Test Drive

2016 Ford Explorer Review: We Learned Why Buyers Find It So Seductive

And it's not just because it's an SUV.

There was a time not too long ago when the American auto industry was making its bread and butter selling oversized gas-guzzling SUVs, cornering an untapped demand that the rest of the industry had not yet caught onto. But things have changed since the pre-crash era of the poorly built SUV, and now that the genre is the market’s central point of focus, Ford knew it had to do better when it redesigned the Explorer. To validate its efforts, we spent a week with a Ruby Red Metallic Explorer with the Platinum box ticked off.

In Ford speak, that means this Explorer is the head honcho of its breed complete with a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 sending its spry 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. According to its affixed Monroney sticker, this Explorer made it to California from its final assembly plant in Chicago, IL by means of a convoy. Bless the poor souls on the freeway that had to witness that gang rolling down the road because thanks to the Explorer’s status as a police favorite, its “official use only” demeanor makes surrounding traffic skip a heartbeat thinking a ticket is coming their way. The phenomenon is an odd one, especially given the fact that the fifth generation Explorer appears to have been tamed for duty in the carpool lane

It's supposed to help those with children hustle between parent teacher conferences, not be a mobile jail cell. Part of the makeover for modernity included switching the Explorer to a unibody platform and dressing it like a crossover, smart given the genre’s tendency to bait customers into a sale. Now your fair writer is only 5’8”, but it’s a fact that even Shaq could sit in the front seats and be taken back by the size of the greenhouse. It’s comforting to know there’s all that crumple space in case the situation goes south, but the distance between driver and windshield takes a while to get used to. The passage of time, however, is no issue inside the Explorer.

Its leather captain’s chairs, while not the most comfortable seating solutions on the planet, have a massage function that gently nudges the driver into states of relaxation, though the hands of the robotic masseuse aren’t strong enough to lull in drowsiness. The theme of comfort and worry-free convenience extends throughout the rest of the cabin with second row captain’s chairs that are heated to compliment the hot and cold front seats. Loading large objects in the rear is a breeze with a power lift gate and a third row that folds flat at the touch of a button in one flashy origami maneuver that’s sure to be an item on the bragging list for suburban parents on the cusp of a midlife crisis.

Other pleasant surprises include a heated steering wheel, a self-parking feature as well as cameras at the front and rear that allow amateur drivers to pull off parking lot miracles, and a gas pedal that can be used to surprise passengers with the Explorer’s pep. It’s no race car and certainly isn’t the fastest SUV on the market, but its 365 hp translates to enough passing power to make highway travel less about survival and more about finding a sweet spot in traffic. During its week in our possession, the Explorer only got 14.1 mpg rather than the advertised 16-mpg city (22 highway, 18 combined) but we’d suspect that if it weren’t for ultra-dense San Francisco traffic, Ford’s advertised city number wouldn’t be too far off.

Despite its sophisticated new unibody chassis, this is no sedan imitator unlike some more stiffly sprung crossovers. Body roll isn’t turbulent but soft springs give the Explorer a comfortable yet detached ride. On the freeway, this translates to a painless transition from point A to B. Also assuring the driver that the Explorer is still an SUV are pedals that are positioned under the driver’s feet instead of resting in front of them as when sitting feet first in a low car. This ushers in the feeling of driving a delivery van. Aside from that, it’s only Ford’s tendency for tacky interiors that make its cars feel more like large toys than actual cars for adults giving the Explorer a faint allure of being cheap.

That feeling doesn’t sit long when sifting through seemingly countless features strewn around the car as we’ve driven luxury cars that are more bare bones than this. Ford’s SYNC, while still lagging, was competent and made transitioning between menus easy with selections on each of the screen’s corners. Though it was raining during most of our week with the Explorer, the twin-panel moon roof lit up the Nirvana leather Soft Creme interior without the view being impeded by the roof racks. Meanwhile the engineers made sure that no mechanical operation, save for opening the doors or the hood, had to be done by human hands. Kick under the rear bumper with the key fob in your pocket and the lift gate opens.

Even the mirrors folded at the touch of a button. Unfortunately, all of this comes at a price. Our tester, loaded with only $1,249 of options including the Ruby Red paint, rear captain’s chairs, and the second row center console, stickered at $55,155 with $945 destination and handling included. Considering the number of features loaded on, the price isn’t exactly a deal breaker, especially given that the Explorer feels solid and smooth, but we’d rather a bit more of an upscale feel to the buttons and materials rather than a veil of luxury brought on by the dizzying array of features. In either case, Ford didn’t do a bad job. It seems as if the higher a certain model sits on the list of its segment's best sellers, the more boring it gets.

Coming in as the sixth most popular SUV in America during 2015 and 5th just last month, Ford doesn’t want to mess with the good thing that it has going on with the Explorer. As such, the current one is fairly boring, offering monotony in exchange for a complaint-free existence, which makes it a perfect option for the active suburban family that wants the luxury car frills but shies away from chrome covered showboats. Even when saddled with kids and mountain bikes, enthusiasts would shy away in exchange for something that’s a bit more engaging to drive and packaged together more effectively. However, for those that care only about getting the kids to soccer practice after the day's meetings are over, look no further.

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Ford Explorer
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