1. What’s new for 2016?
Styling updates, a new turbocharged-engine option, and introduction of Explorer’s fanciest trim level ever. These are the first significant alterations since a model-year 2011 redesign transformed Explorer from truck-type body-on-frame engineering to carlike unibody construction, thus making it a crossover.
Basic dimensions are unchanged for ’16, and the seven-passenger midsize SUV’s overall look again skews squared-off-rugged versus streamlined-trendy. A revised nose with a new hood and grille and larger headlamps nonetheless improves aerodynamics while a reshaped liftgate, fascia and taillamps modernize the rump. V-6s are still the standard engines. A turbocharged-four cylinder is again optional but it’s a more powerful engine and is now available with all-wheel drive.
The lineup reprises Base, XLT, and Limited trim levels and gains the flagship Platinum with unique trim inside and out and a luxury interior the automaker bills as the highest-quality ever offered in a Ford.
2. How much does it cost and what sort of deal can I expect?
With an average base price around $36,000, the mainstream Base/XLT/Limited segment of the line is smack dab in the competitive center of this market segment. Priced from $44,245, the Sport fits a performance-oriented niche, where its only class rival is the $66,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. And starting at $53,545, the Platinum takes Explorer into uncharted premium-midsize-crossover territory. (All base prices include Ford’s $945 destination fee.)
Deals should be relatively easy to come by. Factory incentives ought to be widely available and fairly generous; qualified buyers can expect something like $1,000 cash back or 0-6.0-percent financing once the ’16 models pack dealer inventories. And transaction-price trends should make for happy showroom negotiations. Pricing serviceTrueCar.com reports transactions on 2015 Explorers averaged 7.8 percent below base prices. That’s more generous than the average 6.7-percent-below base it reported for the Toyota Highlander, for example, though selected versions of other three-row crossovers were trending at 9 percent or more below base, and closeout deals on the outgoing edition of the 2009-2014-generation Honda Pilot were averaging around 8.4 percent.
3. When will the next big change be?
The ’16 updates will carry this crossover through to its next full redesign, likely set for model-year 2018. Expect no notable changes until then.
4. What options or trim level is best for me?
The best bang for your buck is a thoughtfully optioned XLT. This model starts at $34,345 with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive (AWD) adds $2,000, and we recommend it. We also recommend staying with the 3.5-liter V-6 that’s standard (see below). The Base begins $2,700 below the XLT and comes with split/folding second- and third-row folding bench seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED low-beam headlamps, the proven Sync hands-free-infotainment interface, and a rearview camera (now with the usefully addition of a squirting washer).
The XLT adds some desirable standard equipment, including heavier-duty brakes, fog lamps, new-for-’16 LED exterior accent lighting, cooler-looking 18-inch alloys, and a backup-warning system. It retains cloth upholstery but adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Leather seats are part of the $3,800 Driver Connect Package, which also includes dual-zone automatic climate control, remote engine start, and forward-collision warning. In the package as well is an 8-inch dashboard screen that enhances Sync with the more extensive but less reliable MyFord Touch interface. (The carmaker is replacing MyFord Touch with the better-designed Sync 3 system but it probably won’t be available in Explorer until model-year 2017).
If you can live without leather upholstery, consider Equipment Group 201A. This $1,500 option includes all the above except the hides. Spend part of the difference on the $650 option that bundles blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic warning, an automatic-dimming driver-side mirror, and Ford’s innovative second-row, outboard-position inflatable shoulder belts designed to mitigate torso-injuring stress in a collision. We’d add onboard GPS navigation to MyFord Touch, at $795, and splurge on a hands-free power liftgate, at $550. Another $650 gets you heated front seats and steering wheel and forward-collision. That’s a well-equipped AWD crossover that’ll sticker for $40,490.
Moving up to the Limited, priced from $44,245 with AWD, gives you the hands-free liftgate, plus 20-inch wheels, MyFord Touch with navigation, perforated leather upholstery, imitation wood and metal cabin trim, ambient interior lighting, a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, an impressive 12-speaker Sony-brand audio system, and the new-for’16 front and rear 180-degree camera system with washers.
Sport and Platinum models come withal that, plus AWD and a turbo V-6. The Sport has specific trim and a sport-tuned suspension.The Platinum boasts such perks as a cabin with aluminum and real wood trim and upgraded leather with actual stitching, a dual-pane moonroof, adaptive cruise control, and self parking and automatic pull-out. Some of those features are optional on the Sport, but we believe there are better executions of crossover performance. And we think Platinum intenders are best advised to shop an authentic premium brand.
5. What engine do you recommend?
The 3.5-liter V-6 standard in Base, XLT, and Limited models is a fine match for these crossovers. Its 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque means snappy-enough movement off the line and more than acceptable midrange and passing power. Like all Explorer engines, it’s linked to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.
The new four-cylinder is a member of Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost engine family and is a $995 option on Base, XLT, and Limited. A 2.3-liter with 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, it replaces an EcoBoost 2.0 whose 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet felt underpowered even without the extra 160 pounds of the AWD system. The new four is far more capable and furnishes impressive midrange oomph. It can also tow 3,000 pounds, a half-ton more than the 2.0. But acceleration is tepid off the line and we’re not convinced its slight extra performance once underway and its slim edge in fuel economy justifies its price premium over the base V-6.
We are convinced AWD is a worthwhile option with either of these engines. As with most systems in this class, it defaults to front-wheel and reapportions power to the rear wheels when sensors detect front-tire slip. But it’s also more versatile than most thanks to a terrain-management system with a console knob that dials in powertrain and braking algorithms that maximize traction for mud, sand, grass, gravel, and snowy surfaces.
The AWD system is standard on Sport and Platinum models along with the sterling 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6. With 365 horses and 350 pound-feet of torque, it delivers a rush of muscle from any speed and is out-powered in the class only by the Grand Cherokee SRT’s big V-8. It’s almost enough to lure us into a Sport or Platinum. Almost. Both V-6s can tow a maximum 5,000 pounds and every Explorer comes with trailer-sway control.
6. How is the fuel economy?
Mostly acceptable for a three-row midsize crossover. With EPA ratings of 20 mpg city-highway combined with front-wheel drive and 19 with AWD, the naturally aspirated V-6 is a little off the pace of similarly powered rivals. The turbo four rates 22 mpg combined with front-drive and 21 with AWD. That’s 1 mpg less than the outgoing 2.0 and in line with ratings for rivals with V-6s that have comparable power — but deliver it in a more linear fashion.
The turbo V-6’s 18-mpg-combined rating isn’t hard to swallow, given the performance. It’s the only Explorer engine for which Ford recommends premium gas of 91-octane or higher.
7. How does it handle?
Excepting the Sport version, like a tall but nicely sorted front-wheel drive midsize sedan. That’s not a damning assessment for a seven-passenger, cargo-friendly crossover. Noseplow is evident in tight turns taken at brisk speed, but normal cornering is quick, grippy, and balanced. The Sport is more eager to change direction, with faster-reacting steering, less body lean, and more tire stick. However, high speeds on rough or wavy roads reveal a jittery, slightly unplanted nature absent in the SRT or in midsize crossovers with European pedigrees.
8. Are the controls easy to use?
Mostly. If you’re a frustrated MyFord Touch user you’ll understand our qualified assessment. Even the automaker acknowledged the Microsoft-based system’s graphics and software deficiencies. If you get one without bugs, it’s a capable ally. In our tests in a variety of Fords over the years it responded accurately to voice and touch commands only about 50 percent of the time. Sync 3 employs Blackberry-related software and debuts in the 2016 Escape compact crossover and Fiesta subcompact car. It’s more intuitive, has a cleaner layout, and more advanced features.
Otherwise, Explorer’s dashboard puts well-marked and conveniently sized controls within easy reach. The center console hosts the gear shift and steering-column stalks handle wipers, lights, and such. New on AWD-equipped Explorers is an entertaining and informative display that tracks the system’s traction-distribution in real time. On the downside, some controls on the steering-wheel spokes are poorly identified, though. The design of the new Sony audio system’s head unit doesn’t blend too well with the general décor. And the Platinum model’s exclusive all-digital virtual gauge cluster looks gaudy.
9. Is it comfortable?
Yes, though ride quality is differs noticeably, depending on the model. Ford tunes each version’s suspension to suit its perceived buyer and, with their 18-inch wheels and tires and the most conservative tuning, Base and XLT models are arguably best at absorbing bumps. The other models come with 20-inch wheels and tires that transmit more impact harshness, though only the Sport, with its stiffer suspension, is rough enough over sharp ridges and broken pavement to make ride quality a potential deal breaker. Try before you buy.
This is a roomy cabin, parlaying that “unfashionable” squared-off rear roofline into above-average third-row headroom for the class. Legroom is relatively good there and genuinely good in the other rows, too, making this a truly capable family hauler. A pair of buckets is optional in place of the three-passenger second-row bench on all but the Base model. They’re heated on Limited and Platinum. Upmarket Platinum touches include sections of quilted leather upholstery and like the Limited and Sport it comes with a power tilt/telescoping steering column, fairly rare in this class. Power adjustable pedals with memory are standard on Limited and Platinum and optional on Sport.
Cargo volume ranks at the upper end of the competitive set. Stowing the third-row seat means tumbling it into a deep rear floor well, a well that’s an invaluable luggage-carrying bonus with the third-row seat in use.
10. What about safety?
Crash-test ratings are good but not class-leading. The most recent results are for the ’15 model but apply to the structurally unchanged ’16. Explorer does earn the maximum five stars for overall occupant protection in the government’s 5-Star Safety Ratings system. However, unavailability of the latest in frontal-crash-avoiding automatic-braking technology costs it the highest marks in testing by the influential, insurance-industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
It scores the institute’s laudable “Good” rating in most categories but is denied Top Safety Pick status because of its subar “marginal” performance in a test that gauges occupant protection in a front-corner collision. The Nissan Pathfinder and Kia Sorento are among direct rivals that are Top Safety Picks. The inability to automatically come to a stop to avoid a frontal collision makes Explorer ineligible for the IIHS’s ultimate Top Safety Pick+ award, an important distinction earned among direct rivals only by Highlanders equipped with an optional automatic front-braking system.
11. How’s the reliability and resale value?
Pretty good. The 2014 model is the most recent Explorer rated in owner polls compiled by J.D. Power, the leading automotive-consumer-assessment firm, and it scored above average for initial quality and average for predicted reliability. (Among three-row rivals, the category leaders were the Highlander and Buick Enclave, as gauged by problems experienced by original owners of three-year-old vehicles.) As a brand, J.D. Power ranked Ford 25 out of 31 brands for dependability, the disappointing showing largely blamed on dissatisfaction with MyFord Touch.
As for resale value, the residual-value-tracking firm ALG rates the ‘15 Explorer’s retained value above average among all vehicles. It projects it’ll retain 36 percent of its original sticker price after five years. The category leader is the Highlander, at 43 percent.
12. Is it better than the competition?
Credit Ford with giving Explorer a distinct identity that has it seeming a little more outdoorsy than most rivals – although introduction of the Platinum trim shows the marketing execs covet luxury strivers, too. The redesigned 2016 Honda Pilot sets a new standard for all-around excellence among midsize three-row crossovers, with the Highlander, Pathfinder, even the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe all benefitting from newer basic designs than the Explorer. Still, the Ford backs up its good looks with real substance and attractive transaction prices. It’s worth a look.