Not flashy nor powerful, but who says a simple SUV can’t be good for many families?
Since 1991, Ford has sold its Explorer SUV to families with modest budgets, and holds the title of the best selling SUV in America. Back when it was launched, the Ford Explorer was set to replace the Bronco II, and was built on a Ford Ranger light truck platform. As new generations launched, including 2-door and pickup variants decades ago, Ford has dedicated a new chassis platform for the Explorer, now slotting into its lineup between the Edge crossover and Expedition full-size SUV. While it has been around since George HW Bush was in the White House, its popularity hasn’t been as solid in the past couple of generations, as the marketplace for SUVs has gone wild with options.
Now in its sixth generation, the Ford Explorer sticks to its roots of providing good value and reasonable pricing in its three-row SUV package. Ford still gets to pad its balance sheet by providing plenty of law enforcement officers with its Police Interceptor models, now based on the current Explorer, rather than the Crown Victoria and Taurus in years past. For those families who want a practical and affordable midsized SUV, does the Explorer still get the job done?
The Useful Specs
The sixth generation Ford Explorer now boasts a plethora of trim levels of three-row midsized SUV to please nearly any family, whether the demands involve basic appointments, sporty looks, off-road capability, or somewhat nicer treatments inside. In a segment that includes the Chevrolet Traverse (with the GMC Acadia built on the same platform), Hyundai Palisade (and its Kia Telluride sibling), Mazda CX-9, Toyota Highlander, and Honda Pilot, the Explorer has plenty of competitors to deal with.
Ford provides three engine options for the Explorer, starting with a 2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder that produces 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 with 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque, and a hybrid variant that is fitted with a naturally-aspirated 3.3-liter V6 which puts out 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft of torque. All new Explorers are delivered with a 10-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive, with intelligent four-wheel-drive as an available option.
The Explorer XLT I tested is the starting point for the seven trim levels Ford offers, with a base price of $37,075. At the top of the food chain is the King Ranch model, which starts at $53,995. The XLT tester was equipped with the 2.3-liter engine, and added all-wheel-drive, the XLT sport appearance package (with 20-inch wheels wrapped in self-sealing all-season tires), Co-Pilot 360 Assist+ Adaptive Cruise Control, a cargo management system in the back, and Infinite Blue Metallic paint to hit a total MSRP of $45,305.
A Practical Family Hauler
Because it’s now built on a crossover platform, the Ford Explorer is a composed daily driver, compared to its early generations that were more truck-like. Tipping the scales at around 4,300 pounds, the Explorer isn’t exactly light, but the base 2.3-liter engine doesn’t struggle to get the SUV moving, thanks to its wide powerband that I also appreciated in the Ford Ranger models I’ve tested over the past couple years. Drivers who crave more power will desire the ST or higher trim levels, with a seriously potent V6 that I enjoyed in the Lincoln Aviator I reviewed recently.
The 10-speed automatic shifts smoothly, and the four-wheel-drive system feels nicely sorted during any city driving. Ride quality is surprisingly refined, even without an adaptive suspension. Not boring, but not exciting, the Explorer XLT’s response in the corners is perfectly fine for a midsized SUV. Want a little tighter suspension and better handling? The ST is the way to go. Michelin Primacy all-season tires are competent enough for the task as a family SUV, and are remarkably quiet too. EPA fuel economy estimates are 20/27/23 (city/highway/combined), and I achieved 22 during my week-long test that was more focused on city driving.
There’s a full slate of drive modes easily selected with a knob mounted near the space-saving rotary gearshift, and while there isn’t an individual mode, there are a couple off-road options in addition to hill descent control for times when you take your Explorer… exploring. If your weekend and vacation excursions involve a boat or small camper, you’ll be happy to know the Explorer can tow up to 5,300 pounds when equipped with the 4-cylinder, and can bump up to 5,600 pounds if one opts for the EcoBoost V6.
Once inside the Explorer, the cabin is a no-fuss setup. Everything is intuitively designed, and touch points are placed throughout the cockpit. Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system is installed in a reasonably-sized touchscreen, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto ready to supplement your user experience. The instrument cluster has a big tachometer and speedometer, flanking a multifunction digital display that shows extra data points while allowing the driver to configure additional settings. Ford also supplies USB-A and USB-C ports in the concealable storage pocket ahead of the shifter and cupholders.
Thanks to a 198-inch overall length and 119-inch wheelbase, the Explorer’s cabin is quite spacious. Shoulder, hip, and headroom are considerable for the front two rows, and the six-seat configuration made for quick access to the third row. Third row legroom is a decent 32 inches, so adults could make quick drives stuck back there, but the seat is mounted low to the floor, so adult knees will be bent tightly. Ideally kids are going to be the third row occupants, and they’ll be fine. Cargo space is more than sufficient in the back of the Ford Explorer, and increases significantly with the third row seats folded flat.
The Good Points
Ford gave the Explorer a positive facelift for the sixth generation, making the fascia more sleek, adjusting the shape of the taillights, and giving the front a wider look. Putting some thought into rear seat access, Ford installed a rugged step to the outside of each middle row seat, adding stability while making the transition to the third row easier for those of us who have struggled to hop into that space.
The Explorer benefits from tons of places to store items of any size, which is nice for big families. If there’s a space in the dash or console, Ford found a way to make it useful. Kids can stuff their belongings all over the Explorer’s cabin, with plenty of spots to have McDonald’s fries hide and stink up the interior. The rear cargo area has the usual sort of hidden compartment with an optional storage organizer, and I like the additional side pockets designed into the floor for medium sized items like battery cables or a first aid kit.
A Couple Deductions
The Ford Explorer isn’t an eye-catching package, commonly overlooked by buyers who want a more interesting SUV. While its exterior lines are tidy, the Explorer isn’t particularly interesting. Even in its upper trim levels, I don’t love its looks, and in this crowded class of SUVs, there are more attractive competitors. I chuckled when I realized the name “Explorer” is printed on the exterior five times, with a placement along the lower body cladding of each front door, inside each headlight housing, and in the center of the tailgate. Just in case anyone wondered what this SUV was.
That simple theme is continued inside, with some somewhat basic themes and materials used throughout the cabin. Even after being updated in the past two years, the switchgear and panels aren’t wonderful. The seats could use a bit more lateral support too. If you care about nicer materials, particularly on the seating surfaces, upgrade to a Platinum or King Ranch Explorer.
A Basic SUV Isn’t A Bad One
The Ford Explorer might be somewhat simple, but it’s a humble SUV that fits the needs of many American families. It can be as nice or as basic as they desire, and has adjusted to meet demands of SUV drivers. Toting the kids to school and soccer practice doesn’t have to be done with style and luxury features, and the average family can appreciate an SUV designed with them in mind.
The segment might be filled with nicer models or cooler names, but the Ford Explorer gets the job done. It’s practical, has a price that meets modest budgets, is decently built, and offers good enough reliability from a name people trust. It’s hard to knock Ford for continuing to offer the humble Explorer for over 30 years, and I imagine it will continue to sell reasonably well for years to come.