2012 Ford Explorer
– Stylish for its size
– Cabin materials and features
– Very comfortable ride
– Not very quick
– Average rear space
– Limited off-road abilities
It took us a while to realise that the all-new Ford Explorer is not a midsize SUV any more. In fact, it isn’t even strictly an SUV any more. Having switched to a car-based platform, the Explorer is now arguably a very smartly-styled near-fullsize crossover.
The new Explorer is easily recognised by its unique LED tail lamps, somewhat unique shape and truly unique orange eyebrows. The Limited trim, like our tester, gets a body-colour grille and shiny 20-inch alloys. As for its size, it doesn’t look big at first glance, but it is longer and wider than the Toyota Land Cruiser, although still shorter than most other fullsizers.
That width makes it a pain to open the thick doors once you’ve slipped into a tight parking space, but the cabin isn’t a bad place to be trapped in. With soft-touch surfaces on the dash and front door-sills, generously-leathered door armrests and interchangeable mood lighting, the Explorer plays at the upper end of this segment, better than the hard-plastic tubs of the Chevy Traverse, the Nissan Pathfinder and the Honda Pilot. Nice little styling touches are everywhere, and build quality is generally perfect, but we did find a couple of loose-fitting panels.
The airy interior is certainly spacious up front, with barely-bolstered seats, big windows and half-a-metre of space above your head. But the low driving position and tall roof take getting used to, because if you’re well under six feet tall, you can’t raise the seat too much, or your hanging knees will pain, even with the power-adjustable pedals. In the back rows, there is ample headroom, though legroom isn’t very impressive. The thick front seatbacks take their toll on second-row space, but while the third row is truly cramped, 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. Uncovered cup-holders, various bottle-holders, four door pockets, cargo net and various cubbies all make it a practical cabin.
The Explorer is the most high-tech ride in its class, though only some of the tech is successful. Our Limited came with a 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, power-operated third-row and tailgate and at least three LCD screens, among others.
The large “MyFord Touch” touchscreen 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 piano-black panel under the screen that touch-operates the a/c and some stereo functions, a bit useless while driving because you have to look down to use it. But we discovered that 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, even if it takes time to turn on sometimes. Some minor design issues we came across were the upward-facing front a/c vents positioned to blow air right in your face, and the side-mirrors are small, so you really do need the blind-spot monitors. The tri-zone a/c has controls and roof vents in the back, but our abused test vehicle might have had a problem so it took ages to bring the temperature down to decent levels when left out in the August summer sun. Another problem was that the trip computer that had gone coo-coo, never showing a range of more than 200 km, even with a full tank. Ford later provided us with another brand-new test vehicle and we can say the a/c worked very well and the trip computer showed the right range too, so our earlier problems were with just that one misused car.
The big Explorer is now powered by a modern 3.5-litre V6 engine, good for 290 hp at 6500 rpm and 346 Nm of torque at 4000 rpm, mated to a smooth-and-unconfused 6-speed automatic, manually shiftable using a thumb-button on the shifter. It is a competitive powertrain, but the Explorer weighs in at 2214 kilos. As such, we only managed a 0-100 kph time of 10 seconds flat, with absolutely no wheelspin allowed by the all-wheel-drive system, even with traction control off. On a positive note, the motor is designed to run optimally on the cheapest RON91 petrol, and managed a 13.9 litres/100 km consumption figure, superb for an SUV this size.
The engine note is gruff, but it is nicely muted. In fact, 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 to let you know this is not an old-school boat. The adaptive cruise control works well too, keeping a safe distance from the cars in front automatically.
Around city streets, power is adequate, the turning circle is good, parking is made easy with the rear camera, and the automatic parallel-parking system works perfectly, although it chooses to not detect small spaces that you might manually be able to squeeze into with a few back-and-forth moves. But we were really bothered by the front A-pillars, as thick as our thighs, so you have to depend on guesswork to go around curves without scraping the curb.
The mildly-weighted power steering lacks feedback, but is fine for daily driving. The Explorer isn’t a sporty vehicle to begin with, even though it looks like it can take on premium European stuff. The handling is decent, with moderate body roll in the sharpest turns, and no bouncy rebounds when sawing at the steering. But the stability control cuts in long before the 255/50 tyres let out a serious squeal, so it is boringly safe to drive. The disc brakes have marshmallow pedal-feel, but they seem to stop the behemoth just fine.
Our test-drive wouldn’t be complete without an off-road excursion. That “terrain selection” dial on the center console 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. We drove it on soft sand with very minor slopes, and it seemed to handle it just fine. There is also a hill-descent control system for going down slopes slowly, which also works fine at 45-degree angles, as we found out on an off-road demo track.
The new Explorer is a monumental vehicle for Ford, with a superb interior treatment, extensive safety features, fuel-efficient engine and more tech than an Apple store. Of course, it isn’t as spacious as some rivals, not very quick, and a bit on the large side for some to handle. It is a solid entry into a competitive segment, but isn’t the be-all-and-end-all SUV that some may think it is.
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