The field of SUVs with three rows of seats is crowded, so when automakers roll out redesigned models, they have to get it right or the competition will eat them for lunch. Ford's 2016 redesign of the Explorer is largely successful, having focused on a few areas that really needed improvement or outright replacement.
The 2016 Ford Explorer is pleasant to drive and offers an improved interior and engine option, but getting the most out of Ford's improvements will cost you.
The seven-seat Explorer's front end has been restyled, and there's a new turbocharged, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine available; the previous turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder has been dropped. There's also a new high-end Platinum trim level in addition to the base, XLT, Limited and Sport trims. Those are the major changes for 2016, and you can compare the 2016 to the 2015 here.
The Explorer's competitors include the Toyota Highlander, the redesigned-for-2016 Honda Pilot, the Chevrolet Traverse and the Dodge Journey. Compare them here, though note that specs for the Pilot are not available as of this writing. The higher-priced Platinum trim competes with vehicles such as the GMC Acadia Denali and Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit.
I drove XLT, Limited and Sport versions of the Explorer, as well as all three available engines in the hills outside San Diego. I also saw an Explorer Platinum, but it was not available for road tests.
Exterior & Styling Ford says everything in front of the A-pillar is new: hood, fenders, headlights, grille and fog lights. In back, the liftgate and taillights are new. Despite the list of changes, the Explorer still resembles the previous model, it's just a bit more sculpted. Ford said the subtle changes were deliberate, as data show Explorer buyers preferred the "SUV-ness" of the previous version to wagon-like crossover styling.
From the outside, the easiest way to distinguish the trim levels is to look at the door handles and grille. Base models have black plastic handles and a gray grille; XLT models have body-colored door handles and a lighter gray grille; Limited models have chrome door handles and a bright silver grille; Sport models have gloss-black door handles and a grille with gloss-black bars; and Platinum models have satin chrome door handles and grille.
Overall, the Explorer looks good and does what Ford said it needed to do: retain its SUV-ness.
How It Drives The base engine, as was true in 2015, is a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 255 pounds-feet of torque. It provides decent power and pulls nicely away from stoplights and to make passes, but shoppers considering the Explorer would be advised to at least try the new engine option.
The new engine is a 280-hp, turbocharged ("EcoBoost" in Ford-speak) 2.3-liter four-cylinder, which is a $995 option. It, like all other Explorer engines, is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The combination is well executed.
The 2.3-liter engine's 310 pounds-feet of torque is what keeps you from thinking you're driving something with too small of an engine. In our hilly test drives, it provided enough power to pull away from a dead stop and make passes fairly easily. The pairing with the six-speed transmission helps, too, as there aren't as many gears to kick down through before the surge in power happens.
You do sense that it's a turbo engine; there can be a slight lag while accelerating, and when the power does come it tends to rush on rather than accelerate in a linear fashion. It's not a bad sensation, but if you're new to turbos you'll notice something … different. Overall, it's a smooth, quiet engine that's enjoyable to drive.
The 2.3-liter engine can be had with a tow package and all-wheel drive (unlike the previous four-cylinder models that were front-drive only). That's a needed change, especially as most SUV buyers opt for all-wheel drive in the first place.
For shoppers who want even more power, Ford continues to offer an Explorer Sport with a 365-hp, turbocharged V-6 that makes 350 pounds-feet of torque. It also has slightly firmer suspension tuning and a quicker steering ratio than the other models. It was the most fun of the three to drive on really twisty roads, as you'd expect.
In all models, even the Sport, the Explorer's ride is very good. It remains composed and predictable over rough pavement. I never felt jolted or jostled while driving or riding shotgun in the Explorer, and the SUV was largely willing to make quick changes in direction when needed.
The Explorer is the nicest to drive of its mainstream competitors, offering a composed ride and dynamics that encourage you to push the vehicle. The competitors are almost able to match the Explorer's comfortable ride, but I find them ponderous when I want to make a quick lane change. The Explorer just feels more planted and secure.
The base 3.5-liter V-6 engine gets 17/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 16/23/19 mpg with all-wheel drive. The 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine gets 19/28/22 mpg with front-wheel drive and 18/26/21 mpg with all-wheel drive. Finally, the turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 in Sport versions gets 16/22/18 mpg and is only available with all-wheel drive.
When compared to the all-wheel-drive Traverse's, Journey's and Highlander's figures, the combined mileage of the Explorer's base engine (19 mpg) matches the Traverse's and Journey's 19 mpg, and it's just behind the Highlander's figure of 20 mpg. The mileage gain with the optional engine is only a couple mpg, but the driving characteristics — rather than the mileage — would be enough to sway me in its direction.
Interior The strongest part of the interior is how cohesive the design is in the XLT, Limited and Sport versions we tested. Trim pieces don't just end at the dashboard; they wrap around to the doors. Likewise, all doors — including the rear ones — have three trim elements to them, and if there's a piece of trim that extends the length of the front doors, it also extends the full length of the rear doors. For too long, rear passengers have been left out of nice styling, and the 2016 Explorer works to correct that.
The trim pieces in the Explorer are of good quality. There's an aluminum-like finish in XLT models, a carbon-fiber-esque plastic in the Sport and a wood trim in the Limited. All are well executed.
The Platinum version is a competitive entry into the luxury class. It looks upscale to the point that I wonder if Ford's luxury Lincoln division will be cribbing notes on how the interior is done. Notably, the Platinum version features real wood and aluminum inlays, and the wood trim has a glossy finish instead of the Limited's matte finish.
Second-row room is also noteworthy. Even in models with the second-row moonroof, I wasn't pinched for headroom. Knee and shoulder room was also good, and I was able to sit up as if I were in a chair, which is nice. Base models come only with a 60/40-split folding second row that accommodates three passengers; all other trims give you the option of two captain's chairs for a total of six occupants rather than seven.
It's not easy to clamber into the third row, and once seated it's quite tight and the padding felt pretty uncomfortable. I'd recommend it only for small children and/or the especially limber folks among us.
Likewise, Ford also redesigned the driver's footrest (called a dead pedal). The footrest now has a steeper (more vertical) angle to it, which has the effect of pushing it back about 2 inches, opening up more floor space. Ford says that provides room for people who prefer to put their left foot flat on the floor. The new footrest is also narrower, and I felt it held my foot at a slightly unnatural angle, as if the top of my foot were pointing inward toward the brake pedal. I have large feet, but I'm not sold on this arrangement for anyone.
Lastly, visibility is largely good, though the A-pillars flanking the windshield remain large. They weren't an issue on my drive, but we didn't spend much time in a city, where pedestrians stepping off the curb unpredictably is the best test of visibility. Like the footrest, I wouldn't condemn the Explorer's visibility outright, but I'd want to test it further before giving it a stamp of approval.
Ergonomics & Electronics Ford largely nailed the updates here just by listening to people and bringing back real buttons for the climate controls and other functions. What used to be a panel of touch-sensitive lines now has mechanical buttons and knobs that give you confidence that you have, in fact, turned on your cooled seat and not just left fingerprints on your interior.
What I really like about this is it makes living with the touch-screen easier. What's on the touch-screen now — navigation, multimedia, etc. — is what should be on the screen. That's a major improvement and something other automakers might want to take a look at.
A new optional feature for the Explorer is a front-facing camera that offers a 180-degree view. Mounted in the front of the grille, the camera provides a view that helps when you're pulling out of an alley onto a busy street, for example. It's a helpful feature that I hope becomes more common in affordable vehicles.
Likewise, Ford has washers that clean the lenses of both the front and rear cameras, and that's also a helpful feature that I hope will gain acceptance across the automotive industry.
The Explorer's active parking assist feature also gets an update, adding park-out assist and perpendicular-parking assist in addition to semiautomatic parallel parking, which allows the car to handle maneuvering into and out of a spot.
Finally, Ford has brought its hands-free liftgate feature to the Explorer. With the feature, a kick of the leg under the bumper triggers the power liftgate when your hands are full of groceries or other items. It's available on the XLT and Sport and standard on Limited and Platinum trims. I've had little luck getting the system to work consistently on other Ford models, though. It seems I'm rarely able to kick my foot in just the right place to make the system activate, and lifting a foot while holding something heavy isn't always the best move. Hyundai might have the better system on the Santa Fe; the powered liftgate there opens automatically when you stand behind the vehicle for a few seconds (and a few audible beeps) with the key fob on your person.
Cargo & Storage The ability to carry cargo in any three-row SUV comes down to whether you have the rear seats up. If you do, the Explorer has just a small area behind the third-row seats that Ford says offers 21 cubic feet of space. (Just to give you an idea of how small a space that is, it compares to 23.8 cubic feet in a compact Ford Focus SE hatchback.)
Compared with the 2015 Chevrolet Traverse, 2015 Dodge Journey and 2015 Toyota Highlander, the Explorer trails the Traverse's 24.4 cubic feet but beats the Journey's 10.7 cubic feet and the Highlander's 13.8 cubic feet.
While the Explorer's space is small, a bigger concern for me is the pronounced well below bumper level that would make loading heavy items back there a bit of a chore.
With the third row stowed, there's a much larger area that would easily swallow up several roller bags plus other luggage, so I don't think a family of four going to the airport would have to scrimp on what they carried unless they were heavy packers.
Lastly, with all seats folded, the Explorer has a maximum cargo capacity of 80.7 cubic feet. This trails the Traverse (116.3 cubic feet) and Highlander (82.6 cubic feet), but beats the Journey (67.6 cubic feet).
Safety The 2016 Ford Explorer has not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Notable safety features include available forward-collision warning with autonomous braking, lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. You can check all the safety features and options here.
Value in Its Class Ford isn't raising the price of the base Explorer, but every other trim sees a price increase. The new top-of-the-line Platinum model will start at $53,495 (all prices include an $895 destination charge). Ford stressed that it's not concerned about having a $53,000-plus Explorer, because research indicates buyers want something richer than the formerly top-of-the-line Sport. Time will tell.
The Platinum model will be interesting to watch, as I think both its interior quality and overall interior design are better than either the GMC Acadia Denali or the Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit. The ultimate test will come when we can drive a Platinum model.
I was impressed with the performance of the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder to the point that, even though it's a nearly $1,000 option, I think all shoppers considering the base 3.5-liter engine should at least try the optional engine.
And speaking of options, that's probably the Explorer's biggest shortcoming: Yes, it's got a lot of well-executed technology, but the price adds up quickly. I configured a Ford Explorer Limited with the options I'd really want — the rear cross-traffic alert system, front cameras, moonroof and the 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine — and the sticker price was $48,785.
That's expensive for this class, and even more so when you consider some options — notably adaptive cruise control — that I skipped. However, competitors such as the Grand Cherokee, Acadia Denali, Highlander and Traverse don't even offer a front camera.
In the end, the decision to buy the Explorer will be based on how much shoppers like the driving experience and options, and how willing and able they are to pay for them.