What's New for 2009
For 2009, the Ford Explorer gains standard trailer sway control, an added feature for the stability control system. There's also a new XLT Sport trim level and an updated navigation system with Sirius Travel Link, which provides current traffic conditions, gas prices for nearby stations and even sports scores and movie listings.
Throughout nearly all of the 1990s, the Ford Explorer was on top of the world. The sport-utility vehicle craze was in full swing and the Explorer was the unofficial family car of suburban families everywhere. But a lot's happened since the glory days of traditional SUVs, Seinfeld and boy bands. Higher gas prices and fierce competition from more space- and fuel-efficient crossovers have reduced the appeal of Ford's former star. Yet with its manageable midsize dimensions, useful three rows of seating and impressive road manners, we're not quite ready to bid the 2009 Ford Explorer "Bye, Bye, Bye."
As a truck-based body-on-frame SUV, the Explorer offers a few advantages over unibody crossovers. Notably, these include greater towing capacity and, on four-wheel-drive versions, a dual-range transfer case with a low gear for greater off-road capability. This year, added trailer sway control, which works in concert with the stability control system, keeps things rolling straight and true. But even if you don't plan on towing a Fleetwood camping trailer, we still consider the Explorer one of the best-handling truck-based SUVs on the market, and its smooth, quiet highway ride makes it a natural road-trip candidate. In addition, the availability of Sirius Travel Link for the navigation system helps bring the Explorer up to date with current traffic conditions, gas prices at nearby stations and even sports scores and movie listings.
But in other ways, the Explorer is showing its age. The base V6, for example, has only 210 horsepower, and the 4WD Explorer only achieves fuel mileage of 15 mpg combined. Compare that to the roomier GMC Acadia crossover, whose V6 sports 288 hp and yields 18 mpg combined. Of course there's always the Explorer's available 292-hp V8, but even that engine lacks the low-end pull of competitors' V8s, and increasingly, their V6s as well.
For buyers who don't need the quickest or most fuel-efficient SUV on the block, the 2009 Ford Explorer is an impressive package. It's comfortable enough to serve carpool duty, yet rugged enough to handle a 7,000-pound camper or the dirt trail leading to your secluded mountain hideaway. Those last two points are important, because truck-based SUVs like the Explorer are best suited to people who really need them. For family-minded buyers who need copious amounts of cargo and passenger space, a crossover SUV is a better fit.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Ford Explorer is a four-door midsize SUV available in XLT, XLT Sport, Eddie Bauer and Limited trim levels. Passenger capacity can be as much as seven, depending on whether it is equipped with the third-row seat.
The XLT seats five and comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, air-conditioning, a CD/MP3 stereo with an auxiliary input jack and full power accessories. The XLT Sport adds black exterior accents (including the wheel arches, side-step bars and front fascia) along with unique charcoal cloth upholstery and white-faced instruments. Eddie Bauer models provide two-tone paint, 17-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, a power driver seat, heated front seats, Ford Sync connectivity, satellite radio, faux wood interior trim and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The top-of-the-line Explorer Limited features monochromatic paint, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control (with a separate rear air-conditioner), power-adjustable pedals, a power-folding third-row seat, heated front seats, a power front passenger seat and seat memory for the driver. Also included with the Limited are heated exterior mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an upgraded audio system with an in-dash CD changer and steering-wheel-mounted controls.
Many of the upper trim's features can be had as options on the lower trims, including a third-row seat (with or without a power-fold feature), rear-seat climate control and an upgraded stereo. Other options include power running boards, a heated windshield, second-row captain's chairs, the Sync hands-free communication and entertainment integration system, a voice-activated navigation system, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a sunroof, 20-inch wheels and a Class III/IV towing package.
Powertrains and Performance
The Ford Explorer's base engine is a 4.0-liter V6 good for 210 hp and 254 pound-feet of torque. Optional on all models is a 4.6-liter V8 engine with 292 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard with the V6 engine, while the V8 comes matched to a six-speed automatic. Either engine can be equipped with a choice of two-wheel drive, 4WD or all-wheel drive, depending on the trim level. The traditional 4WD system offers a push-button transfer case that also features a low gear for negotiating very slippery, low-speed conditions. Properly equipped, a V8 2WD Explorer can tow 7,300 pounds.
Performance is adequate, though the Explorer lags behind most rivals. We timed a V8-equipped 4WD Explorer at 9 seconds for the 0-60 dash. By comparison, a V8-equipped Nissan Pathfinder does the same run in 7 seconds flat. EPA fuel mileage estimates don't vary much between trim levels: The V6 with 2WD rates 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway and 16 mpg combined, while either engine with 4WD rates 1 mpg less across the board.
All major safety equipment is standard on the 2009 Ford Explorer, including antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and first- and second-row side curtain airbags. The stability control system includes rollover sensing and trailer sway control.
In government crash testing, the Explorer earned a perfect five stars in all frontal- and side-impact crash tests. It also received the top rating of "Good" in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset crash testing.
Interior Design and Special Features
Despite incremental improvements over the years, the Explorer's materials quality remains mediocre and its design rudimentary, though sharp two-tone color schemes make this workaday SUV feel a little more upscale.
It's feasible to carry two adults in the third-row seats, but choosing the third-row option slightly reduces the available cargo space and results in a not-quite-flat load floor. Seven-passenger Ford Explorers max out at 83.7 cubic feet of cargo space, while five-passenger versions offer 85.8 cubic feet. Notably, the back of the second row's split bench seat reclines only if your Explorer has a third-row seat. The "quad seating" option on Limited models places reclining captain's chairs in the second row with a storage console between them, but drops passenger capacity to six.
Any 2009 Ford Explorer is a relative joy to drive compared to other truck-based SUVs, like the Chevy TrailBlazer and Dodge Durango. Taking much of the credit is the rear independent suspension, which provides a smooth ride and keeps the wheels planted on rough pavement. Steering is surprisingly responsive, and the brakes inspire confidence through a firm and progressive pedal. Power from either the V6 or V8 engine is adequate, though most buyers will prefer the V8's extra helping of low-end torque and refinement.