Editor's note: This review was written in December 2013 about the 2014 Ford Explorer. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Ford's mild updates to the 2014 Explorer bring a more confident driving feel to the big SUV, but a weight problem and an underpowered base model keep the experience ordinary.
The car-based Ford Explorer is a big departure from the truck-based Explorers of old; if you haven't been in an Explorer in the past couple of years, the current one is sure to surprise you. It's been selling relatively well since its 2011 introduction, and the company hopes to keep the streak going with some mild revisions for 2014. New brakes and the steering from last year's more powerful Sport model now grace regular versions of the Explorer, which Ford says gives it improved driving feel. A few upgrades to standard equipment and two new colors are all that differ on the inside. You can compare 2013 and 2014 models here. We tested a non-Sport model to see if the mild updates from the other side of the Explorer spectrum worked any magic.
How it Drives
My test model was a 2014 Ford Explorer Limited. It's the most luxurious trim level, but it still features the base 3.5-liter V-6. It's good for 290 horsepower and 255 pounds-feet of torque — more than almost all its competitors. Yet despite being fairly powerful on paper, the standard V-6 is not what one would call peppy in this application, where it's being forced to haul around more than 4,600 pounds of SUV. A turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is optional and brings improved gas mileage, while a wickedly fast twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 can also be had, bringing with it dramatically better grunt. The six-speed automatic transmission downshifts eagerly, but forward thrust in situations like highway on-ramps is not the pulse-raising experience it is in the Explorer Sport (see our review of the 2013 here).
The changes to the steering and brakes, however, impart a noticeable behavioral improvement. Steering feel and feedback are better, with tighter directional stability in cornering and at highway speeds. Yet the Explorer's overall handling is still on the ponderous side. It feels like a big, heavy SUV — which it is. Its nose pushes wide in aggressive cornering, though its electronic aids help keep that in check. The truck's electronic stability system can also help keep it on a line through a corner if it senses understeer, while an advanced lane-keeping system will nudge the car back if it detects the car is drifting out of its lane. Ride quality is top-notch, with very little in the way of road imperfections making their way through to the cabin and nothing harsh being transmitted through the steering wheel. Highway speeds are also quiet in the Explorer. The brakes are new, larger ones also from the Explorer Sport, and while they are indeed firm and strong, they're not as noticeably improved as the steering feel.
One area that hasn't changed in the 2014 Explorer is mileage in the base V-6 with all-wheel drive, which is rated a reasonable 17/23/19 mpg city/highway/combined. My weeklong drive in the Explorer, however, turned in a subpar 17 mpg combined — a surprisingly low number given the combination of city and highway driving I did. For superior fuel economy, the four-cylinder EcoBoost upgrade is the one to have, delivering as much as 28 mpg on the highway in a front-wheel-drive version.
The 2014 Explorer's interior carries over unchanged, and that's not a bad thing. It's extremely spacious in there, with considerable width to spread out. The fact that the interior is so roomy makes me wonder why the seats aren't larger; the front seats' bottom cushions are rather short, and the space between the driver and the driver's door is wide. Putting one's arm up on the upper doorsill isn't comfortable, and I can actually reach my arm into the backseat between the driver's seat and the exterior pillar without touching either one. For normal use, the Explorer is comfortable, but in cornering or any kind of spirited driving, the combination of big space and smallish seats means passengers struggle to remain in place.
Rear seat room is also mixed — plenty of width for comfort and tons of headroom, but a little short on legroom for such a large vehicle. The third row is larger than those in most SUVs on the market and can handle real adults, if not for terribly long distances. This is no minivan, but the third-row seats are certainly more useful and comfortable than those in a Dodge Journey or even a Land Rover.
The quality of the interior appointments is quite good, as I find most of Ford's lineup these days. Visibility is still a bit of a challenge, given the Explorer's massive roof pillars, but the electronic aids included on my test car removed some of the uncertainty when reversing or changing lanes.
Ergonomics & Electronics
My tester had MyFord Touch and a Sony audio system, standard on the Limited trim, which means many of the center console buttons were replaced by touch-sensitive controls. Our love for such panels has not materialized, but 2014 updates to MyFord Touch's voice commands make it easier to use, more responsive and quicker on startup — welcome and effective changes.
Like most new Ford vehicles, the 2014 Explorer comes with Ford's Sync system, a voice-command feature that allows a driver to control a portable electronic device, like a smartphone or music player, using little more than a button on the steering wheel and the right spoken commands. The Limited trim also includes MyFord Touch, which takes this to the next level, adding voice control for things like climate control and the available navigation system. It now powers up much more quickly than before and displays a list of prompts on screen. It also has improved legibility and touch-sensitivity on the screen.
What Ford does well is incorporate multifunction controls into the steering wheel and gauge cluster. Reconfigurable screens to either side of the large, easily read speedometer can display all manner of vehicle systems, entertainment options, phone controls and navigation commands, as well as typical fuel and tachometer gauges. Controlled by two five-way switches on the grippy steering wheel, these functions are one area where Ford gets it right.
Cargo & Storage
The Explorer is one of the larger seven-seat SUVs on the market, but it's encumbered with some thick pillars and internal structure that affect both visibility and internal cargo space. Passenger space is among the largest in its class, with 152 cubic feet versus 151 in the Chevrolet Traverse and just 120 in the Nissan Pathfinder. But its cargo space is only middle of the road, with 21 cubic feet behind the second row and 80.7 maximum. That's compared to 24.4 behind the Traverse's second row and 116.3 maximum. The optional power-folding third row is one of the best in the business, however. At the touch of a button, one can move the third row into place for seating, fold the backrests, or flip and stow the seat into the rear well, making a flat floor. It's an expensive option, bundled as it is in a package with other items like a power liftgate, a blind spot monitor, automatic park assist and more, but it is worthwhile. Let's hope the next-generation Explorer gets the slick foot-activated tailgate-opening feature that's already available on the smaller Escape.
The Explorer scores well in crash tests, earning five stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ford has built a number of safety systems into the Explorer, including the aforementioned system to prevent understeer. The Explorer is also one of the first Ford vehicles to feature optional inflatable seat belts, an extra safety feature available only in the second row and meant specifically to better protect belted-in children. In the event of a crash, the surface area of the seat belt expands quickly to distribute energy over a larger area. This is intended to help reduce internal injuries.
Value in Its Class
The seven-seat SUV segment is one of the hottest in the market, and the Explorer is one of its more popular choices since its switch to a car-based design. My all-wheel-drive Limited test car's base price was $40,995 including destination — a considerable sum, but competitive with other seven-seat SUV offerings. Standard equipment on that trim includes Sync with MyFord Touch, the Sony audio system, heated front- and second-row leather seats, push-button start, 20-inch wheels, automatic climate control and a backup camera, to name a few. Oddly, a power liftgate is not standard; it came as part of a $5,425 Equipment Group that also included voice-activated navigation, power third-row seats, a heated steering wheel (with power tilt and telescope), a blind spot monitoring system, lane-keep assist, rain-sensing wipers and xenon headlamps. The liftgate is also available separately for $495, however. Adaptive cruise control is another $1,150, while a trailer tow package added $570, bringing the total to $48,140. Equip an Explorer how you'd like it here.
Competition in this segment is fierce. The Chevrolet Traverse is larger than the Explorer in nearly every dimension, has similar power from its own 3.6-liter V-6, and matches up well with the Explorer's technology thanks to the introduction of Chevrolet's MyLink multimedia system. The Dodge Durango is a heavier rear-wheel-drive model that features a similarly powerful V-6 but also an eight-speed automatic transmission that brings slightly better fuel economy than the Explorer V-6; it also features an optional Hemi V-8 engine for serious power and towing duties. If handling prowess and fuel economy mean more to you, check out Nissan's new Pathfinder, which followed the Explorer's route and switched to a car-based design for 2013. Its V-6 isn't as powerful, but its continuously variable automatic transmission and weight advantage mean it gets better fuel economy than the standard-engine Explorer and handles better, too. Compare the Explorer with those competitors here.