Out of the box, the Ford Explorer has demonstrated itself to be one the best, seven-passenger sport-utility vehicles available. It delivers the function and family friendly features of a minivan with a more rugged emotional appeal, off-road and towing capability for those who need it, and SUV mileage that was unheard of back in the day.
The venerable Explorer was essentially re-invented for 2011, and Ford might have taken a pass on further improvements for 2012. The opposite is true. In addition to an expanded palette of paint colors, the 2012 Explorer is now offered with an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Ford's so-called 2.0 EcoBoost is the first four-cylinder in an SUV of the Explorer's size in a long, long time. It has more power than the standard V6 in the previous-generation Explorer, with half the displacement, and it delivers the highest EPA mileage ratings in this class: 20/28 mpg City/Highway.
This latest-generation Explorer has a one-piece, unitized body and frame like the typical sedan, rather than an old-school, ladder-type truck frame with a separate, bolted on body. It's four inches longer and five inches wider than the previous (pre-2011), body-on-frame Explorer, with third-row seating standard, yet it's 100 pounds lighter. Both the 2.0 EcoBoost and the standard 3.5-liter V6 are more powerful than previous-generation engines, yet mileage improves up to 40 percent.
The 2012 Explorer is available in base, XLT and Limited trim levels. All are great looking, rugged in a familiar SUV way, but also fresh and aerodynamically refined, and all models seat seven. This big SUV actually looks smaller than it is.
Inside, there is class-leading legroom in the second row, real space for passengers in the third, and up to 80.7 cubic-feet of cargo space. It can be reconfigured in seconds, with split rear seats that fold with a button on each side and bounce back up with the pull of a lever. The interior is smartly styled and well finished. The materials are good and the build quality great.
The base Explorer comes well equipped, with all the essentials, plenty of niceties and no overly complicated controls. The leather-upholstered, heated-seat Limited is luxury grade. It's offered with nearly all the bells and whistles, including premium audio, navigation and rear-seat DVD entertainment. The optional MyFordTouch voice/touch control interface can be cumbersome and at least a little annoying, but its leading-edge quality will appeal to some buyers, and it has undergone its first round of refinement and improvement for 2012.
The 2.0 EcoBoost is sufficiently powerful, and acceptable if mileage is the absolute priority. Still, if gas costs $4 per gallon and you drive 15,000 miles a year, it will take more than three years to recover the four-cylinder's $1,000 up-front cost in fuel savings. We prefer the standard 290-horspower V6. It delivers smooth, strong acceleration, and ranks near the top of the class in both horsepower and fuel economy: 17/25 mpg.
Explorer's chassis is super rigid, using twice as much high-strength steel as the old. That makes for not only great crash-test scores, but also a quiet cabin, excellent ride quality and solid handling that belies the Explorer's considerable size.
All-wheel drive is available on all models with the V6. The all-wheel drive maximizes traction with a fancy electronic system called Terrain Management. Even with regular all-season tires rather than specialized tires, the Explorer will blast through sand or traverse deep ditches and steep hills, no problem. We know. We did it. And it has the smoothest ride we've encountered over such terrain.
Ford claims the Explorer has 10 segment-exclusive features or systems, starting with a couple of safety standouts: the optional inflatable rear seatbelts and standard curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory. Beyond the required complement of front, front-side and head-protection airbags, it has an extra knee-protection airbag for the front passenger and all the electronic traction and stability systems, including rollover mitigation and trailer sway control.
The 2012 Ford Explorer comes in three models. Each comes standard with a 290-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder ($995) is optional on all three. Ford's Terrain Management all-wheel drive system ($2,000) is optional only with the V6.
Explorer ($28,870) comes standard with cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver seat, six-speaker audio with single CD and an input jack, air conditioning with particulate filter and rear-seat controls, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, power windows, locks and outside mirrors, overhead console, four 12-volt outlets, 60/40 split-folding second- and 50/50 third-row seats, rear privacy glass, cargo hooks, carpeted floor mats, halogen projector-beam headlights, roof rails and 17-inch steel wheels with wheel covers. Options are limited to Ford's SYNC voice activation and phone connection system ($295), satellite radio hardware ($195), a cargo shade ($135), and a tow package ($570).
Explorer XLT ($31,995) adds upgraded cloth seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, basic SYNC and satellite radio, a security touchpad on the driver's door, automatic headlamps, heated sideview mirrors with LED turn signals and security approach lamps, a backup warning beeper and 18-inch painted aluminum wheels.
Explorer Limited ($37,995) adds leather seats, 10-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, 390-watt Sony audio with CD changer, SelectShift manual mode for the 6-speed automatic transmission, power folding outside mirrors, ambient lighting, adjustable pedals with memory, cargo net, a rearview camera, remote start, a 110-volt outlet, 20-inch painted aluminum wheels, and last but not least the MyFordTouch driver connect technology. Second-row captain's chairs are available on Limited.
Options for the XLT and Limited are plentiful, somewhat confusing and grouped in various packages. One of the most popular is Equipment Group 202A ($2,250) for the XLT, which includes leather seating, the 10-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, rearview camera and ambient lighting. Stand alone options include a voice-activated navigation system ($795), a panoramic glass sunroof ($1,595), dual-screen rear seat DVD system ($1,995) and a power liftgate ($495).
Safety features are headlined by Ford's new curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory. It's part of a comprehensive electronics suite, which also includes antilock brakes and Ford's ActiveTrack stability system with rollover mitigation and trailer sway control. Standard crash protection starts with dual-threshold front airbags, a front passenger knee protection airbag, front-seat side impact airbags, head-protection curtains for all outboard seats and SOS post-crash alert. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Explorer a Top Safety Pick.
One optional safety feature is the industry-first inflatable rear seatbelts, which spread impact forces over an area five times greater than conventional seat belts, reducing pressure on the chest and helping to control head and neck motion. Other safety options include the rearview camera and rear obstacle warning, adaptive cruise control with collision warning and brake support, and a blind-sport warning system with cross-traffic alert. All-wheel drive can improve handling stability in slippery conditions.