2021 Ford Explorer

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The Car Connection
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Aaron Cole Aaron Cole Managing Editor
May 8, 2021

Buying tip

If the Explorer ST piques your interest, you may be better served with an XLT with an available sport appearance package. Some of the ST’s performance is superfluous for most drivers.

features & specs

Base 4WD
Base RWD
King Ranch 4WD
20 city / 27 hwy
21 city / 28 hwy
18 city / 24 hwy

The 2021 Ford Explorer is recognizable, but new. It should be on every family SUV shopper’s list.

What kind of SUV is the 2021 Ford Explorer? What does it compare to?

Built for families, or best for a crowd—with a bevy of gear, the 2021 Ford Explorer is a three-row SUV with room to grow. It competes against a slew of family dream machines including the Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, and Chevy Traverse.

Is the 2021 Ford Explorer a good SUV?

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The Explorer gets a 7.0 TCC Rating. That’s on our honor roll for a new car on sale, but just shy of the TCC dean’s list. Small demerits inside the Explorer keep it from climbing higher. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

What's new for the 2021 Ford Explorer?

Following price cuts across the board on the 2021 Ford Explorer, the SUV now comes with a less expensive variant of its ST performance model called Enthusiast ST, a less expensive Platinum trim with rear-wheel drive only, and the hybrid powertrain can be had on top Platinum trim for the first time. Ford also introduced a new off-road oriented Timberline trim

With the Explorer, Ford offers a bevy of trims and powertrains to satisfy shoppers—base, XLT, Enthusiast ST, Limited, ST, and Platinum. Most Explorers on the lot will have a 2.3-liter turbo-4 under the hood that makes 300 horsepower paired to a 10-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive will be equipped on many Explorers. The Explorer Limited and Platinum offer a hybrid version that uses a 3.3-liter V-6 teamed to an electric motor and hybrid battery pack that makes 318 hp combined, and can return up to 28 mpg combined, according to the EPA.

The Explorer Platinum and Explorer STs use a 3.0-liter turbo V-6 that makes 365 hp or 400 hp, respectively. They’re mated to all-wheel drive only and are quick enough to be an ipecac substitute at roundabouts.  

Heated front seats are standard on the Explorer XLT now, and that’s the version we recommend for most buyers. The XLT also offers a sporty exterior package with big wheels that may appeal to some (at the expense of a stiffer ride) and the sport-adjacent Explorer ST can be fitted with 21-inch wheels covering massive high-performance brake pads.

Three rows of seats are standard with room in the back for children only.

Every Explorer is equipped with automatic emergency braking, which boosts its family resume.

Every Explorer also is equipped with an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, which boosts its road-trip resume.

How much does the 2021 Ford Explorer cost?

A base Explorer that was added late last year is the most affordable Explorer at nearly $34,000 for a rear-wheel-drive version. All-wheel drive adds about $2,000, depending on trim level (it’s standard on ST trims) and the most expensive Explorer Platinum can ring up a tab of more than $62,000.

Where is the Ford Explorer made?

The 2021 Ford Explorer is assembled in Chicago.


2021 Ford Explorer


Familiar but also new, the Explorer looks good.

Is the Ford Explorer a good-looking car?

Ford drapes a familiar shape over a relatively new skeleton with the 2021 Explorer. The three-row SUV, which was significantly updated last year, looks more like a sporty tall-riding wagon than Ford’s bigger SUV, the Expedition. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Inside, the pleasant atmosphere is complemented by warm hues and a car-like feel. The dash is lower and shapelier, but the screens are also higher than before—a boon to outward vision and safety. 

Outside, the thick side roof pillars that angle forward carry through to a new generation. It’s less bulbous than before, and the new proportions become visible on second, third, and fourth looks. It’s a 7 for style.

The Timberline trim wears 18-inch wheels with high-profile Bridgestone Dueler all-terrain tires with dark orange tow hooks up front. Light housings, badges, and side mirrors get blacked out. 

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2021 Ford Explorer


Performance and efficiency can be served, but the base Explorer is easy to drive.

Ford stocks the Explorer’s closet with powertrains to suit just about any occasion. A turbo-4 is standard in most trims, but a higher-output turbo V-6 and a gas-electric hybrid system fit the family hauler well.

It’s a 7 for performance based on the workaday 2.3-liter turbo-4. It has a smooth ride and just enough power for a point above average.

Is the Ford Explorer AWD?

Very. On all three available engines, Ford offers all-wheel drive—for a $2,000 fee, or it's standard equipment on the ST models.

How fast is the Ford Explorer?

The base engine is a 2.3-liter turbo-4 borrowed from, among other vehicles, the Ford Mustang. In the Explorer, it churns out 300 hp and 310 lb-ft and shuttles power to the rear or all four wheels via a 10-speed automatic transmission.

It’s plenty of power for around-town errands and highway speeds; it’s enough to keep us satisfied in most situations.

Explorer Enthusiast ST, ST, and Platinum versions strap in a 3.0-liter turbo V-6 that makes 400 hp and 415 lb-ft or 365 hp and 380 lb-ft in those trim levels, respectively. All-wheel drive is standard on the ST model, yet Platinum can be had with rear-wheel drive; we'd prefer the ST to be available with rear drive only. Ford quotes a top speed of 143 mph on Explorer ST, and it likely hits 60 mph in less than six seconds—but at normal, daily speeds, the extra power is a little wasted.

The Explorer Hybrid offered with Limited and Platinum trims excels at efficiency, at least as far as big family haulers are concerned. It pairs a 3.3-liter V-6 with an electric motor and hybrid batteries to make 318 hp and 322 lb-ft combined. The most efficient Explorer Hybrid is rear-wheel drive only (EPA-rated at 28 mpg combined) and all-wheel drive is available with a small gas mileage penalty (25 mpg combined). The hybrid powertrain may be the most efficient, but it’s also the least refined. At slow speeds, the powertrain judders between 15-40 mph. Off the line, the hybrid feels the quickest, but it only drives well when it's pressed hard—mostly the opposite of how people drive hybrid vehicles. The Explorer Hybrid can travel on electricity alone for short distances, at speeds up to 50 mph, with a very gentle right foot.

All Explorers are equipped with multiple drive modes including Normal, Sport, Trail, Slippery, Tow/Haul, and Eco. With all-wheel drive, Snow and Sand modes are included.

The Explorer Timberline has a standard hill descent control system, and a Torsen limited slip rear differential. It features seven drive mode settings, including Trail and Deep Snow/Sand. 

The Timberline raises itself above other Explorers with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, instead of 7.9 inches, and higher lower bumpers that increase the approach angle from 20.1 to 23.5 degrees, and the departure angle from 22 to 23.7 degrees. It also comes with standard steel skid plates to protect the engine, transmission, and rear-end components. Ford says the steering and stabilizer bars have been specially tuned. 

All Explorers are quiet on the road and ride softly, a boon over prior Explorers with a much shorter wheelbase. Compared to other three-row family crossovers, the Explorer is impressively sedate with smooth motions and a buttoned-down ride. The Explorer ST gets the stiffest suspension, but it’s still acquitted to daily life more than track detail.

Ford offers 18- to 21-inch tall wheels on the Explorer, with a better ride available on the smaller wheel size; there’s just enough sidewall on the tires to soak up some road imperfections.

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2021 Ford Explorer

Comfort & Quality

Three rows are in place, but the Explorer is slightly more cramped than competitors.

Ford’s Explorer has grown out of its boxy, “Jurassic Park” duds and into a longer, wider—but just as family-friendly—shape.

It’s nearly as big as rivals from Honda, Kia, and Subaru, but lacks the wayback comfort of those three-row contenders.

The Explorer is an 8 for comfort thanks to good space for five or more, good cargo capacity, and an accommodating first row. The second-row seats are fine, but bulky to move.

This year, heated seats are standard on Explorer XLT models, which are most popular with buyers. The driver gets a power-adjustable seat in 10 directions, but the passenger gets power adjustments in only four ways.

The seats are low, but outward vision is good. The seats hug us in the right ways, whether shod in durable cloth or uptown leathers.

In the second row, a three-person bench is standard, but captain’s chairs are available (and preferred by us). They’re similarly comfortable and three medium-size adults can fit across the bench if needed. The seats slide fore and aft several inches to offer more leg room to third-row riders, but we’ve found that the seats are clumsy to fold down, and adults will need to check their dignities at the door to clamber into the wayback if needed.

The third row offers scant 32.2 inches of leg room and the seats are low, which makes riding back there a knees-up affair. Horse-trading with the second row is a must-do for any third-row passengers not still working on their multiplication tables.

Behind the third row, the Explorer has good cargo space at 18.2 cubic feet. With the third row folded, that space grows to 47.9 cubic feet. Rows two and three out of the way? 87.9 cubic feet.

In all grades, the Explorer is quiet and calm with a good fit and finish to its materials.

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2021 Ford Explorer


Good crash-test scores complement good standard active safety tech.

How safe is the Ford Explorer?

Federal and independent safety officials largely agree that the Explorer is safe in a crash and standard automatic emergency braking on all models helps the family crossover earn an 9 on our safety scale. 

Federal testers gave the Explorer a five-star overall score but rated its rollover protection at four stars, which is common among tall-riding vehicles.

The IIHS gave it top “Good” ratings on all six crash tests and rated its headlights as "Acceptable," which is good enough to earn its highest honor of a Top Safety Pick+.

Every Explorer is equipped with automatic emergency braking that the IIHS rated as “Superior” at avoiding forward crashes with vehicles and pedestrians with one exception. The spend-up safety system Ford calls “CoPilot360 Assist+”, which is optional on some trims, was rated as “Advanced” at avoiding forward crashes with pedestrians, one step down from “Superior.”

The pricier system adds active lane control and adaptive cruise control.

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2021 Ford Explorer


Ford covers all the family basics with the 2021 Explorer.

Ford sells the 2021 Explorer in a rainbow of colors, trims, features, and options. Nearly every base is covered, but some are better values than others.

Starting from an average score of 5, the Explorer earns points for good standard gear and another for an 8.0-inch touchscreen that’s included on all versions. It’s a 7.

Which Ford Explorer should I buy?

The Explorer is available in base, XLT, Enthusiast ST, Limited, ST, and Platinum trim levels. It starts just over $34,000 but can run up a price tag of more than $60,000 when it’s all over. We find better value at the XLT trim level, which offers good tech and better options with a powertrain that best suits how most people drive.

The base Explorer gets 18-inch wheels, active safety tech (covered above), seats for up to seven in three rows, cloth upholstery, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, and two USB ports. All-wheel drive is optional, but not much else is—we’d skip it.

The XLT offers more flexibility in optional equipment, including a new sport appearance package. The XLT offers two second-row USB ports, better 18-inch wheels, upgraded cloth, heated front seats, and second-row captain’s chairs as included upgrades for its starting price of about $37,000. There’s more on the options list and we think it’s a better value for shoppers to pick and choose what they need.

The Explorer Hybrid expanded from Limited to Platinum trim and it costs more than $50,000 to start. The Limited trim level offers 20-inch wheels, a surround-view camera system, active lane control, and adaptive cruise control.

How much is a fully loaded 2021 Ford Explorer?

Both the Explorer Platinum and ST versions can approach $60,000 where leather upholstery, bigger engines, upgraded suspension, 20-inch wheels, and automatic parking assistants are included. Both trims offer 21-inch wheels and a massive 10.1-inch touchscreen for infotainment.

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2021 Ford Explorer

Fuel Economy

The Explorer is mid-pack for gas mileage, but a hybrid helps.

Is the Ford Explorer good on gas?

Among three-row crossovers, the 2021 Ford Explorer keeps pace. Hybrid and performance versions naturally bookend the efficiency spectrum, but it’s a 4 for gas mileage based on the most popular powertrain picks.

The EPA rates the Ford Explorer at 20 mpg city, 27 highway, 23 combined with a turbo-4 and all-wheel drive. Those numbers improve by 1 mpg across the board for rear-wheel-drive versions for smile-state buyers.

With the performance-adjacent Explorer ST or luxury-leaning Explorer Platinum, gas mileage sinks to 18/24/20 mpg.

Hybrid Explorers are the most efficient and rate 23/26/25 mpg with all-wheel drive or 27/29/28 mpg with rear-wheel drive.

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The Car Connection Consumer Review

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MSRP based on Base RWD
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Expert Rating
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Styling 7
Performance 7
Comfort & Quality 8
Safety 9
Features 7
Fuel Economy 4
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