can carry six or seven passengers depending on the layout and comes in a wide range of versions, spanning from affordable base and XLT versions all the way up to top Platinum trims, and now including Hybrid and performance-oriented ST versions. A power liftgate is standard across the lineup.
The base engine for the Explorer is a 300-horsepower, 2.3-liter turbo-4, while the Platinum gets a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 making 365 hp. The ST has a higher-output 400-hp version of that V-6, while the Hybrid version swaps in a modular-hybrid version of the 10-speed automatic used throughout the lineup (incorporating a 44-hp electric motor, connected to a 1.5-kwh battery pack) with a 3.3-liter non-turbo V-6.
With the current Explorer, Ford again has a competitor for vehicles like the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder, and the Toyota Highlander—plus the new Subaru Ascent, Kia Telluride, and Hyundai Palisade—but with the redesign and new platform it also tackles the Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and others.
Ford Explorer history
In its past, the Explorer was more directly related to Ford's small pickup trucks and was offered in many more versions—everything from a manual-shifted three-door to a V-8-powered quasi-pickup. Introduced for the 1991 model year, the Explorer was distantly related to the Bronco II that it replaced. Compared to that stubby, basic two-door, the Explorer was packaged and marketed much more successfully. It practically inaugurated the SUV era in America along with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and quickly became one of the best selling, most recognizable and popular vehicles in the U.S., with annual sales approaching a half-million.
Those earliest Explorers were three-door and five-door wagons, and quite crude devices that drove like short-wheelbase compact pickups. In fact, there were still a few shared parts with the Ford Ranger truck. A shortened three-door Explorer Sport was offered through 2003, while a four-door Explorer Sport Trac with a small pickup bed was offered through the 2010 model year.
The first-generation Explorer came under fire in 2000 and 2001, when a number of rollover accidents—linked to underinflated or improperly specified Firestone tires—led to the model's recall and replacement of the tires. From that recall, and the hearings around it, grew the federal requirement for tire-pressure monitoring and also arguably sped the deployment of electronic stability control. It also severely hurt the Explorer's brand image, causing sales to plummet.
That happened despite the much-improved Explorer that emerged after a full redesign in the 2002 model year. Standard equipment included an independent rear suspension, and a third-row seat became an option for the first time. In 2006, more safety features were added, and the exterior styling was smoothed over. Through this era, the Explorer's interior functionality also got better, with usable seating space for up to seven, and third-row seating that became easier to use. Still, Explorer sales never had quite recovered after the tire-separation issue, and buyers started to migrate to more carlike crossover vehicles like the Toyota Highlander.
That Explorer was a better-handling, more refined vehicle than its predecessor—and still is a good recommendation for its towing capacity for those that don't need a full-size SUV. The 4.6-liter V-8 was popular for hauling; the 4.0-liter V-6 wasn't responsive or smooth or particularly powerful—or even more efficient, the V-6 versions were rated nearly identically to the V-8 versions.
Introduced for the 2011 model year, the fifth-generation Explorer traded in some rock-climbing ability for more all-weather comfort and family practicality. Ditching the body-on-frame design, the car-based Explorer arrived with seven-seat capability, electronic assistance for its all-wheel-drive system, and a 3.5-liter V-6 engine teamed with a 6-speed automatic.
A turbocharged 4-cylinder engine became an option for the 2012 model year, and delivers up to 28 mpg on the highway—some 25 percent better than any Explorer before it. For 2013, a turbocharged V-6 was added as a V-8 replacement.
The latest Explorer is among our top-rated vehicles for families for its interior and fuel economy as well as for its carlike handling and good safety record. It gets the highest rating of "Good" from the IIHS on all tests except the tougher small-overlap front crash, where it's rated "Marginal"—just one step above the lowest "Poor" rating. The NHTSA gives the current Explorer a top, five-star overall rating for safety.
The current Explorer also includes all the latest connectivity systems, including a navigation system with Sirius Travel Link and Sync, which uses Bluetooth to enable voice control of some vehicle systems. There was also MyFord Touch, a system that used steering-wheel or voice controls to direct audio, navigation, and phone with a large LCD touchscreen to display the interface. The system was derided and replaced in 2017 with Sync 3, a system that doesn't escape faults. We've tested it in other vehicles and found it to be slick, albeit a little laggy and confused in certain situations, most noticeably in selecting day/night display modes during dawn and dusk.
Ford brought back the Explorer Sport badge in 2013. Instead of a two-door variant like its predecessor with the same name, this version uses the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 from the latest Taurus SHO, making 350 hp. It is paired with standard all-wheel drive and includes more standard features as well as suspension and steering improvements. Ford sees the turbocharged V-6 as a replacement for the Explorer's previous V-8 models, making it the closest thing to a performance-oriented Explorer we're likely to see. Its 0-60 mph times are 2 seconds quicker than the standard V-6 Explorer, while towing up to 5,000 pounds.
The EPA has rated the Explorer as high as 27 mpg on the highway in 4-cylinder front-wheel-drive guise, with all-wheel drive models earning 18 mpg city, 25 highway ratings.
A revised version of this Explorer went on sale for the 2016 model year. The interior and exterior were given a subtle once-over, with the exterior design now resembling a Land Rover's more than ever. The look is much more sophisticated, with finer details and a more cohesive front-end treatment. A Platinum model has been added at the top of the range, and there's a new 2.3-liter turbo-4 available as well, bringing the available engines to three.
For 2017, Ford added a sport appearance package to lower trims that replicates the Sport trim's good looks for a lower price. Sync 3 also replaced the finicky MyFord Touch system with limited effect.
The 2018 Explorer had some mild cosmetic touch-ups, and LED headlights came standard on Platinum models.