- A crossover with some SUV style
- Excellent head and shoulder room
- Fun handling for a crossover starts with steering
- MyFord Touch is truly innovative
- Better gas mileage for most models
- Not much dirt under its nails
- A steep learning curve for MyFord Touch
- Turbo four's an extra-cost option
- Middle seat needs a lift
The Ford Explorer trades some trail-riding and towing for on-road driving lessons, and comes out fluent.
The Ford Explorer may be one of the most familiar sport-utility vehicles in the universe, but it's hardly a rugged SUV anymore. We call it a crossover vehicle--a wagon with car-based running gear, and some off-road ability, but more emphasis on family-hauling and all-weather ability.
That sea change makes today's Explorer the most suited yet to how most drivers actually use it. Gas mileage is better than ever, and so is handling. On the infotainment front, the Explorer has more navigation, audio, and connectivity options than any Ford of just a few years ago--rivaled only by its archrival, the trail-ready Grand Cherokee.
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. Today's Explorer can carry up to seven passengers, and adults will be fine in the front five seats, with truly excellent head and shoulder room. It sits taller than Ford's own Flex, and access to the third-row seat is tight. Cargo space comes within a few cubic feet, though, and the Explorer's utility doesn't seem diminished at all with time--if anything, the power-folding seats and power tailgate have made it easier to stuff with big-box finds.
The Explorer's performance has been totally transformed in this generation, buttoned down to sport-wagon standards. There's a base V-6 and six-speed automatic with front-wheel drive that delivers benign and predictable handling, with all-wheel drive as an option. Experimenting with the optional (and more expensive) turbo four is best left to those who don't carry people or their heavier possessions very often. The grunty Explorer Sport? It's quicker than any V-8 Explorer in the past, and makes for a swifter, tauter, more appealing driving machine than Ford's own Taurus SHO, with better visibility and interior room to boot.
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.
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, with a Terrain Management system that controls stability and other systems to limit wheelspin while maintaining a 5000-pound towing capacity. It's definitely Explorer Lite compared to the distant past, but it's still quite capable, in the wider view.The Explorer is one of the safest vehicles Ford builds, with inflatable rear seat belts and rearview cameras and blind-spot detectors. It 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.
And in truth, the 2013 Ford Explorer 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. It holds on to those mud-running bona fides too--even if they probably were only ever weekend ambitions for most of their suburban owners.
2013 Ford Explorer
The latest Explorer neatly reimagines its heritage in modern lines and shapes; the interior's one of Ford's best yet.
With each generation, the Ford Explorer has softened its take on the iconic SUV shape of the 1990 original. Today's model? It's a jet-age view homage of that past, with all kinds of carlike details woven into the barest of sport-ute outlines. It's no longer a trucky ute that's trying to look like a car. It's just the opposite.
No matter which way you see its finer lines and details, the Explorer still hits some high points of crossover SUV style. It's a dialect of sharp angles and straight lines, the opposite of softly rounded wagons like the Volvo XC90 that's actually a distant cousin to it. The Explorer's visual DNA may be purely on loan here, but the tall body, big glass areas and the three-bar grille peg it as a Ford as much as its outline. It has more in common with a Taurus SHO than with a big Expedition SUV, down to winged taillamps and a perforated grille, but the Explorer still avoids looking like a sport sedan. Or, worse, a minivan--the cardinal sin of crossovers. The Explorer Sport amps things up even a bit more, with glossy black trim, 20-inch wheels, and mesh grille inserts.
2013 Ford Explorer
Turbo engines bracket the base V-6's straight-line acceleration; steering is very quick and carlike, and ride quality is good.
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.
2013 Ford Explorer
Comfort & Quality
Third-row passengers will be least happy, but adults will find the Explorer's front seats very supportive.
The Ford Explorer comes configured only as a seven-passenger wagon, leaving five-passenger duties to the smaller Edge. It's not quite as low or as long as the sleekly urbane Ford Flex, but the Explorer's laid out well, with excellent headroom and front-seat comfort to go with flexible cargo capacity.
Ford's learned how to make more supportive seats that are also more comfortable, a parting gift maybe from its long association with Volvo. In the Explorer, that means softer cushions that still have enough long-distance firmness, and on most versions the seats are power-operated with heating control. Head room soars in front and the middle row of seats, even with the sunroof option ticked, and the wide center console doesn't cut into knee room very much. The Explorer's head rests have grown easier to live with too--they're softer and protrude less than in the very first model year.
Space is no problem in the second row, either. The Explorer's about five inches wider than in its last generation, and it's a snap to fit two adults across, with room for a child between on the bench seat. Knee room is fine, head room is great--but the bottom cushion of the seat could be better tailored. It's short and angles down at its front edge. It lacks the thoughtful slide feature found in the Chevy Equinox, for that matter. 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.
2013 Ford Explorer
The Explorer earns top scores from the NHTSA and IIHS, and has a huge range of safety options and technology.
With both crash-testing agencies now reporting, the Ford Explorer can safely be called one of the safest vehicles on the road.
The Explorer already had earned a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), including a "good" score on the roof-crush test. However, the Explorer hasn't been tested under the IIHS's new small-overlap test, which the agency plans to incorporate in future rankings.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), meanwhile, gives five stars overall to the 2013 Ford Explorer, with mostly five-star scores across the board save for a four-star rollover-resistance rating.
The excellent scores are generated by the Explorer's stout body and a host of airbags and technology--everything from standard curtain airbags and traction control, to the knee airbags added for the 2013 model year. New last year were optional inflatable rear-seat belts, which come bundled with blind-spot monitors.
The Explorer's also been outfitted with a slew of available safety technologies that Ford believes are important to family car shoppers. Its stability control incorporates "curve control" that adapts throttle and brake to upcoming corners, and also has trailer-sway control to make maximum use for its 5000-pound towing capacity.
On the infotainment side, the Explorer has standard Bluetooth, which allows drivers to take phone calls without using a handset, as well as a rearview camera. 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.
2013 Ford Explorer
The latest Explorer has some of the most sophisticated, and sometimes maddening, infotainment features of any vehicle on the road.
The Ford Explorer stays in a close race with the Jeep Grand Cherokee for the widest, most technologically advanced set of features available in its segment. It's beyond what any Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot offers--even beyond what you'll find at some luxury brands.Each Explorer comes with standard features you'd expect for a $30,000 crossovers. It has power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; steering-wheel audio controls; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; and an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack. The Explorer XLT adds on 18-inch wheels; satellite radio; a sport-shift mode for the automatic transmission; and reverse parking sensors.
For about $40,000, the Explorer Limited gains leather seating; pushbutton start; ambient lighting; a Sony sound system; a media hub with twin USB ports (one for 3G or 4G dongles that turn the Explorer into a mobile WiFi station), an SD card slot and RCA jacks; power-adjustable pedals; SYNC and MyFord Touch; and a rearview camera, all standard
MyFord Touch is a complex and controversial system in any Ford, and in the Explorer it behaves as temperamentally as in any other applications. The idea is to trade buttons and switches for LCD touchscreens, voice commands, and steering-wheel controls, so that drivers can run functions like audio or navigation more safely. Not only does it take time getting used to, the benefits of the system don't emerge after short stints at the wheel. Even since Ford's major update to the system in 2013, we've experienced difficulties connecting to Bluetooth audio with some very new iPhones--and as it has since launch, the voice-command system only has about a 75-percent accuracy rate for our natural speech patterns. The good news: if you're tech-eager it's available, and if you're not, it's an option on lower-trim Explorers. And if you still want the SYNC Bluetooth features, Ford's now offering that separately on less pricey models.
Other Explorer options include a power sunroof; a heated steering wheel; automatic headlamps; 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.
On these models, Ford offers an engine option too, its EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. It provides more torque and nearly the same horsepower as the V-6 engine, but acceleration with more than a passenger or two can be labored. If fuel economy's a concern, and you tend to drive alone, it could be a reasonable choice.
2013 Ford Explorer
The Explorer's turbo engines offset each other; the stock V-6 has gas mileage on par for the class.
Gas mileage isn't the first reason you'd opt to buy a seven-passenger crossover like the latest Ford Explorer, but it offers at least one fuel-saving option for those patient enough to endure sluggish acceleration.
Last year, Ford outfitted the Explorer with a new engine option, a turbocharged four-cylinder, all in the name of extending the nameplate's EPA numbers. It did the same for the five-passenger Edge, and in both cases gas mileage goes up considerably. 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, or 23 miles per gallon combined--about 25 percent higher than the last-generation Explorer did in base form. The 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 has gas mileage more in line with other seven-seat family wagons. With the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic, it's rated at 17/24 mpg or 20 mpg combined; with all-wheel drive, it's pegged at 17/23 mpg and 19 mpg combined. The new twin-turbo Explorer Sport lowers the net for the lineup: it earns an EPA-rated 16/22 mpg or just 18 mpg combined, still an improvement over the old V-8 Explorers of a decade ago.