Fresh looks? New safety features? An additional trim level? All may be on the table for 2018 as Ford seeks to stem Explorer’s sales stumble

2018 Ford Explorer

2018 Ford Explorer

What changes will make the 2018 Ford Explorer different?

The slim chance of a minor cosmetic refresh to sustain showroom appeal until the next full redesign, which is likely for model-year 2020. More important, we’d urge Ford to make the 2018 Explorer available with today’s most noteworthy safety feature, autonomous emergency braking. What might motivate the automaker to make any change has a lot to do with market tides. Explorer is America’s best-selling midsize crossover SUV, but demand leveled off during 2016. Blame stronger competition within the segment, but also the steady drift of buyers down a size to compact crossovers and, to a lesser degree, up a step into premium-class SUVs. That leaves the ’18 Explorer defending its standing as a stylish take on traditional-SUV looks while fielding one of the broadest model ranges in the class.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

To see if it gets new styling touches, adds another trim level, or expands available safety features. Today’s Explorer design is among the oldest in the class, having bowed for model-year 2011. It’s added engine options and sport and luxury models since. And it got a cosmetic revamp for model-year 2016. Another appearance update could help sustain interest until the next all-new version launches during 2019 as a ’20 model. And addition of braking that can stop it automatically to mitigate a frontal collision would make it eligible for the coveted Top Safety Pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In any event, the ’18 Explorer will be a structural rerun of the ’17, and likely a mechanical one, too. Waiting for the ’18 could well mean simply absorbing almost inevitable model-year price escalation for a vehicle that’s essentially a repeat of the ’17.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

Yes, if you like its looks, find its wide selection of models and features attractive, and are satisfied with its very good – if not tip-top – safety ratings. Any styling updates to the ’18 are unlikely to damage the ‘17’s resale value. And you’ll need to determine for yourself the implications of missing out on the potential addition of autonomous braking. More certain is that the core lineup you see for ’17 is the one you’d get for ’18. That means a five-grade march from the base version (around 10 percent of sales), through the XLT (45 percent), Limited (20 percent) Sport (15 percent), and Platinum (10 percent). Base, XLT, and Limited models are available with a V-6 engine or a turbocharged four-cylinder and with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD). The performance-tuned Sport and luxury-laden Platinum use Ford’s twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 and come only with AWD.

Will the styling be different?

Only if Ford feels a facelift is justified. Even then, only details of the grille, headlamps and taillamps, wheel design, and choice of exterior colors would be modified. The automaker could also detect some value in adding another new trim level, one combining elements of two or more current models, perhaps with its own visual touches. To the 2017 Explorer line, for example, Ford added the XLT Sport Appearance Package with dark exterior accents and 20-inch Magnetic Gray wheels. The ’18 Explorer won’t change the spacious dimensions that allow it to accommodate up to seven passengers on three rows of seats, giving even third-row occupants livable room. (Two second-row buckets should again be optional for all but the Base model, reducing capacity to six.) Expect the ’18 to carry over such model-grade distinctions as black-and-shadowed trim for the Sport and a unique grille and extra brightwork for the Platinum. Those two models will also return with 20-inch wheels, a size that’s optional for the XLT and Limited in place of standard 18s. Leather upholstery should again be included on Limited and Sport models, with the Platinum getting its own quilted leather, plus real wood and aluminum cabin trim.

Any mechanical changes?

None expected. The ’18 will carry on the composed road manners and confident handling that have been Explorer staples. Ride comfort should continue to be a selling point as well, with only the Sport’s taut suspension and low-profile tires conspiring to allow some harsh reactions to bumps. Look for a 3.5-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque to remain standard in Base, XLT, and Limited models. A 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet should again be optional on Base and XLT models and available at no charge for the Limited. Sport and Platinum will return with one of the most powerful engines in the class, a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 with 365 horses and 350 pound-feet of torque. All models should again use a six-speed automatic transmission. Standard on Sport and Platinum and available on the others, the AWD system isn’t intended for severe off-roading. Nevertheless, it acquits itself well off-pavement thanks to a terrain-management system that gives the driver a console knob to select powertrain and braking algorithms optimized for grass, gravel, sand, mud, and snowy surfaces.

Will fuel economy improve?

Without mechanical changes, probably not. EPA ratings would remain slightly below the class average for Explorers with the base V-6 and slightly above similarly powerful rivals for those with the turbo four-cylinder. The twin-turbo six will remain a performance-priority choice that’s nonetheless more fuel efficient than the Hemi V-8 available in the Dodge Durango and Jeep Cherokee, the only engine in this segment that compares for power.

Expect the base V-6 to again rate 17/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined with front-drive and 16/23/19 mpg with AWD. For the turbo four-cylinder, ratings should remain 19/27/22 mpg with front-drive and 18/25/21 with AWD. The twin-turbo V-6 should again rate 16/22/18 mpg.

Will it have new features?

Adding autonomous emergency braking to the existing suite of safety features would be No. 1 on our wish list. It would be a fine adjunct to already available driver aids such as frontal-collision warning, blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic detection, lane-keep automatic steering correction, and front and rear camera systems for help in close-quarters maneuvering. The ’18 Explorer should also return with available inflatable rear outboard safety belts to cushion the body in a crash. Expect these safety features to again be standard on the Platinum and available for the XLT, Limited, and Sport in extra-cost packages. A new trim line could well combine these and other items to create a value-oriented offering. Regardless, the ’18 Explorer will again be available with most everything a midsize-crossover shopper could desire. The Base model will continue with few options, but standard or available on the others will be such features as Ford’s Sync 3 hands-free connectivity, onboard navigation, keyless entry and pushbutton start, power tilt/telescope heating steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, heated outboard rear seats, and a hands-free power liftgate that opens with a swing of your foot beneath the rear bumper.

How will 2018 prices be different?

They’re almost certain to increase, though probably not dramatically, given the ’17 Explorer’s plateaued sales. Most ’18 models will again be priced on par with direct competitors, with the Sport expected to remain among the more expensive vehicles in the class and the Platinum again occupying the segment’s very top tier. Estimated ’18 Explorer base prices sited here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $945 for 2017. And since most buyers will continue to order AWD, we’ll include that in our estimates and note that front-drive versions of the Base, XLT, and Limited should start about $2,150 less than our estimated base prices.

So figure 2018 Explorer starting prices of around $34,700 for the Base model, $37,100 for the XLT, and $45,000 for the Limited. Expect to add around $500 to the Base and Limited for the turbo four-cylinder. Look for the ’18 Sport to be priced from around $46,500 and the Platinum from around $54,600. The Platinum will again come fully equipped, with various popular options packages for the other models typically priced in the $2,000-$3,000 range.

When will it come out?

Expect a 2018 Explorer release date during the second quarter of 2017.

What changes would make it better?

There may be packaging or software issues preventing Ford from offering it on the Explorer, but crossover rivals from Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Kia, and Hyundai already offer autonomous emergency braking. It’s also available on the 2017 Ford Fusion sedan, as well as the MKZ and MKX crossovers from the automaker’s upscale Lincoln brand. Beyond preventing or lessening the severity of a frontal collision, autonomous braking makes a vehicle eligible for Top Safety Pick+ status, a valued marketing tool. This is not to suggest an Explorer without the feature is safety-deficient: all models are expected to again earn the maximum five stars in government crash tests for overall occupant protection and for protection in frontal and side collisions.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]