2016 Ford Explorer Review

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2018
The Car Connection
2018
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
June 21, 2016

The 2016 Ford Explorer doesn't need to rely on hardcore off-road tools--not with its firm road manners, plush interiors, and choice of turbocharged power.

The 2016 Ford Explorer has received for this year a significant refresh, including smoother bodywork, an improved feature set, quieter interiors, and a stronger, more widely available 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-4 that joined the lineup.

Over the nearly 25 years the Explorer has been sold (2016 marks that anniversary), it’s gradually moved on, up and beyond its practical roots. It once was a rather basic, family-oriented rugged wagon; in its current form, it's exchanged its trail-rated suspension for something a little more manageable for daily use. As a result, it feels more sophisticated and, in some of its equipment levels, feels like it could have a luxury badge.

In this year's Explorer, Ford has carried over the side sheet metal, but has changed just about everything else. With new front and rear styling, the Explorer has a more "finished" and finely detailed look than ever before. It appears that there’s been an effort to visually lift the front end, with a higher, more defined mesh grille, while a chunky LED lighting arrays provide accents and the headlights have their own small radiator grilles. In back there’s a new sculpted spoiler and integrated exhaust tips, while the rear pillars are reshaped. Inside, it does its best impression of a Taurus sedan in look and feel, albeit a little more upright.

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For power, the Explorer is now like the F-150 pickup, in that it relies on turbocharged power for the majority of its sales. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine has been replaced for 2016—by the new turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4, making 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s available on base, XLT, and Limited models for $995 extra and can be paired with all-wheel drive for the first time. It's gutsy and sounds better in the Explorer than it does in, say, the Mustang—and we prefer its power delivery to the cammy feel of the standard 290-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. Both are combined with a 6-speed automatic, with a choice between front-wheel and all-wheel drive, but the turbo-4 simply matches up better with the engaging driving feel of the Explorer, where the V-6 is duller in its responses and output. Explorer Sport and Platinum models get the 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6, making 365 hp and 350 lb-ft, and it's a beast, effectively making this the closest thing to an Explorer SHO as we're likely to see.

Ford has tuned the Explorer’s chassis for 2016, and there’s more variance between the trim levels, but the hallmark is still an exuberant setup that combines quick electric power steering with relatively firm damping. Performance is buttoned-down, almost to sport-wagon standards, with predictable, benign handling and available all-wheel drive. There's nothing from the likes of Nissan, Toyota, Chevy or Honda that comes remotely close to the Explorer's road manners; for that, you'd have to turn to its arch-rival Grand Cherokee.

On the flip side, the car-like underpinnings mean that the Explorer can't quite hit the trails with the likes of the Grand Cherokee. But that doesn't preclude it from getting dirty now and then. A Terrain Management system controls stability and other systems to limit wheelspin while maintaining a 5,000-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 has one of the most spacious interiors on the market, though it's a stretch to pitch it against large seven- and eight-seat crossovers. Up to seven passengers can fit, and five adults will be fine in the front two rows, though the middle-row bench tilts down at its leading edge, and doesn't offer much in the way of leg support. Getting into the third row is a little tougher than it is for the Ford Flex, as the Explorer sits taller. Every inch of this interior seems to be designed with family use in mind, and a power tailgate and power-folding seats are there to make it more convenient.

The current Explorer is one of the safer vehicles Ford builds, though its scores in the latest small front overlap test haven't been that good. It offers advanced features such as inflatable rear seatbelts, adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support, a lane-keeping system, blind-spot monitors, and a new 180-degree front-end camera.

For 2016, the Explorer will be offered in base, XLT, Limited, Sport, and new Platinum trim levels. Base Explorer models come with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine and 6-speed automatic, along LED headlamps and taillights, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a rearview camera system with washer. XLT models add heavy-duty brake calipers, fog lamps, LED accent lighting, reverse sensors, and 18-inch alloy wheels, while the Limited gets a heated steering wheel, heated-and-cooled front seats, perforated leather upholstery, the front 180-degree camera system, a hands-free power tailgate, 12-speaker Sony audio, 20-inch painted alloys, and satin-chrome trim with rosewood appliques, among other upgrades.

Sport and Platinum models are only offered with all-wheel drive, while the other models can be had with front-wheel drive as well. Explorer Sport models get the twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6, plus a sport suspension, trailer-tow package, dual exhaust tips, perforated-leather seats with red accent stitching, 12-speaker Sony audio, and carbon fiber trim inserts.

Platinum models get the twin-turbo V-6 and all-wheel drive standard, along with special leather upholstery and a heated wood steering wheel, as well as a premium Sony sound system, a dual-panel moonroof, super-soft Nirvana leather seats, a 10-inch gauge cluster, and smart-charging USB ports.

Simply put, for almost everything that a family can throw at the Ford Explorer, it does it better than before, and 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. 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.

The base V-6 Explorer has gas mileage more in line with other seven-seat family wagons. With the 290-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic, it's rated at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined; with all-wheel drive, it's pegged at 16/23/19 mpg, down one mpg on the city cycle from last year's figures. This year's turbo-4 is rated 19/28/22 mpg with front-wheel drive, or 18/26/21 mpg with all-wheel drive.

8

2016 Ford Explorer

Styling

Today's Explorer only wears hints of its past, but that's enough to avoid the curvy-crossover cliche.

From its sport-utility roots, the Explorer has evolved into a proper family crossover in its current form. It's done a better job than most at preserving some of the authority of its SUV roots in a look that's taut and modern.

The softer lines have a more convincing silhouette than, say, a Chevrolet Traverse. There are clean edges, sharp corners, and a fair amount of texture applied to the Explorer's grille and details. We wouldn't go so far as to call it rugged, but the outline is a fond reinterpretation of what made the Explorer a success in the first place. 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.

Explorer-spotters will notice the differences in trim levels. Sport versions have a darker grille and special wheels, while Platinum models get LED lighting and distinctive trim.

Inside, the current Explorer makes no attempt to give nod to the past—and that's perfectly fine. Early Explorers had miserable, plasticky interiors, which got better as it was groomed upmarket. This one'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. Audi and BMW are in its crosshairs, Ford says, and the Explorer delivers, in almost the same way the Flex and F-150 do.

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7

2016 Ford Explorer

Performance

The Explorer's steering and ride are more sporty than most crossover SUVs; the new turbo four has great low-end torque.

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.

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9

2016 Ford Explorer

Comfort & Quality

The Explorer has very good front seats; the middle row is roomy but the cushion needs a touch-up.

The Explorer can seat up to seven passengers, but it's sized between the usual five-seat crossovers and the truly large seven- and eight-passenger 'utes—like the Ford Flex, the Honda Pilot, and the General Motors triplets (Acadia, Enclave, Traverse).

By the numbers, the Explorer measures 112.8 inches long between the wheels, 198.3 inches overall, and weighs between 4,400 and 4,900 pounds

In the first two rows, the Explorer never feels cramped for space, though we might ask Ford to put a little more effort into the rear-seat cushioning. The front seats feel like a parting gift from Volvo, which Ford used to own, and from which the Explorer's architecture is derived. The Explorer's front seats, even in basic versions, are supportive and comfortable. Softer cushions are paired with just enough side bolstering where you need it, and the seats are power-operated with heating control.

The Explorer's also designed with ample head room and leg room. Even ticking the sunroof on the options list won't cut into the overhead that much—and the same goes for the wide console, which doesn't trim leg room and knee room.

The seats in the second row are where things get a little limited. Three people can sit comfortably across the second row, but the middle person should be young or small, or both. 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. 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. Power or fold the back seat and the middle seats, and the Explorer lays bare more than 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. 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 plasticky material.  

While there’s no radical redesign that applies to the interior, there are some noteworthy changes. Real buttons have replaced touch-sensitive ones in many cases, and armrests have been raised and made softer. Ford has redone the door seals and introduced new engine subframe mounts that are tuned to reduce vibration, and the 2.3-liter EcoBoost models get a specially tuned exhaust system. All but the base model get acoustic glass for the windshield and front doors.

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8

2016 Ford Explorer

Safety

The Explorer scores only a "Marginal" in the latest IIHS small-overlap test.

The Ford Explorer is one of the safer SUVs on the market, but it's not a strong performer in the latest, toughest crash tests.

The Explorer has earned five stars overall in crash tests performed by the NHTSA. The agency awarded the Explorer five-star scores in all subcategories except for the mathematically determined rollover score, where it earns a four-star score.

The IIHS gave the Explorer mostly high marks, including "Good" scores on the roof-crush and side impact tests—but it earns only a "Marginal" rating in the new small-overlap frontal test, which simulates hitting a telephone pole or other slim, vertical object.

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.

Bluetooth hands-free connectivity is standard, as is a rearview camera. MyKey lets parents set volume and speed controls for children who may borrow the Explorer. Optional inflatable rear-seat belts come bundled with blind-spot monitors.

For light towing, the Explorer has electronic aids that keep it and its trailer stable. The Explorer has a special "Curve Control" feature for its stability control, which adapts throttle and brake to upcoming corners; trailer-sway control also helps make maximum use of its 5,000-pound towing capacity.

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2016 Ford Explorer

Features

A new Platinum edition carries the Explorer's most comprehensive features list—and highest pricetag—ever.

The Ford Explorer blows most of its competitors out of the water in terms of available technology. In some cases, it offers even more than you can find in some luxury vehicles, leaving it to compete almost exclusively with Jeep Grand Cherokee in terms of convenience features in a relatively affordable family vehicle.

Prices range from $31,995 for base Explorers to $53,915 for a Platinum edition with all-wheel drive.

Each Explorer comes with all the standard features you'd expect to find in a $30,000 SUV. It has power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; cloth upholstery; a rearview camera; steering-wheel audio controls; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; SYNC with Bluetooth connectivity; and an AM/FM/CD player. The base model is offered with front- or all-wheel drive, and either the turbo four or the non-turbo V-6. Major options include a tow package, satellite radio, and rear-seat inflatable safety belts.

The Explorer XLT adds 18-inch wheels; satellite radio; a sport-shift mode for the automatic transmission; keyless ignition; power front seats; and reverse parking sensors. Major options include MyFord Touch; premium audio; remote start; front parking sensors; blind-spot monitors; 20-inch wheels; a power tailgate; a sunroof; and navigation.

The Explorer Limited adds leather seating; 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 wi-fi hotspot), an SD card slot and RCA jacks; SYNC and MyFord Touch; navigation; a power handsfree tailgate; and a front-view camera.

The Ford Explorer Sport offers a turbo V-6 drivetrain, with standard all-wheel drive and Terrain Management. Along with its own wheels and styling filigrees—the "Explorer" name across the nose and 20-inch wheels—the Sport adds standard SYNC, MyFord Touch, and a media hub with dual USB ports, an SD card slot and a set of RCA jacks. As for luxury touches, the Explorer Sport has power front heated seats; automatic climate control; and a Sony audio system with HD radio and 12 speakers. Options include a navigation system; a DVD entertainment system; remote start; rear heated seats; a dual-pane sunroof; a power tailgate; a tow package; active park assist; blind-spot monitors; inflatable rear seat belts; and adjustable pedals.

Finally, the new Platinum edition gets a standard dual-pane sunrooof, adaptive cruise control, digital instrument panel, premium Sony sound, aluminum and ash-wood trim, park assist, lane-keeping assistance, and 20-inch wheels.

One feature that you'll need to come to terms with if you're considering the Explorer is MyFord Touch, which is a complex and controversial system in any Ford. 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. The good news is that it's not mandatory; it remains an option on some Explorers and isn't offered on base or XLT models—and if you merely want Bluetooth connectivity, that's well-integrated on those affordable 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.

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7

2016 Ford Explorer

Fuel Economy

Finally, the turbo-4 engine is a real option—with available all-wheel drive, too.

The decision to buy a vehicle as large as the Explorer likely means that you've already parted with any hopes of exceptional fuel economy—but if you're willing to sacrifice some acceleration, the Explorer offers a relatively efficient option.

The base V-6 Explorer has gas mileage more in line with other seven-seat family wagons. With the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic, it's rated at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined; with all-wheel drive, it's pegged at 16/23/19 mpg, down one mpg on the city cycle from last year's figures.

This year, a new 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder replaces the former 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 in the Explorer. The old engine was more limited: it could only tow 2,000 pounds and was only available with front-wheel drive. Now, the new turbo-4 can haul more and can be fitted with optional all-wheel drive, but fuel economy is down marginally. Last year the smaller inline-4 earned EPA ratings of 20/28/23 mpg. This year's turbo-4? It's 19/28/22 mpg with front-wheel drive, or 18/26/21 mpg with all-wheel drive.

At its least efficient but most entertaining, the twin-turbo Explorer Sport drops the EPA fuel-economy ratings to 16/22/18 mpg. Although it's by no means green or fuel-efficient, it's better than former V-8 Explorers.

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May 2, 2017
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door Limited

My wife wanted it and she likes it.

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This Explorer seems to have more buttons and bells than I can keep up with. Seats are extremely comfortable and great on long road trips.
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July 12, 2016
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door XLT

Great vehicle with poor seats.

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Everything I have experienced in my first 5800 miles is positive with the exception of the seats. Shorter people appear to have "no issues" with the front buckets but someone my height, 6'1'' does; the power... + More »
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February 21, 2016
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door Limited

Love this vehicle

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Very pleased with this vehicle. Very quiet at all speeds, great quality and features. A friend has a Sorrento, we travelled together for a day, could hardly wait to get back in my Explorer. The Kia was noisy... + More »
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February 17, 2016
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door Sport

Fun to drive

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Overall fun to drive, like the looks and many features
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February 15, 2016
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door Sport

Love the car except for the gas mileage

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We've only had the car for a few weeks but so far it's a great vehicle great power but with that comes bad gas mileage rating. Lots of space and beautiful inside. Fill safe inside
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December 30, 2015
For 2016 Ford Explorer

Was a Ford fan

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This car car cured me of my devotion to Ford, the drivers box is so uncomfortable. No free leg room,the bucket seat is entirely too narrow for the average adult I am 5'7' 150 and this is the most uncomfortable... + More »
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December 25, 2015
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door Platinum

IN FRONT YOU NEED HANDLES IN THE INSIDE ROOF TO BE ABLE TO CLIMB INSIDE

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ITS A GREAT CAR, BETTER THAN OTHERS I HAD BEFORE, EXCEPT MY 911 PORSCHE, WHICH WAS TOTALY AWSOME
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October 21, 2015
2016 Ford Explorer 4WD 4-Door XLT

Best car I've ever owned in 50 years

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I love this car. The front seats are extremely comfortable and the power seat adjustments can achieve a wide variety of positions. The fit and finish, both interior and exterior, are up to luxury car... + More »
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August 14, 2015
2016 Ford Explorer FWD 4-Door XLT

With the 20 inch rims and new front grill my Explorer looks tough!

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Love my new 2016 Ford Explorer! The new grill makes it look a lot like a Range Rover. The grill along with the 20 inch rims gives it a tough bull dog look to it. Proud to own it and enjoy driving it!
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August 1, 2015
For 2016 Ford Explorer

THE FRONT SEATING IS TOO SMALL AND VERY UNCOMFORTABLE

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I TRADED IN A 2014 XTL FOR THE 2016 FORD EXPLOYER LIMITED-----THE SEATS IN MY 2014 WERE GREAT--THE SEATS IM MY 2016 ARE THE MOST UNCOMFORTABLE OF ANY SUV I HAVE EVER OWNER--THEY ARE ALSO SMALLER AND LUMPEY... + More »
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Expert Rating
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Styling 8
Performance 7
Comfort & Quality 9
Safety 8
Features 10
Fuel Economy 7
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