2017 Ford Explorer SUV Review

It’s the most popular SUV in this segment – but does that mean the Ford Explorer’s also the best-in-class?

Everything you need to know

It’s the most popular SUV in this segment – but does that mean the Ford Explorer’s also the best-in-class?

Since its inception in 1991, the Ford Explorer has been a big hit with SUV buyers on the lookout for a large, sturdy and no-nonsense family vehicle. In fact, it’s currently the best-selling vehicle in its class – even though the current Ford Explorer is the most car-like version that Ford has ever made. Through a combination of being comfortable, spacious and relatively efficient, the Ford Explorer certainly has a fair bit going for it. However, loads of other SUVs in this segment are also very accomplished all-rounders – and, in a class as hotly contested as this, the Ford Explorer’s flaws are that bit easier to spot. As a result, whilst we certainly feel the Ford Explorer is a good all-rounder, we’d hesitate on suggesting you should go out and buy one over all of its chief rivals.

Fairly spacious, but don’t expect exemplary quality on lower-spec cars

All models are assembled to a good standard.

Though the pricier Ford Explorer variants have nicely-trimmed interiors, the same can’t be said of the more affordable versions. Whereas the range-toppers have decent amounts of leather trim, and all models are assembled to a good standard, the less expensive models make do with plastics that are surprisingly hard and scratchy for a car with a $31,660 base price. At least the main controls are intuitive enough for a car at the Ford Explorer’s price point. Though we wouldn’t say it’s as immediately user-friendly as the Mazda CX-9’s or Toyota Highlander’s layouts, the well-spaced button placement (particularly on the center console) does make getting to grips with them fairly straightforward. Likewise, the dashboard dials and the touchscreen infotainment system are clear and easy to read, with the touchscreen in particular benefitting from a crisp resolution and quick input responses. A shame, then, that the touchscreen can’t be fitted on entry-level cars, which make do with a slightly clunkier and less impressive infotainment system. Overall space for the driver and passengers is good, if not great, in the Ford Explorer. Though there’s an admirable amount of head and leg room in the front and middle seats, the rear row’s is rather cramped in comparison. As a result, whilst six-footers can fit comfortably up front, we’d advise you only allocate the rearmost chairs to children – and especially if you go for a seven-seater Ford Explorer, which doesn’t have the optional six-seater’s sliding middle row setup.

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The Ford Explorer’s base trunk capacity is on par with a majority of rivals.

The chairs offer a decent amount of support, though, and there’s good amounts of adjustment for the driver’s seat and steering wheel. We also like the sizeable storage spots throughout the cabin, with the deep cubby under the front center armrest and the long door bins being particular highlights. Plus, if you really need to use the back seats, the mechanism that flips the middle row forward is easy to use and provides enough room to prevent awkward clambering into the third row. The cargo space is also pretty generous, to the point where most Ford Explorer buyers should be more than satisfied with the room on offer. With 21 cubic feet when all the seats are being used, the Ford Explorer’s base trunk capacity is on par with a majority of rivals, as is the space with the third row folded away (43.9 cubic feet) and second row flipped forward (81.7 cubic feet). Plus, the trunk has a boxy shape, which – on top of the broad aperture and the lack of a load lip – means loading and unloading heavier items shouldn’t be tricky. However, there are some issues. Though all the seats fold away, the second row doesn’t fold completely flat, and longer items may get snagged on the gap between the second and third rows. Plus, if you need even more space, the Ford Explorer can’t quite compete with the Chevrolet Traverse’s capacities (24 cubic feet with all seats up, 70.3 behind the second row and 116.3 with all the seats folded down).

Unengaging and cumbersome at times, but comfortable and decent to drive off-road

The Ford Explorer isn’t the easiest vehicle in its class to manoeuvre, and especially in tighter spots.

Though far from being woeful to drive, the Ford Explorer conversely isn’t an amazing SUV to steer. In a class that has made good progress in recent years to improve day-to-day usability, it’s a shame that the Ford Explorer hasn’t entirely kept up with these standards. For example, it’s difficult to get a good idea of what the front wheels are doing, as the steering is very vague. It also doesn’t help that there’s a lot of slack in the initial steering response, and the chunky pillars do generate sizeable blind spots. As a result, the Ford Explorer isn’t the easiest vehicle in its class to manoeuvre, and especially in tighter spots (though the standard-fit reversing camera does help a bit in this regard). Therefore, we’re more inclined to recommend vehicles like the Kia Sorento and Honda Pilot if you’ll frequently be driving your larger SUV in more built-up areas. However, if you regularly drive on highways or more open stretches of road, the Ford Explorer does start to make sense. For starters, the car is particularly comfortable, with the suspension doing an admirable job at absorbing the smaller imperfections and large lumps in the road surface (though fitting the optional 20inch wheels does firm up the ride a bit – and even more so on the even firmer ‘Sport’ models), and the well suppressed wind noise and tire roar only further bolster the Ford Explorer’s cruiser-oriented capabilities.

If you plan on taking your Ford Explorer off-road or have to contend with more adverse weather conditions, though, the all-wheel drive system is worth specifying.

Even more interestingly, there’s decent amounts of grip to rely on when cornering. Though not quite as hunkered down as a Hyundai Santa Fe or Mazda CX-9, the Ford Explorer can nevertheless hold onto a line around a bend surprisingly well – especially when you consider the earlier comments regarding the steering. Body lean is also capably controlled, if perhaps not quite as well as the aforementioned Mazda CX-9, and there’s sufficient traction regardless of whether you stick with the standard front-wheel drive setup or upgrade to the optional all-wheel drive system. If you plan on taking your Ford Explorer off-road or have to contend with more adverse weather conditions, though, the all-wheel drive system is worth specifying (unless you go for ‘Sport’ or ‘Platinum’ models, which aren’t available with front-wheel drive). Not only is having an extra set of driven wheels handy on slipperier surfaces, but the all-wheel drive models also come with a terrain management system that sets the car up for driving on muddy trails, snow and even sand. As a result, whilst the Ford Explorer in this configuration can deal with tougher terrain more admirably than most rivals – though, if you’re after the most capable off-roader in this class, a Jeep Grand Cherokee will be better appealing to you.

Go for the 2.3-liter turbocharged engine where possible

You’ll have slotted under the hood of your car a 3.5-liter six-cylinder gasoline engine.

If you opt for one of the two starter trims in the Ford Explorer range, you’ll have slotted under the hood of your car a 3.5-liter six-cylinder gasoline engine. However, whilst this unit isn’t objectively a bad one, we recommend you tick the $495 options box for the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, as we feel it’s by far the best overall engine in the Ford Explorer range. Despite being 10-hp down on the 290-hp six-cylinder, the 2.3-liter turbo is still a strong performer thanks to the meaty 310 lb-ft of torque (the 3.5-liter, in comparison, has 255 lb-ft to play with), so the four-cylinder is the more flexible engine when it comes to out-and-out pulling power. The four-cylinder is also the more efficient engine of the pair: on front-wheel drive cars, the turbocharged engine can return a fairly-good-by-class-standards 17mpg in the city and 27mpg on the highway, whereas the six-cylinder can only manage 17mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway (adding all-wheel drive drops all the economy figures by one miles-per-gallon respectively). Ford Explorer buyers who want the fastest and most potent version possible, though, will be catered to by the 3.5-liter six-cylinder gasoline engine. With outputs of 365-hp and 350 lb-ft, this engine is comfortably the most powerful you’ll find in this class, and endows the Ford Explorer with an impressive turn of speed for such a large vehicle. Plus, the fuel economy penalty isn’t too bad, with claims of 16mpg city and 22mpg highway. However, as the most affordable version that’s available with this engine has a $45,355 list price, this turbocharged six-cylinder isn’t one we see having much mass appeal.

Regardless of which engine you go for, the Ford Explorer will have a fairly smooth and refined engine under the hood that suits the car’s more laid back qualities.

Regardless of which engine you go for, the Ford Explorer will have a fairly smooth and refined engine under the hood that suits the car’s more laid back qualities. All three engines settle down at a cruise, too, which further help make the Ford Explorer an ideal long distance car. Though the engines are more than up for the job, the six-speed automatic transmission they’re paired to isn’t quite up to snuff. Whilst it isn’t obtrusively bad (gear changes, for instance, are fairly smooth), we do feel this transmission can be a bit sluggish to respond at times – and especially when you need to drop a few gears when overtaking on the highway. The six-speed automatic’s also looking a bit out of date in a market that’s now starting to adopt seven-speed, eight-speed and even nine-speed automatics, though the spacing of the gear ratios means you shouldn’t drop out of the power and torque bands on each engine that often if at all.

Beware of the $40,000+ top tier trims

The Ford Explorer is amongst one of the more expensive vehicles in this class.

By most measures, the Ford Explorer is amongst one of the more expensive vehicles in this class. Though margins to some cars aren’t too big (an entry-level, $31,660 model is only $140 more expensive than a comparable Mazda CX-9), competitors like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder all undercut the Ford by $1,000 or so. Worse still for the Ford Explorer, rivals like the Kia Sorento are (in their most affordable and sparse guise, admittedly) are almost $6,000 less expensive to buy. Further tarnishing the Ford Explorer’s appeal is that it doesn’t come with a huge amount of equipment as standard. Of course, items like cruise control, a reversing camera, hill start assist, front and rear climate control and LED headlights and taillights are pleasant to have, but they’re fairly standard fare for SUVs at this price, and the only meaningful options are the all-wheel drive system ($2,150) and the 2.3-liter gasoline engine ($495). If you’re after lots of toys in your Ford Explorer, you’ll be sorely disappointed with the base model. As a result, we’re more inclined to recommend the $33,775 ‘XLT’ trim. On top of the items featured in the base model and the additions of rear parking sensors, power-adjustable front seats and heated side mirrors, this spec of Ford Explorer also gives buyers the option to choose from a broader array of add-ons. However, as some gubbins are only available with certain gear installed (for instance, the $1,095 Technology Package includes blind-spot monitoring and built-in navigation can only be fitted on cars with the $2,110 Equipment Group specified), the price can rocket up substantially: if you want leather upholstery, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control and front parking sensors on top of the contents of the Technology Package, you’re looking at a vehicle that’ll set you back $39,695. Even if you cut back on some of those extras, you’re still looking at a very expensive car by class standards (a top-spec Hyundai Santa Fe, with far more equipment bolted on, can be had for similar money as an XLT-spec Ford Explorer with those aforementioned features). As a result, we would suggest you avoid the $41,675 ‘Limited’, the $45,355 ‘Sport’ and $53,235 ‘Platinum’ models. Especially the latter of those three trims, as the price of that Ford Explorer spec puts the car against objectively superior premium SUVs like the Land Rover Discovery Sport, the Volvo XC60 and Mercedes-Benz GLC.

Three-years/36,000-miles bumper-to-bumper and five-years/60,000-miles powertrain warranties.

Safety-wise, the Ford Explorer fares better. It score the full five stars in its most recent NHTSA crash test, for example, and a full complement of front, side and curtain airbags are standard on all versions pm top of driver assists like trailer sway assist and a stability control setup that can automatically start slowing the car down if it detects the Ford Explorer is going too quickly around a corner. All Ford Explorer’s also come with Ford’s ‘MyKey’ technology, which allows the driver to control parameters like the radio volume and top speed – which is handy for buyers who plan on letting less experienced drivers take the car out for a spin. Conversely, a decent amount of safety gear is available on higher spec cars, though some are only available on higher trims. XLT-spec Ford Explorers have access to blind spot monitoring, rear parking sensors and seatbelts with built-in airbags, but those who are after lane departure warning and emergency autonomous braking will need to upgrade to higher trims. Even though the Ford Explorer has had a very good reliability record, we’re a tad disappointed with the average-by-class-standards three-years/36,000-miles bumper-to-bumper and five-years/60,000-miles powertrain warranties. The Ford Explorer also doesn’t fare well when it comes to residual values in comparison with the class best.

It’s a good all-rounder. Just not a great (or amazingly affordable) one

The Ford Explorer is the strongest-selling vehicle in this segment, and it’s understandable to see why. For a majority of buyers, there’s lots to like about the no-nonsense approach, on top of the more tangible areas it does well in like practicality, ride comfort and noise refinement. However, those attributes aren’t exclusive in this segment to the Ford Explorer, and it’s worth pointing out that you can purchase a very capable competitor that won’t cost you as much to buy or run. Those who prioritize steering responses and overall manoeuvrability will also find the Ford Explorer to be lacking in these areas when compared to rivals. Overall, we do think the Ford Explorer does enough to warrant being considered as your next mid-sized, three-row SUV. That said, we’d also advise you to take a look at comparable rival cars before you decide to buy the Ford Explorer or not.