– Excellent turbo engine
– Cabin trim and features
– Ride and handling
– Expensive for its segment
– Average rear legroom
– Not as spacious as you think
Getting a three-row crossover SUV is a sure-fire sign that you’re getting old. You want a car that does nothing else particularly well other than carry seven people, either because you inadvertently had too many children, or because you oddly look forward to your in-laws visiting that one time every other year. One model that has done well in this segment is the current-gen Ford Explorer. While we weren’t particularly enamoured with this trucklet, we can see its appeal, especially given its Range Rover-like styling. However, it has received a facelift for the 2016 model year, and the version we’re trying out is the Sport variant.
The redesign is limited to a more generic front end and a different wheel design. The Sport additionally gets blacked-out trim, a black grille and unique alloys. With LED running lamps front and rear, it’s a decently attractive vehicle, even with its sizeable overhangs and large size for a “midsize” crossover. Heck, it’s longer and wider than a Toyota Land Cruiser.
There are almost no changes to the interior either, but it’s been improved in a few important ways. While soft-touch surfaces on the dash and front-door window sills, generously-leathered door armrests and interchangeable mood lighting remain, the Explorer finally loses some more of the cheap bits and gets soft-touch padding on the rear window sills as well as some reshaped bits and silver trimmings on the dash. Aside from that, the panel of “touch buttons” below the main touchscreen has been replaced by real buttons, making them easier to reach for when driving.
The big Explorer’s space management remains a mixed bad. The airy interior is certainly spacious up front, with mildly-bolstered seats, big windows and half-a-metre of space above your head. But the low driving position is awkward if you’re well under six feet tall, as you can’t see much over the bonnet. There is also a wide gap between the door armrest and the driver’s seat, so you can’t rest your elbow comfortably. In the back rows, there is ample headroom, though legroom is average. The thick front seatbacks cut into second-row space, but while the third row is cramped, though it will still fit average-sized adults. Access to the third row is quick and relatively easy. Even with all three rows in use, there is a deep floor in the boot that can hold a ton of stuff, and the last bench split-folds into the floor at a single press of a button, although any grocery bags already back there will first have to to be moved out of the way before the huge flat load-floor is created. The front cup-holders have been redesigned to be more useful, while various bottle-holders, four door pockets, cargo net and various cubbies all make it a practical cabin.
The Explorer Sport is filled with high-tech features, such as cooled power-adjustable front seats, power-operated third-row and tailgate, panoramic glass roof, intelligent keyless entry with starter button, a touch-keypad on the driver’s door, remote start, HID headlights with LED tails, 8 airbags, cross-traffic alert system, two rechargeable USB ports, and dual rear-entertainment screens, among others.
The large “MyFord Touch” touchscreen, now more responsive than before, operates the good 12-speaker stereo, Bluetooth phone, ventilated seat fans, ambient lighting and other settings, some in small font so you have to ready carefully. And then there is the panel under the screen that has buttons for the a/c and some stereo functions. Many stereo, a/c and phone things can be controlled using the steering-wheel directional buttons to scroll through options on the two full-colour screens on either side of the speedometer. Even the tacho and the fuel gauge are graphically shown on those screens, and they can even be customised. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it works once you get used to it, and better than trying to use the voice controls.
Among other gadgets, the rear camera is great, with directional lines. The side-mirrors are oddly small, so you really do need the included blind-spot monitors. The decent tri-zone a/c has controls and roof vents in the back.
The standard Explorer still comes with the 290 hp 3.5-litre V6, but the Explorer Sport comes with the 3.5-litre “EcoBoost” turbo V6, and it feels like a completely different car. The EcoBoost makes a solid 365 hp at 5500 rpm and 475 Nm of torque at 3500 rpm, mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic with paddle-shifters. It transforms the 2245-kilo Explorer into a bit of a rocket, thanks to tons of low-end turbo torque. We managed a 0-100 kph time of 7.2 seconds, with absolutely no wheelspin allowed by the all-wheel-drive system. It burned petrol at 15.9 litres/100 km, about 15% more than the standard Explorer we tested earlier.
The engine sounds surprisingly good, with a muted growl so it does not ever get annoying. The highway ride itself is beautifully calm, with barely-audible wind and road noise at 130 kph even. The ride is smooth with a slight tinge of firmness and no floatiness. The adaptive cruise control works well too, keeping a safe distance from the cars in front automatically. And overtaking is a breeze with all the available juice.
Around city streets, the turning circle is good, and parking is made easier with the rear camera. But we were really bothered by the thick front A-pillars and the high sills, so you have to depend on guesswork and experience to go around curves without scraping the curb.
The Explorer, in Sport form, finally gets the hardware to go with its “European” looks. The mildly-weighted power steering has a quicker steering ratio and offers a hint of feedback, feeling just right for daily driving. The handling is better thanks to a retuned suspension, with mild body roll in the sharpest turns, and no bouncy rebounds when sawing at the steering. The 255/50 tyres on 20-inch wheels are finally allowed to do their thing, offering good grip without the stability control cutting in too early, so it isn’t boring to drive like the 2012 Explorer Limited we tested. The disc brakes more than adequate, with improved pedal feel as well.
The “terrain selection” dial aft of the gear-shifter hints at everything from sand-driving to mud-hunting, but the lack of low-range gearing and the limited frontal ground clearance dissuaded us from trying anything extreme. It can be driven on soft sand with very minor slopes as well as gravel tracks just fine. There is also a hill-descent control system for going down slopes slowly, should you find yourself in that situation.
When we tested the regular Explorer a few years ago, we weren’t overwhelmed by it. But the Sport is so much better. With the general improvements made to the entire Explorer line, combined with the EcoBoost engine, it is a heck of a lot more compelling as an alternative to a premium European SUV rather than just an upgrade from your last Korean crossover. About the only sticking point would be the price, which encroaches into base Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser territory, aside from being about the same as Ford’s own larger Expedition with the same engine.
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