Product: Explorer ST
Release Date: On sale now
The first-generation Ford Explorer was nothing short of an icon. Alongside vehicles like the original Jeep Grand Cherokee, it pioneered the SUV-as-family-car segment back in the early 1990s. Add in its famous appearance as a T. rex toy in Jurassic Park, and it’s safe to say the O.G. Explorer enjoyed the sort of name recognition most carmakers would kill for.
Since then, though, Ford’s best-known soccer mom-mobile has largely languished in the shadows of newer car-based crossovers and larger traditional SUVs. The former offer the car-like handling that many minivan / station wagon / sedan owners don’t want to leave behind when they level up to a sport-ute; the latter serve up the space, mass and height that Americans love to excess in practically every category.
The sixth-generation model that debuted last year, however, marked the moment when FoMoCo went all Twisted Sister and exclaimed that they weren’t gonna take it anymore. The newest Explorer (and its Lincoln Aviator sibling) switched over to a rear-wheel-drive-based chassis designed for better dynamics, even going so far as to cherry-pick parts off the Mustang. How does that serve it in the real world? We grabbed the sporty Explorer ST for a week and a half to put it through its paces on urban and rural roads alike.
What We Like
The new Explorer ST is surprisingly fun to drive. The new platform it’s based on is solid and substantial, with impressive stiffness; that’s aided by the suspension, which strikes a good balance between tautness and impact-absorbancy (although Sport lets in noticeably more sound and vibration). The steering is heavy and a bit slow, but direct and pointy, with little of the slop found in many family SUVs.
Sport Mode feels genuinely sporty, with transmission tuning almost like that of an AMG; the 10-speed automatic holds gears higher than you might expect, and kicks down with authority. All told, it’s more fun than pretty much any midsize family crossover…though admittedly, that’s a low bar to clear.
Speaking of midsize SUVs: a little time with the Explorer is enough to leave us wonder, who actually needs more room than this? My ST tester (teSTer?) boasted four big captain’s chairs in the front two rows, with enough room for six-footers all around. The fold-flat third row was better suited for auxiliary transportation or the carrying of kids in that sweet spot between booster seats and puberty; left retracted, however, they yield a capacious cargo bay.
And while we’re on the subject of seats, the front duo deserves extra praise. The ventilation function blows cool as an April breeze, the heaters light you up with atomic power, and the massage function rivals that of many German luxury cars.
I was skeptical of the vertically-oriented 10.1-inch infotainment screen — part of the Premium Technology Package, along with those great massaging seats and a 14-speaker, 980-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo — until I used it. The added height brings crucial info closer to your eye line as you look at the road, which is better for safety and usability.
Switching to Apple CarPlay splits the display in two, with the Cupertino up top and the audio controls below — just the way most people likely want. Other functions make good use of the real estate, enabling large, legible buttons and displays. It’s the first version of Ford’s Sync infotainment system I found genuinely pleasing to use — also because it still packs physical controls for key features like the climate, volume and drive modes.
Outside, the new Explorer certainly looks handsome, in much the same generically-attractive Dylan McDermott-y way as its predecessor. In fact, if there’s a downside to its looks, it’s that perhaps it looks too much like that old one — especially considering the sea change beneath the skin. You’d think an all-new model would deserve more visual differentiation from the old one, but I guess buyers liked the old looks. The rear is more attractive and balanced than the front, though; the face’s backwards-slanting countenance vaguely reminds me of that old meme of a shocked cat.
Watch Out For
The gas mileage. I averaged 20.2 miles per gallon over the course of my 800-plus miles behind the wheel, most of which was on the open road. Some of that definitely felt like the fault of drag; cruising at 75-80 mph, it felt like the Explorer was on the far side of its aerodynamic sweet spot. Regardless of why, though, a brand-new midsize SUV with a 10-speed automatic averaging 20 mpg in mostly-highway driving is disappointing, to say the last. EcoBoost engines are known for serving up either Eco or Boost, but not both at the same time — you have to drive with a very light foot if you want good fuel economy — but I would have hoped for a little more Eco, considering the entire vehicle is new.
The build quality of my tester seemed a little bit sub-par for a brand-new ride. Even with less than 4,000 miles on the odometer, the instrument panel cowling started rattling after a bit of dirt road driving, and there was a sporadic, recurring vibration at around 30-35 mph. The shifts between low gears were occasionally a little harsh, too. It’s not odd for the first year of a new car to have some build issues that need to be ironed out, of course, but when you’re planning on going toe-to-toe with well-established Toyota and Honda and the insurgent Kia and Hyundai, you can’t skimp on quality.
And while the car boasts a wide, all-screen instrument panel, the design makes poor use of the space. The tach is relegated to a thin strip on the edge of the screen (or you can make it vanish altogether) unless you’re in sport mode. The speedo is consigned to a circular “bulge” in the center that looks like an outie belly button. The left side is blank, while the right offers the choice of showing various data. Why offer all that digital space if you’re gonna leave it blank?
As one of the most popular segments out there today, the two-and-a-half-row midsize SUV market is chock-a-block full of choices, depending on how much you want to spend. Still, ones that can rival the Explorer ST’s performance and size generally live in the luxury market. The Dodge Durango SRT comes closest, though its base price of $62,995 puts it about eight grand above the Ford. The Acura MDX SH-AWD Sport Hybrid doesn’t spit out as much power, but it does offer a lively drive for around the same price.
Those small issues with this latest Explorer are frustrating, but given the fun factor, it’s hard not to consider them acceptable compromises. This new ST is far more entertaining than a mainstream family SUV has a right to be, with vim and vigor that rewards a driver for tossing it around.
If you don’t care about sportiness, I’d say it’s worth taking a look at the Telluride, Pilot and Highlander before signing on the dotted line. But if you’re still a bit sour about having to sell your old Supra when you had your second kid…this just might be the balm for your car-loving soul.
Ford provided this product for review.
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