The Ford Explorer celebrated its 25 years of existence last year. The Dearborn-based automaker marked the occasion by giving its popular crossover a well-merited mid-generation retool, the latest generation having been introduced for the 2011 model-year. The changing of the guard implemented by Ford in recent years has seen the Explorer transform from a genuine 4x4 (built on a ladder-type chassis) to a family crossover (with a unibody frame), a move that allowed the company to regain some of the market share that had frittered away.
Last year’s changes also brought some improvements under the hood. While the Explorer kept its well-known V6, its small 2.0L, 4-cylinder EcoBoost was replaced by Ford’s new 2.3L engine, already in use in the Lincoln MKC, the Ford Mustang and even the Ford Focus RS! Rest assured, however, the explosive, street–legal yet rally-minded aspect of the latter models has been somewhat tamed in the Explorer, the engine of which tops out at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque.
A recent road test illustrated to me that a large vehicle like the 2017 Ford Explorer need not harbour a V6 for effective daily use, and that a 4-cylinder turbo can do the job just fine!
Weight: enemy number one
Our test vehicle was well-equipped with a new-generation powertrain providing more power than in the past, but its performance is still handicapped by the weight of the chassis. The old 2.0L engine had to not only power the front wheels but also pull over 2,000 kg of weight. In comparison, the Kia Sorento, featuring a 4-cylinder turbo that is less powerful than its Ford equivalent, burdens its powertrain with only 1,816 kg and thus feels more nimble on the road than the previous Explorer.
With its new 2.3L engine, the Explorer does feel not just quicker on acceleration, but also like it’s not working as hard to pull the vehicle, which, it’s worth noting, is built on a platform borrowed from Volvo and developed at the end of the last century. A change here would certainly be welcome, and it’s a safe bet that the next generation of the Ford Explorer will benefit from a new platform.
A 4-cylinder turbo in a midsize SUV?
Given the generally more family-oriented than sporty character of larger three-row crossovers, it’s legitimate to question the wisdom of installing such a powertrain in the Explorer, all the more so since this version adds all-wheel drive to the equation, with the increased fuel consumption that that necessarily entails. According to official Canadian Energuide figures, this SUV should use an average of 11.3L/100 km. For my part I managed 12.1L/100 km, although I confess that I averaged 120 km/h on my Montreal-Quebec return trip. In any event, compare these numbers to those of the Explorer with the naturally aspirated V6 (13L/100 km, and the savings at the pump are not negligible, though they’re not astounding either.
Fortunately, the 2.3L EcoBoost engine has more than frugality going for it; it’s also quite well adapted to the chassis of the Explorer. Plus, the 6-speed automatic transmission performed admirably, the week-long road test having been completed without any false notes to speak of. That said, we do hope the manufacturer will have the gumption to introduce its new 10-speed transmission box in the lighter vehicles in its lineup. We’d be willing to wager that the number of gears may well increase the next time the Explorer is revised.
For daily use… and road trips
Take a look around at the traffic around you at rush hour, or at the nearest school drop-off spot, and it’s clear that families are increasingly turning to large urban 4x4s, the roominess of which rivals what you’ll get in a minivan. And not only is interior space more than adequate, their manoeuvrability is superior to the more traditional people-movers.
It is true that all midsize crossovers do not provide the same level of practicality as those uncool minivans, and the 2017 Ford Explorer is no exception. All the same, life aboard an Explorer Limited is quite good, thanks in large part to an abundance of leather and trip-enhancing gadgets. At highway cruising speed, the mechanics become wholly discreet and the cabin transforms into a comfort zone admirably designed for long treks. The 20-inch alloy wheels and suspension system are relatively successful at erasing road imperfections – although it must be said the Ford Flex did a better job of this. And with its many driver assist systems, the Ford Escape drives itself… almost!
The 4-cylinder Explorer – a good deal?
With the starting price for the Explorer Limited set at $48,899, consumers will need to fork over another $1,000 to reduce the number of cylinders under the hood. Fortunately, this does also bring with it the all-wheel drive. Our test vehicle featured a few options and carried a sticker price of $56,914 before preparation fees – a tidy sum to spend to transport the family unit in comfort.
Of course, in this market segment luxury comes with a price tag attached, and the 2017 Ford Explorer is merely responding to the demand that’s out there. In any case, while we await a full reboot, the American SUV can also at least lay claim to having the most powerful 4-cylinder in its category (if we exclude the total power output of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid), as well as being one of the most fun to drive on a daily basis.