I just spent a week with a new Ford Explorer, and here are my thoughts.
Having recently spent a week with a 2011 Lincoln MKX, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the two vehicles on occasion. These vehicles are very different from each other, but when you spend time in both of them, you see how Ford is headed down the road of consistent styling, functionality and parts – for better or for worse.
The Explorer I had the opportunity to drive was a Limited version, which is the top of the line and pretty much loads the vehicle up. There were only one or two options this vehicle didn’t have, but there was very little it didn’t offer and I can’t imagine wanting for more. The starting list price for this vehicle (the 4WD Limited) is CDN $44,199. The way this one was optioned out, according to Ford Canada’s website, the list price was $53, 629 before taxes. Ouch. The major options included were the luxury seating package, the tech package, the dual moonroofs and the towing package.
First of all, the Ford Explorer is a big vehicle. It is Ford’s middle-sized offering, slotting in between the smaller Escape and the bigger Expedition. In terms of their crossovers, it’s bigger than the Edge and roughly the same size as their Flex. In calling it Ford’s middle-sized offering, I don’t think it would be a misstep to call it a full size SUV. I’m positive this is the biggest Explorer that Ford has ever built – it’s heavy too – it tips the scales at 4731 pounds. Ford advises it is actually 100 pounds lighter than the previous Explorer, due to weight-saving measures such as an aluminum hood, etc. It’s 197″ long (5 metres) and 79″ wide (2 metres).
This is an all-new Explorer, inside and out. It’s outside appearance has been completely rethought and in my opinion, it looks good. This vehicle can look sleek, it can look boxy and it can look enormous, depending on which angle you’re looking at it from. One thing I can tell you is that wherever I drove it, it got looks – from drivers of all kinds of vehicles. And I got a number of thumbs-ups from drivers of older-generation Explorer. The front grille is the strongest styling feature, in my opinion. It has horizontal slats, accented with chrome – you can’t miss it. Otherwise, the overall shape is built out of boxes, but they’ve managed to modernize it and make it somewhat sleeker-looking, slightly hiding the fact that it’s a big vehicle. It has a high beltline, making the bottom of the vehicle look bigger and the windows smaller. Ford retained the faux wrap-around rear side windows that have become an Explorer trademark – they look good on this one. Also, I should point out that this example came in the sexy Red Candy Metallic with tinted clearcoat – it’s a fantastic color choice for this vehicle, and I’m certain that is part of what contributed to the looks I was getting. Another thing you can’t miss on this particular trim level is the meaty 255-50/20 rubber wrapped around great-looking 20″ chrome wheels. They got a lot of comments – all positive. You’ll also find a full-length roof rack (rails only, as is typical), a rear-mounted roof antenna and a nice little rear spoiler at the top of the rear window. It’s a relatively clean redesign, in my opinion, and considering the size and heft of this vehicle, it was done well.
Under the sheet metal, there are significant changes as well. Under that aluminum hood you’ll find one of the hardest-working 3.5 litre V-6s out there. It produces 290 HP at 6500 RPM, and 255 lb.ft of torque at 4000 RPM. The combination of this engine and the 6-speed automatic is decent, but left me wanting for more. Like I said, the engine works hard to motivate this beast up to speed – it sounds like it’s working pretty hard. Also, that transmission, understandably, shifts up soon to reduce fuel consumption, and is grumpy about being asked to shift down. Step on it, and it takes a second or two for the downshift to take place, which leaves you with a weird “Am I going to get into this space in time?” feeling when you’re merging, turning at an intersection, etc. The shifts are smooth, however, and barely noticeable. All this upshifting does little to alleviate the pain at the pump, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone buying a huge vehicle like this. The 4WD Explorer Limited is rated at 18.8 mpg city (12.5 L/100 km) and a very decent 26.7 mpg highway (8.8 L/100 km). Those are the standard and usually somewhat ambitious ratings – my real-world mileage was 16.8 mpg (14 L/100 km) during mostly city driving with a couple of stints on the freeway. Not great, but not bad considering the bulk that you’re dragging around. Ford claims this is a 20% improvement over the last model of Explorer. One thing I was taken aback at was the mere 70 litre (18.5 gallon) capacity of the fuel tank. When you’re guzzling fuel at this rate, you’ll probably end up at the pump slightly more often than you’d expect with a tank that size. There is a shifter-mounted toggle switch to manually change gears, if you’re so inclined. Gear changes are no quicker and I don’t see most drivers of this vehicle using that manual mode often, if ever.
Inside, I found it was clear where all that bulk was going. There is a lot of room inside this vehicle. This one had bucket seats in the second row, so had seating for six passengers. The front and middle row seats are a lovely perforated leather. Both front seats are heated and cooled, and 10-way adjustable and were easy to get comfortable in, but offered little bolstering on the sides, which meant if you do any quicker turning, you won’t find yourself held in place very well. That’s acceptable, in my opinion, because this vehicle wasn’t designed to be driven aggressively. The driver’s seat includes 3 memory settings as well as a power lumbar adjustment. The legroom/kneeroom was great for front and middle-row passengers. The third row’s kneeroom was acceptable – I had a friend who’s well over 6 feet tall sitting back there to try it out. The issue is the footroom in that third row. The tracks for the second row of seating intrude into what little space you have to put your feet down on the floor. My kids, on the other hand, have legs that don’t reach to the floor and they were just fine and very comfortable back there.
Headroom is fantastic in this vehicle, even with the two moonroofs looming overhead. The third row seats have these neat scalloped indentations above them to afford the passengers more headroom back there.
The interior is done well. The plastics look nice from a visual perspective, but definitely are a hard plastic, and don’t have a nice tactile feel. It was certainly a grade down from what I saw and felt in the Lincoln. Ford went with a cool blue LED lighting scheme, and I thought it looked good. There are neat little touches, like the blue lit-up rings around the center console cupholders. This vehicle had a dark wood trim – I wouldn’t say it looks great, but it does dress up the interior somewhat. There are some manufacturers doing such an amazing job on interior wood accents nowadays that it’s difficult to get excited about many others. The fit and finish was quite good inside – it seems that they are paying attention to build quality and gap tolerances appear to be very good. The vehicle had approximately 3000+ kilometers on it, and there were no squeaks or rattles of any kind.
Storage-wise, the Explorer does well. There are center console bins for the front and middle rows – both are deep and very usable. The second-row bin is hinged at the front, meaning both the second and third-row passengers can flip it open and access it – a thoughtful way to do it. The glove compartment is roomy and has two levels. There are a number of well-designed door bins in all four doors. The third row has nice organizers/trays, complemented with a cupholder, on both sides. Speaking of cupholders, you’ve got two cupholders in the front doors, as well as two in the center console for both the front and the middle row. Cargo volume is rated at 21 cubic feet, which is decent – this increases to 44 cubic feet with the seats folded down, and it is a significant amount of space. There are a decent array of solid-looking pivoting cargo hooks in the rear area. Speaking of folded seats, the rear seats (with the luxury seating package) have a cluster of buttons controlling them from the back of the vehicle. It allows for 3 different positions – 1) normal, which is upright for seating purposes; 2) fold, which folds that rear row forward, creating a bigger cargo area; and 3) stow, which is an excellent option – it partially folds the seats together flat, and them tumbles them backwards into a well situated in the cargo floor area, making for a massive cargo area with a nice flat floor. To make this cool power option even more flexible, it allows you to apply your choice to either the left, the right or both rear seats. This was a great way to impress passengers. I’ve linked to a short video of the stow mode if you’re interested in seeing it in action – it creates a great cargo area very quickly.
I did find that there are some remarkable similarities to the Lincoln MKX I drove earlier. When you sit in the driver’s seat, you instantly recognize the steering wheel, gauge cluster and numerous stalks and switch gear, including the shift lever. They are virtually identical. And they all work pretty well. Another similarity is that Ford employs the MyFord system here, which basically is the same thing as MyLincoln. It’s a great concept, but my opinion hasn’t changed since I drove the MKX.
MyFord is an all-encompassing system controlling the vehicle’s climate control, audio system, phone integration and navigation system – all through a central touch-screen. The screen can be divided into 4 quadrants, allowing you to access the basics of each area, or you can zoom in on any quadrant, taking up the whole screen for that particular function. From there, the screen may change as you progress through menus, functions, etc. The basics of whatever the screen is showing can be seen in the right one of two 4″ LCD screens flanking your speedometer. For example, if you’re listening to the radio, you’ll get all the information you want and more on the main screen, but up on the dash, you’ll see the song, artist and radio station. As mentioned, there are two 4″ LCD screens flanking the speedometer. The left one has vehicle information in it – which is highly adjustable and controllable by the driver. It can handle driving range, fuel economy in a variety of ways, tachometer, gas gauge, temperature gauge, trip computers, vehicle settings, AWD read-out and controlling the driver assist systems. The content and control of both screens are handled by a four-way control pad with an OK button in the centre – one on each side of the steering wheel corresponding to each screen.
The concept is fantastic but the way it works is not. I found myself wanting this system to react quicker to my touch, much like the women that have been in my life. I would find myself waiting for something to happen – even a second seems like a long time when you’re used to switches and dials reacting to your guidance instantly in the past. I don’t want to regurgitate my previous thoughts on this system, so if you want to read them in more detail, please do check out my other review. But the key thing, in my opinion, is that this system has an enormous learning curve to get into all the amazing things it offers, and it takes longer to get to some of the functions that I wanted to access immediately. Want to turn on your seat heater? You’re a few screens away from that. Want to get to your phone’s contact list? You’re a few screens away from that. It does so much, yet it takes significant effort to dig down through the layers of offerings that I found it got irritating at times.
System connectivity is great – there is a bin where you’d normally find an ashtray at the front of the center console, which allows you to connect 2 USB devices, an SD card and RCA plugs from a DVD or gaming device. There is also room for your connected iPod, etc. The sound system itself is a Sony-branded system, playing through 12 speakers in the Limited trim level – including a center channel and a subwoofer in the back. Many of the systems functions are buried in the MyFord screen-based system, but a few of the elementary controls such as volume, seek, scan, etc are done with a rotary dial around a directional pad just below the screen. It doesn’t work intuitively and it was hard for me to figure out the difference between the pad’s touch functions and tactile “push it like a regular button” functions – it takes a bit of time to get used to, but once you do, it works just fine.
This vehicle did not include a rear-seat entertainment (RSE) system – it is a dealer-installed option to the tune of about $1800 or so. If it’s anything like the one in the MKX, it would be 2 screens mounted in the front-seat headrests, with separate DVD players, inputs and wireless headphones. It’s a nice system, but as always, I would highly recommend ditching this built-in, inflexible and over-priced solution and just get a couple of iPads for the kids. Bigger screens, more apps and games and things to do, portability, cheaper – it beats RSE systems any way you look at it.
When it comes to safety equipment and technology, the Explorer is well-equipped. It has the collision avoidance system, which lights a row of very bright red LEDs on the dash and sounds a very loud alarm if it appears that you may hit a vehicle in front of you. It works at all speeds, including in parking lots, etc. It also has the adaptive cruise control which, of course, allows you to set the speed you want to travel at but also lets you define how much of a gap you want the system to maintain between you and the vehicle in front of you. If they slow down, so will your Explorer – you don’t need to intervene. It’s difficult to place yourself and your loved ones in this computer’s hands, but I got very comfortable with it after using it on our freeways more than once. I had set the cruise at 110 km/h, and set the gap to my liking. It ended up varying the speed by nearly 30 km/h as the idiot in front of me tried to make up his mind as to how fast he felt like going. It worked flawlessly and smoothly. It would be great for road trips. The side view mirrors have integrated blind-spot information systems, in the form of an orange LED that glows when a vehicle is in your blind spot. I found the orange light didn’t do enough to catch my attention even if I was looking at the mirror, meaning I had to be looking for it anyway – at that point, I might as well do a shoulder check. Those side-view mirrors somehow seem smaller than you would expect to be on such a big vehicle, yet they did a great job. The large MyFord screen in the dash acts as a monitor for a great rear-view camera when you’re in reverse, and the picture includes your trajectory which changes as you turn your steering wheel which is very helpful in determining where you’ll end up. There is also an audible distance sensor for backing up. The headlights are a nice, bright set of HID lights that throw light far and make night-time visibility excellent. It also has foglights. In terms of airbags, there is a full complement of them placed around the passenger cabin – front, side and side curtain. Interestingly, Ford has added inflatable second-row seatbelts, which act as mini airbags, spreading out the force of an impact and lessening the likelihood of injury. I like that, and I like that my kids or other passengers are being looked after.
Driving this vehicle is very comfortable. The ride is excellent, although stiff enough that it doesn’t wallow around, including the corners. I, and a few of my passengers, were pleasantly surprised at this relative behemoth’s ability to negotiate corners quite quickly, without complaining. No screeching of tires, very little body roll. Considering the size of the vehicle and it’s weight and height, it handles very well, and I would be confident in making emergency manouvers in it if required. There is some thump over expansion joints and potholes, which is to be expected with the relatively low-profile rubber. I have been in vehicles where the cabin has been isolated from road noise better than this one, but it’s not a complaint. One thing I did take issue with was wind noise – I would assume it was an anomaly, but at higher speeds (90 km/h or more), there was quite a noticeable wind whistle from the front passenger window. It would drive me crazy on a highway trip. Because of the long hood, I always got the feeling that I’m swinging a very big front end around when I was making lower speed turns or parking the Explorer. It is difficult to tell where the actual front of the vehicle is and I found that took a while to get used to. If it has front parking sensors, which would be of great benefit, I didn’t see or hear any. As I mentioned earlier, the V-6 works hard to get this big vehicle up to speed, and makes a lot of noise doing so, but it’s not a slow vehicle and has enough power and torque to do what almost anyone would expect of this vehicle. I didn’t look up the 0-60 mph rating but it certainly qualifies as adequate, if not sporty. Noise and vibration were, for the most part, a non-issue. The brakes were good, especially considering the size of vehicle they’re hauling down from speed. If you are interested in or need to tow things, they Explorer is rated to tow up to 5000 lbs – there is a tow/haul mode button on the dash, which optimizes shifting. I didn’t test the towing capability, but that sounds about on par with previous generations. I’d much prefer a V-8 to tow with, as the engine just wouldn’t be working so hard – that’s just not an option anymore.
Outward visibility when driving this vehicle is exceptionally good. The one thing I found that really impeded my outward visibility was when the third-row seat headrests were up. They are enormous and make up what seems to be the top 1/3 of the seats – being this huge, they can’t help but be in the way of seeing out of the back.
Convenience-wise, I’ve touched on a few things already. I found it very easy to get used to (and spoiled by) the push-button start/stop ignition. The middle row of bucket seats have buttons at the rear edge of the door opening, allowing you to power tumble the seats – press it and the seat-back folds flat and the whole thing tumbles forward for easy ingress to the third row. The liftgate is powered, and can be controlled from the driver’s seat, from the rear liftgate itself or from the key FOB. Interestingly, you can adjust the open height of the liftgate. Some parkades have very low ceilings and it allows you to set how high you want the liftgate to open. Smart. Ford is coming out with a new innovation on the upcoming C-Max micro-van – if you have the key FOB in your pocket, and you wave your foot under the rear bumper, it will automatically open the liftgate for you, allowing you to carry things in both arms and open the trunk without putting them down. Very cool, and I expect to see that in future generations of Ford vehicles, probably including the Explorer. You’ll find four 12 volt plugs spread around the cabin, and a very useful 110 V household plug-in at the back of the front center console, in front of the second row. Right above that, you’ll find excellent temperature controls for the back, which can also be locked out to be solely controlled at the front if you want to be a control freak. This rear climate control panel complements ceiling-mounted A/C vents, which is a nice touch taken from minivans. Those ceiling vents do a significantly better job at cooling down a hot vehicle. Speaking of control, you can also lock out the others’ power windows from the driver’s seat. Mirrors are power-folding. It has the Homelink transmitter system, allowing you to program your garage door opener codes – up to three different ones. This vehicle came equipped with the dual moonroof option – the front one allows for power tilt and slide, and there is a power sliding cover for both the front and the back moonroof. These roofs allow a lot of light to come in and certainly brighten the interior. There is a capless fuel-filler system, which threw me on both the Lincoln and this vehicle when I opened the fuel door. It’s a great idea though. The pedals are power adjustable for height. The vehicle apparently has a remote-start system, which I noted in the literature and on the key FOB – I couldn’t for the life of me get it to work though. It was identical to the Lincoln, requiring two taps on the FOB button, but I never was able to activate it.
One of the things I noticed immediately, and frankly I don’t think enough car manufacturers pay attention to this, is how wide all four doors open on the Explorer. I was duly impressed – the doors open very wide and stay open if you want them to. Getting into any of the four doors is very easy and roomy.
I evaluate vehicles for family friendliness, as I have three small kids in various sizes of child seats. We easily accommodated our 5 month old in his infant seat, our 3 year old in a child seat and our 7 year old in her booster seat. Getting the kids in and out of the vehicle was a breeze. There are 2 sets of LATCH anchors in the second row, and one LATCH anchor set for the third row, allowing you to anchor a total of three child seats. My kids loved this vehicle and didn’t want me to give it up.
I wasn’t sure where to put this last feature – safety? Convenience? Tech? I don’t know and so I’ll give it its own brief section. The intelligent 4WD system is full-time, and can be controlled with a very cool console-mounted rotary knob. This knob controls the “Terrain Management System” which allows you to switch the system into optimized modes for different terrains: snow, sand, mud and a hill-descent mode. This system looks to be lifted from Land Rover – it has similar if not identical settings and works the same way. That’s a good thing – if this engineering came from Land Rover, you know it should be competent. I didn’t have a chance to try any off-roading with the Explorer, and I firmly believe that 99.9% of owners never will. But it’s reassuring to know that it IS off road capable, and that the structure you’re driving on is solid enough to withstand that kind of abuse. Oh, and did I mention it’s totally cool?
I always have a few niggling issues with vehicles I drive, mainly because I’m pretty picky – these issues are more specific to my wants and needs and they’re far from objective. But here are a couple. I always drive an automatic with my foot firmly placed on the dead pedal space. The Explorer has a dead pedal on the left side of the driver’s footwell where it belongs, but for some reason, the top left quarter of the dead pedal is cut off by an intrusion. I kept kicking this intrusion as my whole size 13 foot didn’t fit there and it drove me absolutely crazy, especially when cornering. Another thing I didn’t particularly like was the speedometer. It goes up to 220 km/h, but it squeezes all those numbers into only about a cramped 2/3 of the dial. That scrunches up the numbers and it’s difficult to read. Considering you probably wouldn’t usually travel faster than 120 km/h on a regular basis with this vehicle, you’re only using a small portion of that dial and you have to look closer than you should have to to determine what speed you’re travelling at. They could have spread those numbers out more, making it easier to read.
As far as eco-friendly goodies go, the only thing I could find is that Ford is using soy foam cushions in the seats. I’m wondering if that makes those seat cushions a potential tasty treat for vegans. Soy foam? If you say so.
Warranty is nothing exciting – the basic bumper-to-bumper warranty is 3 years/60,000 km, and 5 years/100,000 km for the powertrain and for roadside assistance. These are industry standards, so it’s not a knock on Ford. There are better warranties out there, but Ford’s recent initial quality ratings are astounding, and it appears they are making some of the best-built vehicles on the market – regardless of price. If you’re buying a vehicle to last and you’re not one of those people into the 12 month leases with car owner ADHD, a Ford seems to be a good alternative to consider these days – the vehicles are engineered and designed well AND built well – a great combination, in my opinion.
I really liked the 2011 Ford Explorer. Sure, it probably didn’t hurt that this was the Limited trim level, because any of the goodies I would want but maybe wouldn’t spring for if I was paying for them were included. But it was a great ride. It served me well. Shopping trips were easily accommodated, space-wise, while my whole family was in the vehicle. If you need room, and a lot of it, and you like that space to be flexible, this is a great vehicle. It was competent around town, with the exception of a grumpy and slow-reacting transmission, and the fuel economy is acceptable considering the heft of this beast. I never found myself wanting for more than this vehicle provided me with, especially when I had my whole family in it.
I would rate this vehicle, for my purposes, an 8 out of 10. I found it expensive at this trim level with these options, and clearly there are other options out there at that price. But it’s an excellent alternative and I wouldn’t hesitate recommending a closer look at one if you’re in the market for a bigger SUV or crossover. It wasn’t what I’d call fun to drive, but vehicles this size aren’t. In regards to competence and utility, it did everything I asked of it, and that says a lot. WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was high – very high, in fact. As in, why don’t you buy us one of these kind of high.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this vehicle or my review.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Ford.
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