- Great mix of SUV, crossover cues
- Cabin is spacious, with plenty of headroom
- Electric steering is wired for fun
- MyFord Touch breaks down new tech walls
- Gas mileage up strongly, EcoBoost or no
- A soft-roader with less dirt under its nails
- MyFord Touch's glitches and learning curve
- EcoBoost costs more, not less, than V-6
- Second-row bench seat needs a lifestyle lift
It's a rifle shot at the heart of the crossover market: the 2012 Ford Explorer gives any SUV loyalist a reason to leap off their very high horse.
Detroit's seen a major reinvention in the past few years, with wrenching change at GM and Chrysler. Ford hasn't been left out, except for the financial drama. It's dramatically reworked its lineup of cars to be more fuel-efficient, while subduing its dependence on truck sales.
The case study for change in Dearborn is the Ford Explorer, new for the 2011 model year and with major news for the 2012 model year. The Explorer ditched its old truck-based architecture last year for a set of car-like credentials, and got better in nearly every way as a result.
It's a convincing transformation. The Explorer's V-6 outmatches its old V-8s--and for 2012, there's a turbocharged four-cylinder that still generates horsepower and torque to beat old Explorer V-6s into the dust, while posting EPA-estimated highway gas mileage of 28 mpg. In 2005, 28 mpg got you...a Focus.
Since it shares running gear with the likes of the Flex, even the Taurus, the new Explorer can't quite hit the trails with the likes of the Grand Cherokee. That leaves it more equipped to excel at on-road handling, which it does convincingly with quick steering and terrific ride control that's due in equal part to an independent suspension and its still-substantial curb weight.
It's one of the safest vehicles Ford builds, with inflatable rear seat belts and rearview cameras and blind-spot detectors. The 2012 Explorer also woos gearheads of another kind with MyFord Touch, the convoluted but promising system that uses voice, button or touchscreen control to govern infotainment and other vehicle functions.
The Explorer still looks reassuringly ute-like, though its rounded corners and subtle details register on a carlike plane, while the interior does its best impression of a Taurus sedan. And in truth, it does what the wide majority of us want to do in a crossover--it makes plenty of room for lots of people, or lots of stuff, and it does it much more efficiently than it ever did in the past, while holding on to a good bit of the mud-running bona fides that probably remained weekend ambitions for most of their suburban owners.
It's been named a North American Truck of the Year, as voted by this continent's most respected journalists, and it's truly a 21st-century SUV, as Ford wants you to think. A runaway sales hit, too, the Explorer is happiest when it's behaving on the highway--but it's more than willing to get a little dirty when you want to.
2012 Ford Explorer
A smart mix of SUV and crossover cues, the 2012 Ford Explorer has a visual leg up on some American-made utes--and even some German ones.
With the last-generation Explorer, Ford styled a sophisticated crossover vehicle that really was a more workmanlike truck beneath the sheetmetal. This time around, it's trucked up a softer shape to do the opposite--to make the carlike Explorer look more like the utes of the past.
Either way, the Explorer nails the finer points while still speaking that particular SUV dialect of straight lines and square angles, with a modernist fillip or two, here or there. Trace the lines around its sheetmetal, and you'll see the genetic material it's carried since the name was new in 1991. Big glass and tall body sides meet up in front with a three-bar grille like the ones on an F-150, and even on the rear end, the tailgate avoids the cardinal sin of crossovers--looking too much like a minivan. The look telegraphs "SUV" more than you'd think was possible from a vehicle that has more in common with the Taurus SHO than it does with the Expedition, even if the perforated grille pieces and winged taillamps do seem to cross over into car territory.
The Explorer's cockpit does away with truck stuff for good. Early Explorers had miserable, plasticky interiors, which got better as it was groomed upmarket. This time, Ford says Audi and BMW are in its crosshairs--and the Explorer delivers, in almost the same way the Flex and F-150 do. The cabin's a knockout, smoothing off transitions between dissimilar plastics and putting the curvy goodness into an interior that could have been confused for a shoe-store stockroom, in the past. That it manages to be more handsome than the cluttered, confusing Audi Q7 dash is a big achievement--nevermind the ungainly dashes in the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. It's up there with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango in tailored good looks, with maybe a half-degree more of the contemporary in its win column, thanks to those exclamation points of metallic plastic on the center stack.
2012 Ford Explorer
The SUV bona fides have been traded for bona fide carlike ride and handling, and the 2012 Ford Explorer is better for it.
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.
2012 Ford Explorer
Comfort & Quality
The 2012 Ford Explorer seats as many as seven people with room to spare, though it's a taller package that's less easy to climb into than the lower Flex.
The 2012 Ford Explorer can't match its own sibling, the Flex, for ground-hugging, long-wheelbase space that makes it a snap to carry people and cargo. However, the Explorer's seating and cargo space are laid out pretty well, with huge headroom available and flexible seating for all the missions a family might have in mind.
The front seats fall into the latest Ford mold, and thank goodness for that. They have softer cushions and active headrests that don't protrude too much, correcting a problem with Ford's first pass at those safety devices in the 2009-2010 Flex and Lincoln MKT. The console doesn't intrude on knee room, and neither do the door panels--and head room soars overhead, even when the optional sunroof is specified.
In the back seat, it's equally spacious for adults looking up. The sunroof still leaves about four inches of space for six-footers, and once they've climbed inside, there's little doubt the Explorer is wider than before, by up to about five inches. Two adults will fit with ease, and with room for a small kid between them to spare on versions with a middle bench seat. However, the bottom cushion of the second-row seat needs some work. It dips at its front edge, and it's a bit short--and doesn't have the slide feature you'll find in a Chevy Equinox. A pair of buckets can be ordered for the second row, and have the same cozy feel as those up front--without the optional ventilation, though.
The third-row seat is pretty cramped for adults, but it's more than adequate for children, who can climb into the narrow space created when you flip the middle row forward via an easy lever.
For cargo duty, the Explorer comes with a fold-away third-row seat, power-operated if you want. With 21 cubic feet of space with the third row occupied by people, the storage space is fairly large, and lined with durable if inexpensive-looking plastic. Power or fold the back seat and the middle seats, and the Explorer lays bare 81 cubic feet of cargo volume--almost all of it available for big, flat packages, since the seats fold nearly flat and wear an invulnerable grade of carpeting on their backs.
2012 Ford Explorer
The 2012 Ford Explorer has a Top Safety Pick award under its inflatable rear seat belt, and more safety options than any other crossover we know.
With a model year under its belt, the 2012 Ford Explorer still hasn't seen complete crash-test results.
The latest Explorer gets the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award, which means it earns good scores for all the agency's vital tests, and offers standard stability control. While it's a winner on that scale, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet published Explorer crash scores--likely because it changed its testing criteria and calculations for 2011, and is busy updating scores. We'll let you know when they do.
The promising safety scores are largely the result of the Explorer's comprehensive safety package. Not only does the Explorer offer standard curtain airbags and traction control, as well as "curve control" that adapts throttle and brake to upcoming corners, it's been outfitted with a slew of available safety technologies that Ford believes are important to family car shoppers.
On that list, we'd include Bluetooth, which allows drivers to take phone calls without using a handset, as well as all-wheel drive and a rearview camera. New for this year are optional inflatable rear-seat belts, which come bundled with blind-spot monitors. MyKey lets parents set volume and speed controls for kids who may borrow the Explorer. Adaptive cruise control is available--and every Explorer comes with great outward visibility, thanks to a high seating position, except to the rear quarters where thick C-pillars create a rather large blind spot.
2012 Ford Explorer
Envelope pushed, and cutting edge sharpened, the 2012 Ford Explorer adds in a more basic SYNC for those who fear its complex MyFord Touch option.
Every 2012 Ford Explorer has standard features you'd expect in a more pricey vehicle, but it's Ford's cutting-edge options that set the Explorer apart from the Pilot, Grand Cherokee and Highlander.
The seven-passenger Explorer carries a base price of under $30,000 and includes the usual power features; steering-wheel audio controls; cruise control; an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack; and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Moving into the XLT edition brings satellite radio; 18-inch wheels; a sport-shifting automatic gearbox; and reverse parking sensors.
The 2012 Explorer Limited has a standard-equipment list fitting for its almost $40,000 pricetag. It has leather seating; ambient lighting; pushbutton start; a Sony sound system; power-adjustable pedals; a media hub with twin USB ports (the extra USB port on the Explorer lets you plug in a 3G dongle, turning the vehicle into a rolling wireless hot spot), an SD card slot and RCA jacks for gaming on the go; a rearview camera; and SYNC and MyFord Touch.
The MyFord Touch system has been a controversial addition to the Explorer. It swaps out many of the small buttons and switches formerly used to run audio, phone, climate and navigation controls with an LCD touchscreen. Drivers can operate those systems with the swipe or touch of a finger, via the steering-wheel controls, or with voice commands. It's an admittedly complex system that takes time getting used to, and our editors are split on the benefits of the system. Bottom line: it's a gamble on making infotainment systems less invasive for drivers while on the road, and some of us see the value, and some do not. It's an option on lower-trim Explorers, though, and if you still want the SYNC Bluetooth features, Ford's now offering that separately on less pricey models.
Other options include a power sunroof; navigation system; premium audio; 20-inch wheels; ventilated seats; active park assist; and a power third-row seat. Inflatable rear seat belts now come in a package with blind-spot monitors.
The important drivetrain option new for 2012 is the EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. Priced from just under $30,000 in base trim, under $34,000 as an XLT, and just under $40,000 as a Limited, the EcoBoost Explorer uses a turbocharged four-cylinder to provide more torque and nearly the same horsepower as the V-6 engine. If fuel economy's a concern, that amounts to just about a grand more than the V-6 powertrain.
2012 Ford Explorer
With its new EcoBoost powertrain, the Explorer's fuel economy rises to as much as 28 mpg, great numbers for a vehicle capable of seating seven people.
With its Fiesta, Focus and Fusion, Ford has earned some considerable attention for gas mileage. Now it's hoping that a thousand-dollar EcoBoost turbo four will do the same for its crossovers, the 2012 Explorer and Edge.
Since the Explorer outweighs the Edge by about 400 pounds, it doesn't quite hit the same 30-mpg heights on the EPA highway cycle. However, the new turbocharged, direct-injected, 240-horsepower four-cylinder does earn estimated EPA ratings of 20/28 mpg--about 25 percent higher than the last-generation Explorer did in base form.
If you're shopping fuel economy, know that this combination is only available in front-drive form, and it's only rated to tow up to 2000 pounds, not the 5000 pounds the V-6 Explorer can.
The six-cylinder Explorer carries over its gas mileage ratings into 2012 unchanged. With the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic, it's rated at 17/25 mpg, and with all-wheel drive, it's pegged at 17/23 mpg. On a long day trip in a loaded Explorer XLT AWD, we've netted a nice, round 20 mpg.