For 2016, the Ford Explorer receives noticeable exterior changes as well as the availability of a new 280-horsepower, 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that promises 28 mpg on the highway. Thanks to ample space, a pleasant ride and excellent functionality, the Explorer ranks high on our list of favorite three-row SUVs. The new 2.3-liter engine is merely adequate, however, so we would suggest the more powerful 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine option.
What Is It?
The 2016 Ford Explorer is a three-row, midsize SUV available in either front- or all-wheel drive with one of three engines. The base engine is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 290 hp and 255 pound-feet of torque. The new midrange engine is a 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Topping the range is a twin-turbo V6 that makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. All engines use the same six-speed automatic transmission.
The base Explorer, one of five trim levels, starts at just over $30,000. The base trim comes standard with a 60/40-split folding second-row bench and a third row split 50/50. A rearview camera, Sync with 911 assist, a USB port and 18-inch wheels are also standard. A step up is the XLT which upgrades the interior cloth, adds 10-way power driver seat (six-way power passenger seat), Sirius XM radio, push-button start, backup sensors and an exterior keypad entry pad.
Next up is the Limited. This trim starts at $42,195 and is where the Explorer finally gains leather seating surfaces that are heated and cooled. It's also equipped with 20-inch wheels, a 12-speaker Sony stereo, front-view camera, hands-free liftgate and navigation. Then there's the Sport model that gets various blacked-out trim pieces, 20-inch aluminum wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, all-wheel drive and the twin-turbo V6 as standard. It starts at $44,195.
Topping the range is the new Platinum trim Explorer at $53,495. We didn't have a chance to sample this version, but Ford's promising "Nirvana leather with micro-perforation and quilting" as well as a heated steering wheel with leather and real wood, heated second-row seats, quilted leather on the door panels, satin chrome exterior bits, high-end Sony stereo, automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, lane-keeping assist and rain-sensing wipers.
How Does It Drive?
In a word: Big.
The current-generation Ford Explorer has never had particularly good forward sight lines and the hood feels like it extends well beyond where it actually ends. It makes cresting hills, turning left or driving in traffic more of an adventure than any of these activities need to be.
Once you get over that metaphorical hump, the Explorer rides very well. The Sport's ride was the most controlled, soaking up bumps without drama. Even the Limited trim handled highway imperfections with aplomb. There's some suspension softness, as you'd expect, without any of the wallowing aftershocks some other SUVs are guilty of.
Aside from the Explorer feeling bigger than it really is, the brakes are the only other sticking point. Like with most SUVs, the pedal travel is long and that's good. What's not good is their lack of progressiveness as they're ineffective for the first half of the pedal stroke and then jumpy at the bottom. You get used to it fairly quickly, but we would prefer a more linear feel.
What's New Under the Hood?
The biggest news with the 2016 Ford Explorer is the availability of the new 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. It delivers 280 hp and 310 lb-feet of torque. Coupled with front-wheel drive, it will return 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway according to the EPA. With all-wheel drive the city number drops to 18 mpg, while the highway number is unchanged at 28 mpg.
On paper, this engine sounds like the much-hyped "V6 power with four-cylinder fuel economy!" solution we've always been promised. In certain circumstances, it delivers. On an open highway, or a lightly undulating two-lane blacktop, the 2.3 settles into a nice, low-rpm hum and cruises effortlessly. We didn't have the opportunity to burn through enough fuel for an mpg evaluation, but 28 seems reserved for only these ideal conditions as the engine simply doesn't cope well with the Explorer's 4,571-pound weight during acceleration.
From a stop, the four-cylinder is noisy, gasping for air as you merge with traffic. There's a lull in the power off the line and then a surprise surge of power around 3,000 rpm. Similarly, when the 2.3-liter EcoBoost-equipped Explorer encounters any elevation, the combination of "too little power, too much weight" adds up to a vehicle that can't keep a constant speed or pick a single gear. It's possible that an eight-speed automatic would provide the right gearing, letting this powertrain find its sweet spot, but there's an easier solution already in the Explorer's toolbox in the form of the twin-turbocharged, 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6.
This motor produces 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque and is infinitely better prepared to handle the daily duties of such a large vehicle. On the same uphill sections and merging areas that flummoxed the four-cylinder EcoBoost, this V6-powered Explorer excelled. Beyond simply being able to keep pace, the 3.5-liter V6 sounds and feels more refined. It's never harsh. Never buzzy.
Fuel economy estimates for this powertrain haven't been released yet, though the 2015 model returned 18 mpg combined (16 city/22 highway). And that's not the only hit you'll take. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost is only available on the higher-end Sport and Platinum trims with all-wheel drive which start at $44,195.
Should neither of these solutions work for you, there's one more option: The base, non-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6. This motor makes less power and torque than the four-cylinder turbo yet feels virtually the same on the road. Fuel economy estimates are 17 city/24 highway for front-drive and 16/23 for all-wheel-drive models. This engine not only saves you the $995 premium the 2.3-liter motor costs, it, like the EcoBoost V6, can be optioned to tow up to 5,000 pounds. The 2.3 can only tow 3,000 pounds.
What's the Interior Like?
The interior of the 2016 Ford Explorer is largely carried forward from the 2015 Explorer. This includes the large, easy-to-use center stack with big, colored buttons for climate control and seat heaters/coolers, and Ford's better-every-year Sync infotainment system. The seats are covered in durable-feeling leather and are flat and comfortably wide for drivers who like to shift a bit to get situated. Taller drivers may find the seat bottoms on the short side.
Second-row passengers are treated to dual USB ports for charging and more than enough leg- and headroom. By pulling a strap, the second row flops forward allowing access to the third row of seats which are still tight for adults. There's limited headroom and, really, the easiest way to get out is via the hatch. For kids and short trips they're more than adequate.
When those seats aren't being used to shuttle various ride-moochers, they can be folded flat into a well in the rear cargo area creating a large, flat load floor that'll hold a week's worth of luggage for a family of four. Easily.
No matter which seat you're in, or which configuration you've selected, the Explorer is a pleasantly quiet place to spend time. The suspension makes little noises as you cross pavement seams and there's a slight whoosh from the all-season tires.
Everything else, save for the aforementioned engine noise, is muted. With the Explorer knocking on the door of luxury SUV pricing, Ford has anticipated being held to a higher standard and has responded correctly.
What Competing Models Should You Also Consider? Chevrolet Traverse: The Traverse hasn't been refreshed as recently as its main competition, but it's a solid midsize SUV thanks to its large interior and simple controls.
Honda Pilot: The 2016 Honda Pilot is all-new. It's got a new V6, nine-speed automatic, less weight and more passenger room than before. We were very impressed when we drove it recently.
Toyota Highlander: Thanks to a powerful V6, generous space, composed ride and ease-of-use, the Toyota Highlander received an "A" rating.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
You want a refined and practical midsize SUV that offers a wide range of options and price points. From the fuel-efficiency of the new turbocharged four-cylinder to the luxury of the Platinum model, this new Explorer has a little bit of everything. Add in some innovative feature and a smooth, quiet ride and the Explorer is a solid pick amongst a field of strong contenders.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
If you don't need seven-passenger seating, a smaller SUV would feel more comfortable around town. New turbocharged, four-cylinder engine has the potential for delivering solid mileage, but feels strained under tough conditions like climbing grades. Third-row seat isn't as spacious as some others in the class.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.