Driving Ford's new Tahoe and Suburban challenger
Many moons ago I attended the launch of the then all-new Ford Explorer. At one point during the event, Ford let us sample a Jeep Grand Cherokee, ostensibly so that we gathered scribes could gauge how much better the Explorer was than its competition. I’ll never forget my driving partner—Pulitzer Prize winner and Wall Street Journal scribe Dan Neil—turning to me, a look of mischief in his eyes, and one of us saying, “Boy, that Jeep’s pretty damn good, huh?” In other words, Ford’s gambit was, as the kids say, a total fail. Dan and I actually ditched the event early and hit up a local casino to play some Texas Hold ’Em. I won $100 USD if memory serves. Dan fared less well. As you might imagine on the launch of the all-new 2018 Ford Expedition, I was wracked with déjà vu hopping into a Chevrolet Suburban hitched up to a 5,500-pound (2,495-kg) horse trailer. Was Ford about to make the same mistake again?
The Expedition is a full-size body-on-frame SUV. Actually, the big boy is available in two sizes, with the long wheelbase Max version gaining 12 inches of overall length and about 8 inches of wheelbase. There are two engine choices, too. Well, being honest, two engine output choices. Most trim levels get a 375-horsepower, 470-lb-ft version of Ford’s now venerable EcoBoost 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6—the same powerplant (more or less) you’ll find in halo products such the Raptor and $500,000 USD GT. Talk about diversity. Should you opt for the Platinum Expedition, power climbs to 400 hp, and torque goes up by 10 to 480 lb-ft. These are handy improvements over the previous Expedition, which shared the EcoBoost V-6 but made just 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. As Bob Lutz so sagely said, “Americans buy horsepower but drive torque.” Power is sent to the rear wheels via Ford’s version of the Ford/GM 10-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard, though I’d guess most Expeditions will leave dealer lots equipped with four-wheel drive. High gears only, however. If you do need to take your big SUV way off the beaten path, there’s the FX4 variant, which comes complete with a two-speed transfer case, aka low gears.
Back to Americans for a second. XL and XXL SUVs such as the Expedition really and truly are a red, white, and blue phenomenon. They don’t make much sense to the rest of the world, primarily because the roads are too narrow, parking is too tight, and gas is expensive. Here? Giant highways, ample parking, and—adjusted for inflation—gasoline costs as much as coffee filters. Judging by what I spend at Starbucks per week, gas is much, much cheaper than actual coffee. In much the same way that a Smart ForTwo makes zero sense if you’ve never spent time desperately searching for parking in a packed European city/San Francisco, supersized SUVs seem absurd to the uninitiated, save for us Yanks and the Middle East. However, once you’ve spent time in big boy you realize there really is no replacement for sheer scale. There’s an elegance to them, a relaxed sort of inherent luxury, a joie de viva Las Vegas, if you will. Just like the full-size truck, mammoth SUVs are both a unique and wonderful American institution. A segment we should celebrate, especially when the vehicles are good. If you feel different, I’m sure What Car? has the Skoda Karoq review you’re looking for.
Back when the Mercedes-Benz GLC won our 2016 SUV of the Year, one of the aspects that most impressed us was the clever use of platform sharing. The GLC rides on a slightly shortened version of the E-Class architecture while featuring the interior bits and drivetrain components from the C-Class. Likewise, the Expedition is in fact a clever mix of F-150 and F-250/350 parts. Structurally, the SUV is a F-150 with a third row and independent rear suspension. However the interior, including the useful twin-glove box arrangement, is straight off the Super Duty. But then Ford went above and beyond both versions of their trucks and added some woodwork, leather, and rotary dials that would be more at home in a Lincoln. Or an Audi, and I say this as an Audi owner. The engine and transmission, as mentioned, are from the F-150, though they feature unique states of tune.
The sheetmetal is a huge improvement over the previous-generation Expedition, which never had a modern metal-to-glass ratio. The greenhouse was too big, making the whole thing look droopy. There is of course a 6,000-pound (2,721-kg) gorilla in the room: from the side the new, all-aluminum Ford looks like the current Chevrolets, Tahoes, and Suburbans. It just does. Blame the high beltline, but the similarity is much more than just passing. I actually think the Ford looks better, but I want to say something else. The Ford Explorer looks like any number of Land Rovers. The Fusion’s front end looks like an Aston Martin. The Lincoln Continental and MKZ look like modern Jaguars. And now the Expedition looks like its closest rival. For whatever the reason, Ford design kicks out products that look like they come from other carmakers. Does this fact bother me? Kind of. Philosophically I don’t like it, but practically speaking, when a product is good, who cares? As Woody Allen said (I’m paraphrasing): always be original; don’t steal. But, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. Imitation, sincerity, flattery, and all that. As for the rest of the body, I think the base grille looks pretty much OK, though I find the Platinum snout a bit busy. Looks good from behind. Nuff said.
Although the outside might look like a mimeographed Suburban, the inside of the Expedition embarrasses the Chevy. The two are night and day, if Ford is day and night is cheap and dated looking. The luxury—specifically in the Platinum trimmed models—continues in the middle row, where the elegant leatherwork is still present, both in terms of the seats and the door trims. The middle seats feature what’s called Tip-and-Slide. Essentially, when you’re trying to access the rear seats, the middle ones both slide and tip forward at the seat track. Long story short, you can leave car seats in place and still get bodies into the back. The rearmost seat (or the way back, as my family called the third row in our station wagons growing up) is sizeable, even in the regular wheelbase Expedition, but it’s definitely not as high quality materials-wise as the other two rows. I don’t think this matters an iota. I imagine the way back to only be inhabited by snot-faced banshees, whacking each other over the head with Gogurt-covered Xboxes or whatever kids are into these days. One gripe: I counted two USB outlets up front, two in the middle row, and just one in the way back. I would double this, if not triple it.
Leaving the gorgeous yet whacky Calamigos Ranch where Ford staged the Expedition launch from on a “dynamic loop,” I might have jumped in front of another car, upsetting said car’s driver. Hey, I knew I had 480 lb-ft of torque, he didn’t. Anywho, you can imagine that he wasn’t exactly pleased, and he chose to illustrate this displeasure by attempting to hang on my rear bumper. Fat chance. Not only was I able (and willing) to crush him on the straights, but by golly, the new Expedition also boogied through the corners. True, I had the SUV in Sport mode, but even if I had left things in Normal mode, the Expedition is, dare I say it, athletic. Not a sports car, obviously, but I was surprised at how easily I was able to wheel the thing up and down some pretty challenging Malibu canyon roads. Granted the Platinum model has continuously variable damping, but that suspension also has to deal with massive 22-inch wheels. Color me impressed, especially because again, the Expedition is fundamentally an F-150 with an independent rear end. When you’re not hustling the big brute, you’ll find a quiet cabin and a well-controlled, comfy ride.
I also got to sample the FX4 off roader on a pretty challenging dirt course. The big news with the FX4 is the addition of the two-speed transfer case and low gears. That said, the FX4 also gains a shortened air damn up front, underbody armor (sand guard for the engine, skidplate for the oil pan and transfer case, brush guard for the gas tank), model-specific running boards, and nubby Michelin Primacy tires riding on 5-spoke 18-inch wheels. I asked a Ford engineer if it’s particularly difficult to craft a vehicle that will be riding on wheels ranging from 18 to 22 inches. He nodded his head enthusiastically as to say, “Yes, it is.” Also, the FX4 is available in both regular length and Max size. There are a few off-road modes to play with, but Mud and Rut seemed to be the optimal choice for the course at hand.
There was a fairly tricky downhill section, and I commented to the FX4 engineer riding shotgun with me that I would like to run this particular section uphill. He told me that the truck could do it, but that after two waves of 50 journalists each, the sandy path would get destroyed. We actually run into this exact same problem each year during SUV of the Year, so I chose to (mostly) believe him. Anyhow, the new Expedition seemed fine off-road but nothing to write home about. Minutes later we encountered a section that did test the truck. We came to an uphill left-hander whose surface seemed to be composed exclusively of loose shale, some sort of busted rock. I wasn’t carrying enough speed on my initial approach, and as I applied more throttle, the Michelins dug into the rocks. I reversed down a car length, built up some speed, and took a slightly more packed-down but still loose and rocky path up. Although the FX4 struggled a bit, it climbed right on up. Didn’t even have to use 4-low. Impressive. Are there going to be many FX4 takers? No, Ford doesn’t think so. But the ability to do some medium-grade off-roading is there if you want it.
Next up came the real test: towing. Not because of what we were towing, a 5,500-pound (2,495-kg) horse trailer—the Expedition can tow 9,000 pounds (4,082 kg) in most trim levels, though the short wheelbase, 2×4 rig can haul 9,300 pounds (4,218 kg)—but because they had an identical horse trailer hanging off the back of a Chevrolet Suburban. For the past day, the idea had been crystalizing in my head that this new Expedition is pretty dang good. However, Chevy’s big twins are also great, which is why the Tahoe and Suburban are the unquestioned segment leaders, having sold 1,081,773 units between January 2010 and October 2017. Also, the best sales year to date for the GM twins was 2016, and 2017 looks to be second-best. Again, I’m not counting GMC or Caddy sales. That’s a lot of filthy, full-size SUV lucre. Also, as some of you are aware, I spend most of my time these days making videos. For the past five years, we’ve used a Chevy Tahoe (or Yukon, and once in a blue moon an Escalade) as our camera/support vehicle. Meaning I’m in and around big Chevys two weeks a month, if not more. To call me familiar with the GMT900 SUVs is a gross understatement. That said, until you actually drive two vehicles on the same day, on the same road, under the same conditions, you are working from human memory, which is perhaps the most unreliable commodity on earth.
The Ford mopped the hills of Malibu with the Chevy. Not even really a contest. This was most definitely not a repeat of Ford’s blunder with the Jeep on the Explorer launch. The Limited trim Expedition’s 470 lb-ft of torque straight up embarrassed the Chevy’s 5.3-liter V-8 and its 383 lb-ft. Much worse actually, was the transmission. General Motors has yet to drop their iteration of the joint 10-speed unit into their full-size SUVs. So the Suburban came with the antiquated (to put it charitably) six-speed auto that quite literally struggled to maintain 50 mph (80 km/h) up a maybe 6 percent grade, even with tow mode switched on. At one point I put my foot flat to the floor for perhaps 40 seconds before the transmission bothered to downshift. Not cool, Chevy. It was so bad I actually asked the Ford engineer if they’d detuned the Suburban. He laughed and said they hadn’t touched ‘em. When the Chevy finally did downshift, the cabin filled up with a wretched sounding, high-pitch wail. Also, the ride quality under load was not so great— the truck seemed to wallow and wobble back and forth, especially uphill. To be fair, a 5,500-pound (2,495-kg) trailer is near the Suburban’s max capacity of 6,300 pounds (2,858 kg), but still.
The Expedition? Wow, man, it literally blew the Chevy away. Acceleration was better, braking was way better, ride was superior, the engine note under full load was much deeper, much less harsh, and perhaps most importantly, the Expedition could easily maintain 50 mph (80 km/h) up a good grade. Truth be told, it could do 20 mph (32 km/h) faster. The transmission seemed to actually enjoy towing. Most shocking to me, however, was how much more elegant and comfortable the Ford was. I haven’t set foot in the new Lincoln Navigator, but I have a hard time imagining how it’s more luxurious than the Ford.
For way too long, Ford allowed what should have been a perennial cash cow to rot out in the pasture. The old Expedition wasn’t horrible or anything, it was simply not competitive with what Ford’s big rival was selling. Ford has flipped the script. The Expedition is now the class leader, no ifs, no ands, and no buts about it. If you are a diehard Chevrolet fan, take solace in the fact that the new GMT1000 platform body-on-frame trucks and SUVs are coming sooner than later. Until then, Ford is the new big sheriff in town.