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Ford Explorer excels as a family crossover

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By Chambers Williams

The Ford Explorer gets a significant makeover next year, but for 2015, it continues as one of the all-around best family crossovers on the market.

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Just four years ago, Ford gave its most-popular utility vehicle a complete redesign that changed it from a traditional SUV into its present carlike crossover. That came after the Explorer’s unrivaled success over two decades as a body-on-frame truck-style sport utility.

It now comes with front-wheel drive as the standard setup, instead of its predecessor’s rear-wheel drive. But all-wheel drive is available on all versions.

For 2015, Explorer prices begin at $30,700 (plus $895 freight) for the base front-drive model, and range as high as $43,100 for the top-of-the-line Sport model with four-wheel drive and a 350-horsepower, 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost engine.

New this year is an optional Appearance Package ($1,495) for the XLT trim level, whose base prices are $33,000 for front-wheel drive, and $35,000 for the all-wheel drive. The package includes 20-inch machined-aluminum wheels with painted pockets; black body-side cladding and roof-rack rails; a Magnetic Metallic painted grille, mirror caps and liftgate appliqué; body-color exterior door handle; an Explorer hood badge; leather-trimmed/heated seats with Miko suede inserts and contrast stitching; and special floor mats.

New exterior colors for 2015 are Bronze Fire Metallic Tinted Clearcoat, Caribou Metallic and Magnetic Metallic.

Our tester for this report was the four-wheel-drive 2015 Limited model, with a base price of $40,200.

Added just last year were a new electric power steering system; larger brakes; and improved towing performance.

Despite its carlike construction, the Explorer has a solid, heavy feel to it, just as though it were still a truck. That makes more truck-like in its handling than some of the sleeker crossovers, such as Ford’s five-passenger Edge.

But the ride is much better than before, and our tester’s leather front bucket seats were quite comfortable, even on a long highway drive.

The Explorer has the same general architecture as the smaller Edge and its larger, boxier sibling, the Flex. All three are based on the chassis of the Ford Taurus full-size sedan.

Ford introduced the original Explorer in fall 1990, built on the Ranger small-pickup chassis. Later. it was it moved to the chassis of the F-150 pickup before switching to the car-style platform for 2011.

As in the Flex, the Explorer has three rows of seats, and can accommodate up to seven people (six with the optional two captain’s chairs in the second row).

The Limited comes with the base 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which cranks out 290 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque.

EPA ratings are 17 mpg city/24 highway/20 combined with front drive, and 17/23/19 with four-wheel drive.

Standard on all models is a six-speed automatic transmission. Also available is a 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine ($995) with 240 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque.

We had plenty of power with the V-6 engine, and the transmission shifted smoothly and never seemed to be gear hunting on downhill or uphill grades.

For 2015, the base model with four-wheel drive begins at $32,700; and the Limited model begins at $38,200 with front drive.

Even with four-wheel drive, the Explorer no longer is suitable for serious off-road driving, something that is disappointing to those who enjoyed trail riding in the previous models.

That’s because the four-wheel drive now has no low-range gearing, although it is designed to be marginally off-road capable. It includes a terrain-management system like some trail-ready vehicles, such as the Land Rover LR4. It includes settings for snow, sand, mud and normal driving. A knob allows the driver to choose the most-appropriate setting. There also is a hill-descent mode for steep downgrades.

There is decent head and shoulder room inside, along with flexible seating that can be configured for more cargo and fewer passengers. Also available are second-row inflatable rear seatbelts (available separately for $595), designed to help protect children from serious head, chest and neck injuries.

The system is designed to “spread impact forces across more than five times the area than conventional seat belts, reducing pressure on the chest while helping to control head and neck motion,” Ford says.

Our tester came with a $5,460 package that brought perforated leather seating, navigation, a power liftgate, active park assist, lane-departure warning and assist, high-intensity-discharge headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and a blind-spot information system with rear cross-traffic alert.

Three rows of seating are standard; the two bucket seats available for the middle row add some comfort at the expense of a passenger position, and cost an additional $695. They were not installed on our tester, which had the full middle bench seat.

Standard safety features include such innovations such as Curve Control, a form of electronic stability control that helps keep the vehicle upright even as it negotiates sharp turns; and a special front-impact structure.

A rigid body structure helps keep occupants safe. It includes a boron front bumper beam, hydro-formed front frame rails, and high-strength steel side-impact tubes. Also included is Ford’s SOS post-crash alert system, similar to GM’s OnStar. Side-curtain air bags are installed in all three rows.

Among other standard features are the electric power steering, low-rolling-resistance tires and a more-aerodynamic exterior for better fuel economy. Included are a front air dam and rear liftgate spoiler to help air move smoothly over the vehicle.

Other high-tech features include the MyFord Touch driver-connect system and the Microsoft-developed SYNC integrated communications and entertainment system.

These systems respond to voice commands to help keep the driver’s attention on the road and hands on the wheel, but they can be confusing and difficult to use, and can take the driver’s attention off the road way too much.

This newest Explorer weighs about 100 pounds less than its predecessor through use of lighter materials, including an aluminum hood. A variable-displacement air-conditioning compressor is designed to help improve fuel economy by putting less drag on the engine, Ford says.

With the V-6 engine, the Explorer can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds. We had the $570 trailer-towing package on our tester.

Standard on all models are an air-filtration system, capless fuel-filler system, cruise control, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, tilt and telescopic steering column, four 12-volt power outlets, and rear cargo hooks.

XLT models also get automatic headlights, a manual-shift feature for the automatic transmission, a keyless-entry keypad, a reverse-sensing system, heated outside mirrors with built-in turn-signal indicators, and a perimeter alarm.

The Limited model adds power-fold outside mirrors, ambient lighting, a cargo net, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-way power driver’s seat with recline and lumbar-support features, rearview camera system, remote start, a 110-volt power outlet, an intelligent key with pushbutton start, and a universal garage/gate opener.

Cargo hauling is easy with the drop-down rear and middle seats. There is 21 cubic feet of space behind the third seat, but that expands to 43.8 cubic feet with the third-row seatback folded down.

Total price of the test vehicle was $46,405, including freight and options.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III appear regularly in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other newspapers. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com, or on Twitter @gchambers3. He also is editor of the LaFollette Press.

2015 Ford Explorer

The package: Large, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-door, six- or seven-passenger, V-6 or four-cylinder crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: Since a redesign for 2011, the venerable Explorer now rides on a unibody chassis like those used for cars and crossover utility vehicles, but it still has room for up to seven people and most of the functionality of its previous truck-based generations. It has a roomy and comfortable interior, decent power, and lots of high-tech options.

Negatives: Can get pricey with all the extras; no low-range gearing on four-wheel-drive models for serious off-road driving.

Overall length: 197.1 inches.

Curb weight range: 4,418-4,610 pounds.

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 2.0-liter four-cylinder (turbocharged).

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Power/torque: 290 HP./255 foot-pounds (3.5); 240 HP./270 foot-pounds (2.0).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Cargo volume: 21 cubic feet (behind third seat); 43.8 cubic feet (third row folded).

Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; roof-mounted side-curtain (all rows).

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/24 highway (3.5, front-wheel drive); 17/23 (3.5, AWD).

Fuel capacity/type: 18.6 gallons/unleaded regular.

Main competitors: GMC Acadia/Chevrolet Traverse/Buick Enclave, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder, Infiniti QX60, Land Rover LR4, Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Dodge Durango.

Base price range: $30,700-$43,100, plus $895 freight.

Price as tested: $46,405, including freight and options (4WD Limited model).

On the Road rating: 9.2 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.