James Riswick , Automotive Editor
For more than a decade, the Ford Explorer was at the top of the midsize SUV heap. From its introduction, the truck-based utility vehicle was a hit, and its success subsequently sent other automakers scrambling to develop (or improve) SUVs of their own. But in recent years, competitors have rolled out superior products and many consumers have shied away from SUVs altogether in favor of smaller crossovers. Sales of the Explorer have plummeted.
That's not to say the Explorer is a bad automobile. In fact, its design, handling and powertrain have steadily improved over the years. Now three years into its fourth generation, the 2008 Ford Explorer is still a worthy workhorse for those who truly need the utility of a body-on-frame SUV. Yet although it offers a healthy tow rating and three spacious rows of seating, the Explorer is still somewhat weak when it comes to off-roading capability. So whether the Explorer is still a wise purchase these days depends on what you're looking for.
Our 2008 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4WD tester came equipped with a 4.6-liter V8 engine good for 292 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Although this is adequate power for hauling people and a moderate amount of cargo, the combination of the Explorer's motor and six-speed automatic transmission is a bit underwhelming, especially compared to other SUVs in the segment. Both the V8 versions of the Nissan Pathfinder and the new Kia Borrego, for example, make more than 300 hp.
During a previous test of a similarly equipped model, the 4WD V8 Explorer chugged from zero to 60 mph in a mediocre 9.0 seconds. By comparison, a V8-equipped Nissan Pathfinder does the same run in 7 seconds flat. At least the brakes are responsive; a firm and progressive pedal instills the driver with confidence.
While we didn't get the chance to tow anything with this 2008 Ford Explorer, this trim level has a tow rating of 7,130 pounds, which is on par for its class. Its dual-range gearing provides more off-road ability than a typical crossover, but the Explorer's ground clearance of 8.2 inches is slightly less than some of its truck-based competitors. So while the Explorer can theoretically handle rugged tasks, we wouldn't consider it anything special.
Fuel economy for the 2008 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4WD is rated at 13 mpg city/19 highway. The new EPA combined fuel estimate is 15 mpg, which outperforms the comparable Nissan but can't touch the V8 4WD Kia Borrego's 17 mpg.
What the 2008 Explorer might lack in power, it makes up for in smoothness. Its rear independent suspension provides a comfortable ride, which is a welcome attribute on long trips — especially for rear-seat passengers. And the third row fits two adults reasonably well. The cabin of the Explorer is also pleasantly quiet; there's not much road or wind noise when cruising down the highway.
Steering and handling, while adequate, are nothing to write home about. The Explorer is relatively easy to maneuver, but retains the slightly disconnected feeling that is characteristic of a truck-based SUV — although it doesn't shimmy loosey-goosey over bumps like some utility vehicles we've driven.
In the cabin, our power driver seat offered a wide range of adjustability, but we didn't feel particularly supported. And although the power-adjustable pedals ensured easy access to the throttle and brake for drivers of any height, a telescoping steering column was glaringly omitted. We'd expect better from a vehicle loaded with more than $10,000 in options.
While there isn't anything glaringly wrong with the way the 2008 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer 4WD functions, it's the little things that prove annoying time and time again. The front door handles are hard to find and inconvenient to use; they curve over the top of the front-most edge of the armrest, which, admittedly, gives them an integrated appearance with the rest of the door, but requires driver and passenger to wrap their hands around the lever in a clawlike motion and pull up. In addition to being confusing, it's ergonomically challenging.
Another gripe concerns the small, awkwardly shaped parking brake release, hidden way down near the driver's footwell, where a hood release would normally be. We had to break out the instruction manual to even find the thing in the first place. In addition, the Explorer's conventional antenna on the passenger side often thunked against low-hanging objects in parking garages. We'd dump the old-fashioned mast in favor of the window-integrated antennas that many competitors now use. And perhaps of most concern is a huge blind spot created by the Explorer's broad C-pillar. Individually, none of these drawbacks is earth-shattering, but collectively, they could be real deal-breakers for the aging SUV.
On the plus side, we like Ford's voice-activated Sync system, which allows the driver to control the navigation and audio settings just by speaking. It takes a little getting used to, and occasionally the voice recognition program misunderstands commands, but overall, this feature works well and helps keep the 2008 Ford Explorer current with its competitors. And despite some wacky design elements like the aforementioned door handles, the Explorer's interior is roomy and versatile. The power-folding 50/50-split third row is a breeze to stow and put back into place, although it offers slightly less total cargo space than Explorers equipped without that option, and fails to fold completely flat. Luggage capacity for our 2008 Ford Explorer is 83.7 cubic feet (versus about 86 for five-passenger models), which bests the Pathfinder's 79 cubic feet but falls far short of the Dodge Durango's 102 cubes.
Design/Fit and Finish
Despite gradual improvement over the years, the Explorer's materials quality remains mediocre and its design rather antiquated. Despite being equipped with the latest technology such as navigation and Microsoft's innovative voice-activated Sync system, the controls look as if they've been carried over from the 1990s. In addition, hard plastics abound in the cabin, and various styling cues like the gargantuan gearshift lever and flat, sunken steering wheel further cheapen the Explorer's look. On the outside, the Explorer has evolved with a more contemporary look, but the keypad on the driver's door is a bit of an eyesore.
Who should consider this vehicle
Outdoor-oriented families who need high towing capacity, off-road capability and plenty of cargo space.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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