DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: This generation of Explorer has been around a few years now, but it's still one of my favorite examples of the “minivan for people who won't drive a minivan” genre. That includes everything from the ancient GM Lambda lineup (GMC Acadia, Chevy Traverse, and Buick Enclave) to the new Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander. What, you thought these were all SUVs? Yeah, no. They're front-drive-based unibody people-movers, aka minivans, with creatively styled sheetmetal to imply rugged manliness.
Now that we're clear about what the Explorer actually is, let's get back to how it is at its job. The answer is “very good.” Seating and interior accommodations are among the best in the business (remember, I don't think MyFord Touch is the great Satan a leading consumer publication would have you believe), and the ride is quiet and comfortable in conditions ranging from Detroit potholes to freshly paved freeway. Our Limited came with the standard 3.5-liter V6 which does an adequate job of moving this large vehicle along; an EcoBoost twin-turbo model is available as the Sport for those who want more, while a turbo I4 Explorer is also offered as an extra-cost option for fuel-savings. The Sport is fun, but the I4 should be avoided -- it's not enough engine for the Explorer; consequently you use just as much fuel flogging the thing to keep moving.
It's not just that the Explorer is big -- it is, after all, a three-row crossover that actually comfortably seats two folks in the way-back. It's that much of its structure is big, too. The doors are heavy. The A-pillars are enormous. Wide sills greet occupants when the doors are opened. Even the center console and dash appear massive. In contrast to some people-haulers that feel smaller behind the wheel than they are (our long-term Mercedes-Benz GL350 Bluetec comes to mind), the Explorer conveys an unmistakable feeling of mass. If you like a traditional “big SUV” feel, the Explorer will satisfy while still offering good handling and surprisingly good braking.
As required by the genre, our Explorer Limited came with a full suite of electronic nannies and conveniences including collision warning, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, navigation, MyFord Touch, automatic climate control, heated steering wheel, power tailgate and power-folding third row seats, among other goodies. It all adds up, but when one considers the cost of a comparably equipped Japanese or German ute, the sticker is going to come in about the same or higher, and in many cases won't include three-row seating capability. Not to mention the fact that, should you be willing to wear gloves in the winter and open your own tailgate, you can get a nicely equipped Explorer in the low $30K range.
That's a relative bargain for all this handsome vehicle offers, and your neighbors will never have to know you bought a minivan.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: When the fifth-generation Explorer first hit the market, I enjoyed the futuristic styling, seven passenger configuration and the choice of the EcoBoost engine for the Sport model. But now for some reason, I'm a little underwhelmed.
First of all, the price of $50K seems outrageous. The styling has lost a little bit for me, too. Sure you can get one for about $35K, but once you put an option or two, I'd bet you're near $40K. You can get a handful of other utes for that price. They may not all have three rows, but how often are you really carrying more than five passengers?
Engine power was fine for the ute, not overwhelming, but not annoyingly slow. The steering feels a little soft in my opinion, but this car isn't for cutting corners, it's for taking the kids to school.
Still, I would look into the smaller four-cylinder CUVs before I'd buy this, minivan bones or not.
EDITOR WES RAYNAL: I've liked the latest Explorers I've driven, but haven't loved them. They drive like minivans. It's a minivan for people who don't want a minivan (and now that I look at the notes above I see Stoy wrote basically the same thing -- great minds think alike and whatnot).
Seating and interior accommodations are among the best. I'm getting to know my way around the fussy MyFord Touch … not that I like it.
The ride is mostly fine. The ute feels composed and quiet on the road, for the most part, thanks to the solid chassis (the one that dates to the Volvo S80). I thought the ride/handling mix felt decent -- soft but not too soft. Then again, I could say all that about the Chrysler Town & Country. The Ford's V6 is OK; I'd like to see if I'd like the turbo four-cylinder better.
The Explorer is real practical, but look at it -- it's big. I don't mean that as a criticism. I think Explorers are handsome. Interior build quality is right up there, quite nice with comfortable seats and good materials.
Overall, this is a fine people hauler and stuff hauler. If you prefer your ute to have a more minivan-like ride, this is a refined choice.
So why do I like it but not love it? That's because there's the Dodge Durango. Personally, I like the Durango better. It feels sportier and yet more refined to me and I think the build quality -- especially inside -- is better. The controls are more intuitive than the Ford's. There's solidity to the Durango that the Explorer just doesn't have.
ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: It was hard not to drive anywhere without seeing myself in this 2014 Ford Explorer Limited. At one stoplight I had one Explorer in front of me and one behind me and we were all the same color. I do live in an area where a lot of people are employed by the Blue Oval, but I'm sure there are a good number of Explorers running around outside of southeastern Michigan, too. Ford sold 192,397 during the 2013 calendar year, which is well ahead of any of the GM lambdas, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder.
After my extended stint with the Explorer, I can't really argue with the flexibility afforded by it. It has a roomy interior with a third row that is serviceable. There are plenty of storage areas up front, seats are comfortable for longer hauls, materials are up to snuff and it's an easy vehicle to drive.
Steering is lightly weighted and isn't the most direct feeling to make it ideally suited for the majority of consumers looking to avoid minivans like the plague. It is a wide vehicle, but isn't too difficult to maneuver around tight parking lots. Visibility out of it is great, too. The suspension softens blows from ruts and potholes well and there's noticeable lean through corners, but not too much.
Power from the naturally aspirated V6 is adequate. You're not going to win any drag races, but it gets up to speed alright to make expressway merging and getting passes done when you boot it. The engine isn't the smoothest sounding V6 out there and does sound a little coarse at wide open throttle. If you're looking for a smooth V6, then you'll have to look at the Honda Pilot with its stellar 3.5-liter unit. The Pilot is due for a redo soon, but it still has the slickest drivetrain available in the three-row crossover/SUV segment.
I haven't been the biggest fan of Ford's central touchscreen, but after a bit more time with it I was getting quite good at navigating through it. However, the touch sense controls for the climate controls remain a sticking point for me. They aren't responsive and the gloss finish of the panel smudges up a lot and attracts dust. I'm a big supporter of old-fashioned hard buttons, which are falling out of favor with a lot of automakers. I get that from a styling standpoint that a flush touch panel is more “stylish” and clean, but until they get them to work well, I'm not biting.
After covering 500 miles in the Explorer, I came away respecting it. It's quiet on the highway, comfortable around town, and offered plenty of carrying ability for when I had to go and pick up my brother's rebuilt engine for his Acura Integra Type R and shuttle a bunch of people all over the place without complaint.
2014 Ford Explorer Limited
Base Price: $40,995
As-Tested Price: $47,280
Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V6; AWD, six-speed automatic
Output: 290 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 255 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,610 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 17/23/19 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 16.3 mpg
Options: Equipment group 302A including voice activated navigation, luxury seating package, powerfold third-row seat, power liftgate, heated steering wheel, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, blind-spot information system/inflatable seat belt package including blind-spot monitoring system, second-row outboard inflatable seat belts, active park assist, lane departure/lane keep assist, rain sensing wipers, HID projector headlamps, auto high beam headlamps ($5,425); adaptive cruise control, collision warning ($1,150); class III trailer tow package ($570); equipment group savings (-$860)
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