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2018 Ford Explorer Review

2018 Ford Explorer Review
The 2018 Ford Explorer has pulled off a graceful transition from clumsy off-roader to genteel family wagon.

In a lineup of cars and trucks that includes crazy uncle Shelby and cousin Raptor and a litter of baby RSs and STs, the 2018 Ford Explorer takes on the role of mom. Go ahead and have fun, it’s happy to do the shopping and the carpool, no matter what the weather holds. Someone has to do the chores around here, you know.

With three rows of seats, and ample choice in engines, the Explorer tackles its role with gusto. It can get mildly and entertainingly distracted with Sport tuning and high-end audio and fancy leather chairs. Sometimes it drinks too much.

We love the Explorer with all its faults, even though we don’t show it much in an overall score of 6.7 out of 10. 

Seen in context as a sleek family wagon, the 2018 Ford Explorer still looks modern enough, eight years into its extended life cycle. It’s blessedly pared of fake SUV aggression and overly soft and eggy surfaces. The details show how Ford mastered the Land Rover design language before it sold it off: the Explorer’s mesh grilles and clean cutlines still bear a striking resemblance to Discoverys old and new. Inside, the note is clean and tidy, with more lavish touches applied at the $50,000 price barrier. We welcome the reinstated knobs and buttons that Ford brought back in recent model years.

Base Explorers rely on a solid 290-horsepower V-6 and a 6-speed automatic. The combo fares well in ordinary driving, less well when the road gets interesting, and the transmission gets lazy. Turbo-4 Explorers engage more energetically with the world around them, thanks to a low torque peak and paddle controls for the transmission. Twin-turbo V-6 Explorers don’t blow the road off its bed like the Jeep SRT, but substantial passing power is available just a few inches into the gas pedal travel. All Explorers have quick steering, well-damped ride quality, and optional all-wheel drive. The most rugged models can tow 5,000 pounds, and come with a traction-control system with driving modes that handle moderate departures from pavement as well as they can, on all-season tires.

The Explorer’s age reveals itself in its packaging. The floor is high, the second- and third-row seats aren’t well-shaped. Cargo space is fine, especially with those rear rows folded out of the way.

The Explorer also lets itself down with a “Marginal” crash-test score from the IIHS. A rearview camera comes standard, and Ford now offers forward-collision warnings on most models.

Every Explorer comes with power features, Bluetooth, and touchscreen audio. The most expensive versions, at more than $50,000, get 20-inch wheels, Sony audio, navigation, a power-folding third-row seat, and ventilated leather front seats. The best values lie at the XLT trim level, so long as you opt for the newly available safety gear.

We’ve seen this look before—for eight model years, to be precise—but the Ford Explorer still has a fundamental appeal.

With only the most minor of visual changes in the 2018 model year, the Ford Explorer still sells the same shape it has since the 2011 model year. It’s long on function, short on freshness. We give it an extra point for its cabin, which raises its score above average to a 6. 

The Explorer's visual approach hasn’t changed for most of this decade. It wears an agreeable collection of crisp corners, clean edges, and nifty textures on its grille and side cladding. The shape only hints at the nameplate’s SUV roots; any lower to the ground, and it would look more like Ford’s old Freestyle wagon from the 1990s. Platinum models get LED lighting and distinctive trim that aren't wholly out of place for the luxe Explorer, and new exhausts and LED headlights are now standard on top versions.

Early Explorers had miserable, plasticky interiors, but got better as the SUV groomed itself and took itself upmarket. The current Explorer makes no attempt to nod to the past—and that's just fine. The latest cabin has tailored good looks like its Durango and Grand Cherokee rivals, with a slightly more contemporary feel.

The 2018 Ford Explorer fires up its turbos in its most interesting forms, but even the base V-6 acquits itself well.

Ford fits a range of engines to the Explorer SUV, all teamed with a 6-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive, and an independent suspension.

It’s no longer a rough-and-tumble utility vehicle. Instead, the Explorer has morphed into a surprisingly entertaining family vehicle with a smidge of off-pavement talent.

We think it’s a 7 for performance.
The most common Explorer engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. That’s more power than Ford used to extract from its V-8 Explorer. It accelerates strongly, and a sport mode holds the 6-speed’s gears longer, and hastens its shifts. The combination works well on interstates, but gets caught flat-footed on interesting roads where you’ll have to manhandle the shift lever and mash the gas pedal to get it to respond in a meaningful way. There’s just not much torque at low engine speeds, and the transmission’s not programmed to snap off shifts with sport-sedan swiftness.

A 2.3-liter turbo-4 shows up on some midrange Explorers. It’s also found in the Lincoln lineup. Here it turns in 280 hp and 310 lb-ft, and with its much lower torque peak, it can tow up to 3,000 pounds. It’s worth the extra money over the base engine, from the grunty low-end power it delivers, to the quicker acceleration and responses it offers, even to the amplified engine noise Ford pumps into the cabin. It obliterates the laggy shifting of the V-6, even when saddled with the extra weight of all-wheel drive.

The top Explorer sports a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6, now rated at 365 hp and 350 lb-ft, sold only with all-wheel drive. It’s no SRT rival, but the ample power hustles this Explorer with pleasant restraint.

Every Explorer has a set of front struts and a multi-link rear suspension. Sport models have quicker steering and stiffer suspension settings, as well as more bracing and thicker stabilizer bars. The Explorer rides smoothly in most instances, even with the largest Sport wheels and tires, and in all models its steering responds quickly to inputs big and small.

On the traction front, the Explorer delivers peak towing of a middling 5,000 pounds, and its all-wheel-drive option has no true low gear ratio. It still can slosh through mud and ruts on its all-season tires, so long as the road ahead doesn’t require terrain maps and a local guide.

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.

Comfort & Quality
The versatile Ford Explorer has room to spare, but needs better rear seats.

Today’s Explorer can seat seven people in its three rows, which puts it in the crosshairs of SUVs like the Buick Enclave and Honda Pilot. It’s not as spacious, and its second and third rows could use some attention.

We give it a 7 for comfort and utility.

The Explorer is 198.3 inches long, and rides on a 112.8-inch wheelbase. That’s plenty of room for front-seat passengers to have ample space. Their seats are comfortable and supportive, with soft cushions and just enough side bolstering to grip passengers for long road trips—and that’s before Ford applies power adjustment, heating, and ventilation.

The second-row bench needs better placement and padding. The bottom cushion tips down at its leading edge, it’s short, and it’s thin on the soft stuff that makes for pleasant road trips. The space is fine—three passengers will fit across—but most shoppers will do better by opting into the second-row captain’s chairs found on the options list.

In the rearmost row, Ford reserves seats for small kids, in-laws, and those held in general disfavor. There’s not much space at all back there, and the seat barely mounts above the floor. It’s not easy to get to the third row either. The second-row seats flip and fold out of the way, but there’s not much space between those seats and the door frame.

The third-row seat folds down and out of the way, with power assist in some configurations. With both back rows of seats out of the way, the Explorer turns into a hard-sided tote with more than 81 cubic feet of cargo space, all lined with tough carpeting, with a nearly flat load floor. Behind the third row, the Explorer’s 21 cubic feet will hold a few roll-aboard bags.  

Ford revamped the Explorer’s interior recently, and swapped out some touch-sensitive controls for real buttons and knobs. It also added more damping and sound deadening. The Explorer’s tightly composed interior looks well-assembled and handsome, if not overtly plush—at least, until you spend into the Platinum trim level.

The IIHS thinks less of the Ford Explorer than the NHTSA does.

In its most recent federal crash tests, the Ford Explorer performed quite well. The insurance industry begs to differ.

We give it a 7 out of 10 for safety, given those mixed scores and the lack of some advanced safety technology. 

The NHTSA says the Explorer merits a five-star overall rating. It earns the same in nearly every test, save for a four-star score in rollover resistance.

The IIHS has qualms. It rates the Explorer “Good” in most tests, but dubs its small-overlap impact protection as just “Marginal.”

A rearview camera comes with every Explorer. Ford now makes forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking available on almost every model.

The Explorer provides its driver a very good view of the road ahead. To the rear, thick roof pillars block some of the view, but the Explorer offers blind-spot monitors in a bundle with rear-seat inflatable belts.

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.

Ford Explorer prices soar in top Platinum models; Sport editions get the most interesting hardware.

Ford ladles on lots of features with every Explorer, and packages of gear boost its luxury credentials and its price.

We’re still not sure how we feel about a $53,000 Explorer, but can’t argue with its ample equipment. The Explorer lineup gets an 8 here, for standard and optional gear, and for the lush trim in high-end versions. We take one back for its small base infotainment system.

The Explorer price track starts at more than $30,000. At that point in the spectrum, the Explorer has cloth seats, cruise control, power features, steering-wheel audio and phone controls, and an AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers, Bluetooth streaming, and a 4.2-inch touchscreen.

The Explorer XLT adds 18-inch wheels, satellite radio, keyless ignition, and a 10-way power driver's seat. On that, the Sport Appearance pack piles on 20-inch wheels, a black roof rack, gray leather seats with suede and accent stitching, and a gray grille.

The Explorer Limited comes with 20-inch wheels, ambient lighting, leather, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, and a power folding third-row seat. Audio comes via a 12-speaker Sony system.

With the Explorer Sport, Ford vectors off in a surprisingly satisfying performance direction. The Sport has a twin-turbo V-6, all-wheel drive, 20-inch wheels and tires, a sport suspension, and some black exterior trim.

More traditional luxury models wear a Platinum tag and get adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warnings, a dual-pane moonroof, leather, woodgrain trim, automatic park assist, and a heated steering wheel, as well as a price tag of more than $53,000.

Ford now fits its latest Sync 3 infotainment system to the Explorer. It’s slick, has a cleaner interface, and responds more quickly than the former MyFord Touch unit. It also offers an in-car data connection with 4G LTE and the ability to connect 10 devices.

Fuel Economy
With its new-ish turbo-4, the Ford Explorer earns some solid EPA kudos.

The three-row Ford Explorer SUV can earn good EPA fuel economy ratings for its size, so long as you select only one of its three powertrains.

We rate it a 5 for gas mileage, based on the numbers for its most popular engine.

Entry-level Explorers have a 3.5-liter V-6 and a 6-speed automatic. The EPA scores this combination at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined. The numbers fall by 1 mpg in each category when all-wheel drive is added.

The Explorer offers a 2.3-liter turbo-4 in front- and all-wheel drive. The latter scores rather impressive ratings of 19/27/22 mpg, and all-wheel-drive versions aren’t far behind at 18/25/21 mpg.

A turbo V-6 powers the most engaging Explorers, but it’s no fun at the pump. The EPA pegs it at 16/22/18 mpg.


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