by Gary Chan
Pros and Cons
- Excellent turning radius
- Quiet interior
- Intuitive touch screen/navigation
- Gas mileage
- Funky door handle release inside
- Ironman fender flares (although some friends thought they were cool)
Having always had or grown up with small cars, I was curious to see what the driving experience would be like of a modern, large SUV. Would advances in technology and design make a large SUV as easy to drive as smaller cars? Would I be able to easily park it? Would it be comfortable? I was pleasantly surprised by this truck, and invite anyone looking for a large SUV to seriously consider the Explorer.
Climbing into the truck, the doors close solidly, and one of the first things I noticed when I started driving was the absence of noise. The cabin was very quiet. The 4.6-liter V-8 is smooth and subdued even when pushed. The low-end grunt of the engine accelerates the Explorer smoothly while the 4-wheel disc brakes do a good job of hauling it to a stop. The brakes don’t feel extremely powerful, but they’re nonetheless linear. The ride comfort of the body-on-frame chassis is amazing. The suspension soaks up road irregularities with aplomb, and the passengers are treated to a very smooth ride regardless of the terrain. Being higher up, you have a commanding view of what’s ahead and around you. The steering is well weighted directing the Explorer exactly where you want to go.
“Quality is Job One” … that was the advertising campaign mantra years ago, and it appears that it still holds true today. Having recently displaced Toyota as the third manufacturer in quality (behind Subaru and Honda), Ford is now creating and manufacturing quality vehicles. The switchgear, knobs, levers, and buttons all felt solid with positive clicks and positive feedback when using them. Driving the Explorer for several days, I didn’t notice any rattling or extraneous noises. All of the doors closed easily and securely. The engine compartment is well laid out with important fluids clearly labeled with text or icons.
Interior Comfort and Ergonomics
Stepping into the truck is not an issue as the step-in height is not high. Once in the driver’s seat, the 10-way adjustable, leather-trimmed seat allowed me to easily set an ideal driving position. Driving the truck for 5 days, I loved the comfort of the front seats. Had my inseam or arms been extremely long or short, the power adjustable pedals and the fully adjustable steering column would have come in handy.
As more and more vehicles include touch screens, you either love them or hate them. The Explorer’s screen falls into the former category with a very intuitive interface for navigation, vehicle settings, music, and satellite radio. The navigation system is very easy to use, and clearly instructed me when to make the appropriate turns. I wish I could have searched by zip code rather than having to type in the destination city. Climate controls are easy to set, and with so many vents (including the rear auxiliary climate controls), the interior quickly normalizes regardless of the initial temperature. Gotta love those powerful American a/c systems!
Setting some of the truck’s features – such as how long the lights stay on after locking the doors, as well as toggling through the mileage and trip information – required that you reach through the steering wheel to press the trip button in the center of the instrument panel. Fine if the vehicle is stopped, but checking instantaneous MPG, miles remaining, trip mileage, etc … is a bit dangerous while driving. The right steering wheel spoke on this particular model is void of any buttons/switches making it a perfect place to relocate the trip button.
The power folding third row seats were a nice feature, but don’t put any adult sized friends in that row … unless you don’t like them. The seat is flat and fairly low to the floor. I’d opt out of the 3rd row seats because they take away from a truly flat cargo area and limit capacity.
One feature that I wished was standard is a cargo tray cover to hide valuables. My girlfriend and I went into a restaurant for lunch and wanted to hide some jewelry that she purchased as well as some other items. We decided to put the items behind the second row seats, and tilted the 3rd row seats forward to conceal the packages. Unfortunately, with 3rd row seating, the cargo tray cover option is a non-option.
I loved the chunky Ironman rubber mats as rubber mats are usually the first things I buy when I get a new car due to the outdoor activities that I enjoy. They were easy to clean as well.
With almost 300-hp, it accelerates linearly. Make no mistake, this truck is heavy but the engine never felt strained even when loaded with six adult men. From a standstill, stomping on the gas may illicit a yawn. There’s no auditory cue that this is a V-8. This may be a testament to engineers who isolated and insulated the cockpit. Surprisingly, the brakes work very well even when slamming them while moving at illegal speeds; the brakes and it’s integrated electronic safety measures gracefully scrub off speed.
I’ve driven Explorer’s in the past, and those older models always felt disconnected as if something was insulating me from the road. The 4-wheel independent suspension and associated steering hardware eliminates that vagueness and inspires confidence in the driver. Turning radius is shocking. I made a u-turn to my office so easily that I thought I was in a subcompact. Make no mistake, this is a truck, but it handles quite well. The suspension is very compliant as noted above, but just enough so that the ride is comfortable while still controlling body motion in turns.
Orange Frost is a love-it-or-hate-it color, and I actually grew to like its bold statement. The bolted-on black plastic wheel lip moldings offer a stark contrast with the Orange Frost (akin to a red/black or black/yellow combination), while they add a rugged, off-road ready look to the truck. Adding to the rugged look, the silver, front bumper cover also has the same bolt-on look of the wheel moldings. Now gone are the sharp edges and clean creases of the past Explorers having given way to rounded forms producing a modern-looking (and more expensive) design while the slight bulge below the waistline of the doors maintains the truck’s ruggedness. The six-spoke alloys are rather plain in design, but are easy to clean.
The starting sticker was just under $29k, and a few high-priced options (Ironman package, Navigation aid with voice activation, 3rd row power bench seats, rear seat DVD entertainment) quickly inflate the price to $38.8k. What used to be an inexpensive SUV is now knocking on the door of the luxury SUV’s … for that price you could get a Japanese entry-level, luxury SUV… albeit, with less seating … or a 4WD Buick Enclave. Overall, you do get a lot of features included in the price. Adding up the cost of similar features for a Buick Enclave rang up a bill of just over $40k. Just think about it: sunroof, navigation, electronic traction and stability controls, satellite radio, heated seats, big V-8, power driver seats, rear entertainment, towing package, power 3rd row seats, etc … that’s a lot of features for the price.
If I had a large family and regularly went on long trips like to Tahoe or the Wildflower Triathlon, the Explorer would be a serious consideration. The 4-wheel drive, comfortable ride, and the included electronic countermeasures when you exceed the truck’s dynamic capabilities make it an easy choice for an SUV. Plus, its easy to drive and park. Just eliminate a few of the options and you can enjoy an Explorer in the mid-$30k range. The biggest drawback is the mileage. The warning light came on just pass 200 miles, and told me I had about 50 miles left. Maybe it’s conservative, but sheesh, it’s a 22.5 gallon tank, and the truck was telling me that I was going to run out of gas. At current prices, every tankful would cost me almost $80! For the 5-days of mixed driving, I averaged just under 14-mpg.
Having a full-sized SUV around does have its advantages. I was pouring a concrete sidewalk as a weekend project and throwing 8 bags of concrete (as wells as shovels, miter saw, and other tools) into the rear was easy. This was a testimony not only to the functionality of the truck, but also reflected the overall integration of everything about the Explorer (driving, features, usability, and build quality). Like the old Ford slogan asked, “Have you driven a Ford lately?” … check out the Explorer, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.