By: Jennifer Misaros, Joe DeMatio, Matt Tierney, Phil Floraday, Rusty Blackwell
The Ford Explorer has been maligned by the press because it rides on an aging platform and can be equipped with the flaky MyFord Touch system. Despite the criticism, Ford managed to sell 135,704 examples of the Explorer last year. I don’t understand why this vehicle sells so well while the vastly superior Dodge Durango sold only 51,697 units in 2011.
I much prefer the way a Dodge Durango drives to the floatiness of an Explorer. I also much prefer the interior of the Mazda CX-9 to Ford’s cramped Explorer cabin. The Explorer has a stronger brand identity than either CX-9 or Durango, but the actual product isn’t as well executed as the competition.
I know Ford can engineer, design, and build really good products, such as the Fiesta and the new Focus. I see lots of promise with the new Escape and Fusion. I really hope there’s a plan to replace the Explorer and Taurus with much more modern vehicles that have nothing to do with the current platform that dates back to the 1999 Volvo S80 sedan.
This was my first time behind the wheel of the redesigned Explorer, and I was excited to take it on a long weekend round trip to the Philadelphia area and back with my family.
My wife and kids were not nearly as excited when greeted by the Explorer’s cramped rear seat and lack of DVD entertainment system (they are spoiled by our Four Seasons Honda Odyssey in those regards).
The lack of a DVD player was surprising given this Limited’s $47K price tag. [Dual, headrest-mounted DVD players are available as an accessory.] This obstacle was overcome with a laptop plugged into the handy power outlet at the rear of the center console, but the lack of any dedicated audio-in jack was annoying.
The rear seat’s lack of legroom is less forgivable, however. This is not a small vehicle, and the third row is an option, so the tight quarters for what is presumably everyday seating is inexcusable. Even adding a few inches of sliding travel to the rear bench would have been a tremendous help.
Around back, the controls for the folding third row were lacking any backlighting, which was a particular problem since the interior lighting is blocked by the seatback and plunges the cargo area into complete darkness at night. These may seem like minor complaints, but the fact is they are functional flaws that would be easily remedied with minor adjustments by Ford.
All of the above complaints, however, pale in comparison to the utter and abject failure that is the MyFord Touch system in this Explorer. Far from improved, this touch screen in this car was very unresponsive and required excessive pressure to activate and suffered from a serious delay once touched. It’s worse than annoying — it’s downright distracting. Ford needs to get this thing figured out fast, or scrap it.
As for the Explorer’s road manners, it didn’t disappoint me as much as Phil. Mileage on the trip was an okay 21 mpg, and I thought the ride was comfortable. The V-6 did well through the mountains on I-80, and I thought the steering was good through the twists on I-76.
Overall, the Explorer proved a capable, but flawed, family hauler — one too pricey and compromised for me to recommend over a host of other competitors.
Using MyFord Touch once every couple months is, admittedly, not a fair way to learn how to use the technology. However, my primary issues with the Explorer’s setup would not change no matter how much time a person spent in the vehicle. When I hear a beep of feedback, I should get that much change out of the system, right? Too many times over my weekend in the Explorer, I heard two beeps when I pushed the heated-seat button but it changed only one degree of strength. Also, on more than one occasion, I tapped the + button for the radio-tuning control (in the middle of the volume knob, in the middle of the center stack) four or five beeps worth and got only two or three movements response.
Moreover, the heated seats and the radio tuning use two separate kinds of resistance (what’s known as resistive for the seats and capacitive for the tuning). The two surfaces have vastly different sensitivities, so it’s hard to predict what response you’re going to get, especially if you’re going back and forth between the two control areas.
Moving on to another aspect of the Explorer, I (like my colleagues) was surprised and disappointed to discover that the second-row seats don’t offer very much space: a rear-facing child seat was just barely able to fit behind the driver’s seat, and I’m only five-foot six. Tall people who own Explorers had best not have more than one small child if they want to be able to drive comfortably.
Fortunately, the Explorer is comfortable to drive — and capable in the snow — and has other positive qualities, most notably the attractive interior upholstery and wheels that Joe DeMatio already mentioned. As my other colleagues pointed out, though, there are several superior vehicles currently available in this segment.
Despite its move to the car-based side of the sport-utility market, the Explorer still drives like an old-school, truck-based SUV. Its unwieldy in tight places and around town it feels larger and heavier than it should. It doesn’t stack up well to the competition and, even when compared to vehicles in the Ford stable, it lags behind the older Flex which offers better passenger and cargo space, nearly equivalent towing capacity, and can be optioned with Ford’s smooth and gutsy Ecoboost V-6. Even when equipped with all-wheel drive, the 355-hp Ecoboost in the Flex only sacrifices 1 mpg — both city and highway — to the Explorer’s anemic, unrefined 290-hp V-6 (admittedly you will lose out on some options to keep the total in a similar price range). My advice is to consider one of the Explorer’s excellent competitors, like the Dodge Durango, or, if you want to stay in the Ford family, the excellent Flex.