The 2016 Ford Explorer Sport is the performance-oriented version of Ford's midsize SUV. It features the strongest available engine, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, as standard equipment, along with all-wheel drive and tighter suspension tuning for better handling. The ride quality trade-off is minimal, and the drivetrain is superb in its operation. The downside is reduced real-world fuel economy from the twin-turbocharged engine.
What Is It?
The 2016 Ford Explorer is a three-row, midsize crossover SUV available in either front- or all-wheel drive with one of three engines. For 2016, the Explorer receives refreshed exterior styling, minor interior revisions, updated safety features, revised suspension tuning, a new midgrade engine and a new top-end trim level.
The base engine is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. The new-for-2016 midrange engine is a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Topping the range is the twin-turbo V6 in our Sport model that makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. All engines use a six-speed automatic transmission.
The base Explorer starts at $31,995. The base trim comes standard with a 60/40-split folding second-row bench and a third row split 50/50, among other features. The XLT is the next step up with a 10-way power driver seat (six-way power passenger seat), Sirius/XM radio, push-button start, back-up sensors and an exterior keypad entry system.
Next comes the Limited, which starts at $42,245. With this trim the Explorer gains leather seating (heated and cooled up front). It's also equipped with 20-inch wheels, a 12-speaker Sony audio system, a front-facing camera, hands-free liftgate and navigation. The Sport model, which is the focus of this test, gets 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 $44,445.
Topping the range is the new-for-2016 Platinum trim, at a price of $53,795. Ford threw every available Explorer option at this thing as standard equipment. It comes with the same twin-turbo V6 as the Sport, but also adds upgraded leather upholstery, a leather-and-wood heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, rain-sensing wipers, a 500-watt Sony audio system, adaptive cruise control, automatic parallel and perpendicular parking and lane-keeping assist.
How Does It Drive?
One of the knocks against the Explorer is that it feels big from behind the wheel. That's still true to some extent, but the suspension changes Ford incorporated for 2016 have made a difference. Yes, the dash and base of the windshield still seem oh-so-far away, but the Explorer feels tighter and less cumbersome than before.
This is especially true in the Sport version, as it's so well tied-down that it completely dispenses with the "drives big" feel on the road. The electric-assist steering is well tuned and turns in with immediacy, although we would prefer more feedback.
The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 EcoBoost engine combined with the smart and smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission produces effortless acceleration any time you step on the gas pedal. At our test track, the Explorer Sport sprinted to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds, a quick run for a vehicle of it size.
We did note that the throttle can be a bit abrupt when pulling away from a stop, although we got used to its feel quickly. Outward visibility isn't a strong point either, but our test car's front and rear sensing systems, along with the standard back-up camera and optional blind-spot warning system, went a long way toward making the Explorer feel easy to maneuver.
What's the Interior Like?
It's a nice place to spend time, made even better now that the touchpad buttons on the center stack have been replaced by less fancy but more functional physical buttons for the climate control system. Some functions still go through the touchscreen, such as changing the audio source and the rear climate control, but the overall design is a big improvement.
Radio tuning is done through a button, but volume is handled by a large, grippy knob. The Sync user interface is easy to learn and use, although the touchscreen buttons take a firmer push than most systems. The instrument panel gauges are legible at a quick glance, and we like the multi-configurable screens on both sides of the central speedometer.
The flat front seats should be just wide enough for most folks. They're cushy but have good support in all the right places, and the door and center armrests feature generous padding for your elbows. If you can make do with the Explorer as a six-seater (as opposed to seven), we strongly recommend the second-row bucket seats ($695). Not only are they comfortable, they make it much easier to access the third row.
That third row is passable for smaller adults only. It's not so much the headroom that's the big problem as it is the lack of knee and foot room, not to mention bolt upright seats.
If you don't use those seats much, they can be folded flat into a well in the rear cargo area, creating a large (43.9 cubic feet), flat load floor that'll hold a week's worth of luggage for a family of four without a problem. Cargo space behind the third row is competitive at 21 cubic feet, but the Explorer's max cargo capacity (all seats folded) of 81.7 cubic feet is dwarfed by the Honda Pilot's 109.2 cubic feet and the Chevy Traverse's 116.3 cubic feet.
How Safe Is It?
Standard safety equipment for the 2016 Ford Explorer includes stability and traction control, trailer sway control, front-seat side airbags, side curtain airbags, a front passenger knee airbag and MyKey, which allows parents to specify limits for vehicle speed and stereo volume. The Explorer's stability control system also includes Ford's Curve Control, which can monitor speed carried into a corner and decelerate to a safer speed if necessary.
A rearview camera is standard on the Explorer, while a 180-degree front camera is optional. Rear parking sensors are also standard on all but the base Explorer. Optional on the Limited and Sport but standard on the Platinum is a forward collision warning system with brake priming (bundled with the adaptive cruise control), lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist (Limited only), a blind-spot warning system (with rear-cross traffic alert) and inflatable seatbelts for second-row outboard passengers.
In government crash tests, last year's Explorer earned a five-star rating (out of a possible five) for overall crash protection, with five stars for total front-impact protection and five stars for total side-impact protection. The 2016 Explorer has not been crash tested by NHTSA yet.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2016 Explorer its top score of "Good" for its performance in moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests. It received the second-lowest rating of "Marginal" in the small-overlap frontal-offset test. Its seatbelts and head restraints earned a "Good" rating for whiplash protection in rear impacts.
In Edmunds testing, the Explorer Sport stopped from 60 mph in an astonishingly short 108 feet, thanks in no small part to the optional tires that were extra grippy. But the brakes are up to snuff, too, exhibiting zero pedal fade and consistent distances. Out on the road, the brakes don't feel overly powerful; instead, the pedal has a nice, linear action that makes it easy to come to smooth stops around town.
What Kind of Mileage Can You Expect?
The front-wheel-drive Explorer with the base 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic transmission is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg combined (17 city/24 highway). With all-wheel drive, that decreases to 19 combined (16 city/23 highway).
Stepping up to the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder sees an improvement to 22 mpg combined (19 city/28 highway) for the front-drive model, or 21 combined (18 city/26 highway) with all-wheel drive.
The top-level turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 comes only with all-wheel drive, and it's rated at 18 mpg combined (16 city/22 highway). Out in the real world, our Explorer Sport wasn't quite that efficient, returning just 15.2 mpg overall and only 18.4 mpg on our 116-mile highway-heavy standard evaluation loop.
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 compliant ride, large interior with generous cargo area behind the third row and simple controls.
Honda Pilot: The 2016 Pilot is all-new. It's got a new V6, a nine-speed automatic transmission, less weight and more passenger room than before and good fuel efficiency for the segment.
Toyota Highlander: Thanks to a smooth and powerful V6, generous interior room, a thoroughly composed ride and general ease-of-use, the Toyota Highlander is a top choice in this category.
Why Should You Consider This Vehicle?
The Explorer is a refined, practical, smooth-riding midsize three-row SUV with a wide range of options and some innovative features. The Sport model offers a level of performance and driver enjoyment that is rare in this segment.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
If you don't need six- or seven-passenger seating, a smaller SUV will feel easier to drive than the Explorer around town, especially when squeezing in and out of tight parking spaces. If a comfortable third row is important to you, other rivals do a better job here.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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