The 2017 Ford Explorer's highlight is a sport appearance package on lower trims, which is what many Explorer buyers are looking for anyway. Like the Sport trim, the sport appearance package adds 20-inch wheels, gray accents, gray leather and suede inserts, and black cladding. It's a good compromise for buyers looking to get a menacing Explorer, without shelling out $43,500.
Overall, the Explorer's look is getting a little derivative and tired, which knocks it down to a 6 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The Explorer's approach to family travel is a little more authoritarian than others: there are clean edges, sharp corners, and plenty of available textures on the grille and cladding. We wouldn't call it rugged, but the outline is a fond reinterpretation of what made the Explorer a success in the first place. Platinum models get LED lighting and distinctive trim that aren't wholly out of place for the luxe Explorer.
Inside, the current Explorer makes no attempt to give nod to the past—and that's perfectly fine. Early Explorers had miserable, plasticky interiors, which got better as it was groomed upmarket. This one's up there with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango in tailored good looks, with maybe a half-degree more of the contemporary in its win column, thanks to those exclamation points of metallic plastic on the center stack. Audi and BMW are in its crosshairs, Ford says, and the Explorer delivers, in almost the same way the Flex and F-150 do.
The 2017 Ford Explorer gets a sport appearance package on lower trims, which is what Explorer buyers are looking for nowadays.
Last year, Ford significantly overhauled the Explorer—at least, that's what they said. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the 2017 version is nearly identical to the 2011 version, which was the first year it shifted to a more car-like architecture. This generation is nearly identical to the generation before it, right down to the fraction of an inch it gained in wheelbase.
We haven't yet driven a 2017 model, but Ford has indicated that all powertrains will carry over from last year and we consider it a 7 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The Ford Explorer is best when considered a front-wheel-drive (or all-wheel-drive) family wagon—not a rough-and-tumble SUV. To its credit, Ford doesn't boast much about the SUV's potential beyond "Snow" mode. It can, when properly equipped, tow 5,000 pounds, seat up to seven, and boast interior amenities befitting a luxury ride. Do we miss the DIY locking hubs of Explorers from yesteryear? Not even a little bit.
The base and XLT Explorers get a 3.5-liter V-6, which is used on Fords far and wide from Flex to Fusion. In the Explorer, it's rated at 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque and capable of mid-eight-second runs up to 60 mph. It's mated to a 6-speed automatic and can power all four wheels in XLT trims and higher. We won't scoff at the base engine's potential; it's more robust than many of the old V-8s.
Acceleration from a stop is strong, and most models have a sport-shift mode for quicker throttle and shift responses, but these Explorers don't get shift paddles to go with the automatic. The transmission will hold lower gears when told, though, and that alone makes it more responsive than almost any competitive crossover.
Where this powerplant falls behind is in varying speeds you'd typically encounter on a twisting road. Slow the SUV down dramatically, manhandle the shift lever to get it to downshift, and the Explorer limps back up to speed, lagged by its lax shift speeds as much as the thinner torque it develops at the low end of its powerband.
Two types of turbos
Optional on XLT models and standard on AWD Limited models, the new-ish turbocharged 2.3-liter Ecoboost inline-4 is a compelling option for many buyers. It's related to the engines found in the Lincoln MKC and Ford Mustang, and is rated in the Explorer at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft. That's up significantly over the old 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, and more importantly, it's rated to tow more too: up to 3,000 pounds.
It's better in every respect, from the throaty, amplified engine noise it pumps into the cabin, to the sharper acceleration and grunty low end it gives the Explorer—it cooperates particularly well in Sport shift mode, pulling out of curves with more authority than does the base V-6. It's also now offered with an option for all-wheel drive, something that was blocked with the former turbo inline-4. If your driving style is even slightly enthusiastic, it's worth considering over the base engine.
At the top end of the Explorer spectrum is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, which was uprated in 2016 to 365 hp and 350 lb-ft. It comes online with all-wheel drive in Platinum and Sport models and embodies restrained fun. It's more fired up than old V-8 engines in the Explorer, but far from Jeep's Grand Cherokee SRT model. We'll suggest that it's close to an Explorer SHO. The Sport edition gets 20-inch wheels, upgraded brakes, and a stiffer front body structure—but it's not entirely sporty.
All Explorers have a MacPherson strut front suspension with isolated subframe, with an independent multi-link rear setup—and stabilizer bars front and rear. The Explorer Sport gets its own unique (quicker) steering gear, and its own suspension hardware, as well as a front strut tower brace and stiffer stabilizer bar.
Meanwhile, on the off-road front, the Explorer remains happily in tune with the needs of most crossover SUV drivers. Towing capacity peaks at a middling 5,000 pounds, and there's no true low off-pavement gear ratio—but the Explorer can slosh through enough mud and ruts to get a family of seven to any ski resort or any bed and breakfast that doesn't require an overnight National Park Service permit.
The centerpiece to the system is a multi-traction drive system that spins from Normal to Mud and Ruts, Sand, and Snow modes, tailoring power and braking to suit the conditions. In esoteric instances, those electronics can't quite match a really well-trained off-road driver, since they require a little slip in the system to start working. For the remaining 95 percent of us, it's welcome relief to worry less about descending a hill with brake and engine modulation instead of simply flicking a switch.
The Ford Explorer's wide offering of powertrains is an asset, we like every step along the way.
The Explorer is far removed from it's boxy, body-on-frame SUV days of the 1990s. Today's Explorer is almost a Ford-branded team bus: it can seat up to seven, and is among one of the larger 'utes on the road today—alongside the Ford Flex, Honda Pilot, and GM trio of GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, and Chevy Traverse.
The Explorer is comfortable inside but could have better materials and fit and finish, which knocks it down to a 7 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
By the numbers, the Explorer measures 112.8 inches long between the wheels, 198.3 inches overall, and weighs between 4,400 and 4,900 pounds.
For front-row passengers, this is good news. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, with just enough side bolstering and soft cushions. Most Explorers will come with power-adjustable and heated front seats.
The second-row seats are largely the same, except we'd like a little more padding on rear cushions. We think the bottom cushion is too short and angles down at an awkward angle. Three people can sit across the second row, but we'd suggest a small or young middle passenger—preferably both. The second-row bench can be swapped for buckets, and the Explorer is better for it.
There's ample leg, knee and head room for passengers in the second row—even when equipped with the optional dual-panel moonroof.
The third row will be cramped for most adults, so we're suggesting the third row be used exclusively for children and in-laws. Access is via flip-forward second-row seating, which is made easier through a well-placed lever on the second row.
Cargo room and quality
The third-row seat is pretty cramped for adults, but it's more than adequate for children, who can climb into the narrow space created when you flip the middle row forward via an easy lever.
For cargo duty, the Explorer comes with a fold-away third-row seat, power-operated if you want. Power or fold the back seat and the middle seats, and the Explorer lays bare more than 81 cubic feet of cargo volume—almost all of it available for big, flat packages, since the seats fold nearly flat and wear an invulnerable grade of carpeting on their backs. With 21 cubic feet of space with the third row occupied by people, the storage space is fairly large, and lined with durable if inexpensive-looking plasticky material.
While there’s no radical redesign that applies to the interior, there are some noteworthy changes. Real buttons have replaced touch-sensitive ones in many cases, and armrests have been raised and made softer. Ford has redone the door seals and introduced new engine subframe mounts that are tuned to reduce vibration, and the 2.3-liter EcoBoost models get a specially tuned exhaust system. All but the base model get acoustic glass for the windshield and front doors.
The Explorer has a good mix of comfortable seating, versatility, and space for families.
Frankly, we're surprised at how the Explorer lacks certain key safety features—like automatic emergency braking—and how it doesn't perform well in all crash tests, which means it's just a 6 out of 10 for safety. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The 2017 Ford Explorer nearly aced federal testing with a perfect 5-star overall rating. The only blemish: a four-star score for rollover safety, which is common among tall-riding SUVs.
Independent testing by the IIHS is another story. The 2017 Ford Explorer received top "Good" scores in moderate-front overlap crash, side impact and roof strength tests, but only "Marginal" in the small-overlap crash test. That's perplexing to us, considering Ford had the opportunity to improve the Explorer with this latest refresh.
Aside from crash tests, Explorers have great visibility thanks to a high seating position. Chunky rear pillars create rather large blind spots, but blind-spot monitors are available—problem: solved. (Inflatable rear seat belts come with the blind-spot monitors, too.)
Bluetooth connectivity is standard on all models along with a rearview camera.
For light towing, the Explorer has electronic aids that keep it and its trailer stable. The Explorer has a special "Curve Control" feature for its stability control, which adapts throttle and brake to upcoming corners; trailer-sway control also helps make maximum use of its 5,000-pound towing capacity.
The Explorer scores well on federal tests, but IIHS tests are a different story.
|Overall Frontal Barrier Crash Rating:||(5/5)|
|Overall Side Crash Rating:||(5/5)|
|Overall Side Barrier Rating:||Not Rated|
|NHTSA Roll-over Resistance Rating:||(4/5)|
|Side Impact Test||Good|
|Roof Strength Test||Good|
|Rear Crash Protection/Head Restraint||Not Tested|
|IIHS Small Overlap Front Test Results||Marginal|
|IIHS Moderate Overlap Front Test Results||Good|
Ford has finally said what we all knew anyway: exterior appearance is the first priority for SUV buyers today. It should come as no surprise that for 2017 Ford has added an optional "Sport Appearance" package that delivers the style—maybe without the substance.
You can have an Explorer just about any way you'd like it, which means it's a 9 for features. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Everything you'd expect on an SUV that starts over $30,000 is here: power windows, mirrors, and locks; Bluetooth connectivity; cruise control; cloth upholstery; steering-wheel controls; and AM/FM/CD stereo with 4.2-inch display and six speakers.
One step above the basic Explorer is the XLT trim, which adds 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition, a chrome-colored lower fascia, satellite radio, and 10-way power driver's seat.
This year's Sport Appearance Package adds to the XLT 20-inch wheels, a gray grille insert and rear applique, black roof rack, and gray leather seating with gray suede accents and contrast stitching.
Above the XLT is the Limited trim, which is a heat-seeking missile aimed at pleasing everyone, all the time. The near-luxury package adds 20-inch wheels, heated steering wheel, interior ambient lighting, leather seating, heated and cooled front seats, heated second row, and power folding third row. The sound system is upgraded to a 12-speaker Sony unit and all-wheel drive (AWD) Limited models get the more potent 2.3-liter turbo inline-4 as standard (it's optional on the other models).
From there, the paths diverge a little more.
On one hand, buyers can opt for elan in the Explorer Sport. That model boasts the hugely fun 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6 and all-wheel drive. That wears a little more black than other models for more menace, and 20-inch shoes to drive home the point. According to Ford, the Explorer Sport gets a sport-tuned suspension however in 2016 models we've driven we're highly skeptical—this behemoth isn't entirely "sporty" on curvy roads. It's hard to handle that much heft.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Explorer Platinum adds luxe items such as a dual-panel moonroof, satin chrome accents, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, leather-wrapped everything, heated steering wheel, parking assist, lane-keep assist, and wood grain accents. We say Explorer Platinum models can stand up to nearly any luxury SUV—and so can its $53,000 entry price.
The MyFord Touch system has been replaced with Sync 3, which is a unit we've had experience with in other Ford cars. The Sync 3 system is much slicker and expressive than the older system, although the new system isn't without its faults. In the Focus we've tested Sync 3 in, there was some lag in button presses and the system seemed confused in dawn/dusk hours in picking a day or night color scheme. In all, Sync 3 is a much more attractive system, but we can't help but wonder why Ford still hasn't jumped into the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto pool.
A Sport Appearance Package is here now for buyers who want their 2017 Ford Explorers to look the part.
Among three-row crossover SUVs, the Explorer manages to be very fuel-efficient—albeit in one specific powertrain configuration.
The base V-6 Explorer only offers middling fuel economy. The 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic is rated at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined, according to the EPA. Adding all-wheel drive (AWD) drops those ratings by one in every category, pushing it to a 5 out of 10 for fuel economy. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The next engine in the lineup, a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4, does better. Front-drive models manage a more impressive 19/27/22 mpg, and AWD versions return 18/25/21 mpg. It's worth noting that the 2.3-liter turbo inline-4 can tow up to 3,000 pounds. Previous generations used a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that could only tow 2,000 pounds. This is the most efficient Explorer powertrain, and the most versatile.
We haven't been able to run our own fuel-economy tests on an Explorer with the 2.3-liter engine yet, but a common refrain among EcoBoost buyers is that real-world mileage hardly matches what's on the EPA sticker.
The least efficient—but certainly most fun—engine is the turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. That engine, which is equipped on Platinum and Sport models, is mated exclusively to AWD and returns 16/22/18 mpg, according to the EPA. While that's certainly not green, it's much better than old V-8 Explorers.
The 2017 Ford Explorer returns decent economy for a three-row hauler—mostly.