Refreshing, But One Longstanding Issue Remains
The outgoing Ford Explorer 2.0 EcoBoost has few fans at Motor Trend or in the marketplace compared to V-6 variants, but as we recently discovered at a Ford event, that may be about to change. The newly refreshed 2016 Ford Explorer still prioritizes ridiculously attractive looks above all else, but the automaker has introduced plenty of upgrades including a version of the new Mustang’s 2.3-liter EcoBoost-ed four-cylinder engine. After driving a $51,320 US, 280-hp 2016 Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost and two other variants, we learned that there’s only one thing standing in Ford’s way of a fifth consecutive year of increased Explorer sales.
Although most Ford Explorer customers will still head straight for the 3.5-liter V-6 with 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, the newly available turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine has 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, or 40 hp and 40 lb-ft more than the outgoing 2.0-liter, which helped a 2012 Explorer hit 60 mph in a Motor-Trend-tested 9.2 seconds. Until we can track- and Real-MPG-test the 2016 Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost, one thing’s for sure: Ford finally feels confident in a four-cylinder powerplant to offer it with all-wheel drive and a towing package good for a maximum rating of 3,000 pounds. That’s still 2,000 pounds off the 3.5-liter V-6 as well as the 365-hp 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 we’ve come to enjoy in various Ford and Lincoln applications, but it might be just enough to justify the $995 upgrade charge to get the Explorer’s EPA-estimated 18-19/26-28 mpg city/highway, compared to the volume-oriented V-6’s 16-17/23-24 mpg and the all-wheel-drive-only 3.5 EcoBoost’s 16/22 mpg. One note: the front-drive Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost gets low-rolling-resistance tires; the model we drove was equipped with all-wheel drive.
In the regular V-6 and the 2.3 EcoBoost, response to wide-open-throttle inputs aren’t immediate but acceptable, and in the four-cylinder Explorer, you’ll feel a boost of power at around 20 mph. This is still not a quick vehicle — if you’re looking for power, head straight to the expensive Sport and Platinum models, which come standard with all-wheel drive and the 365-hp 3.5 EcoBoost engine. Even so, it should provide a much more livable driving experience than the 2.0 EcoBoost engine ever could, though many buyers may still balk at the idea of paying extra for less horsepower. What distinguishes the 2016 Explorer V-6 from the 2.3 EcoBoost model isn’t just the way the two models deliver their power (linearly on the V-6 versus with just a little turbo lag on the 2.3 EcoBoost), but with the engine sounds. The 2.3 sends a slightly muted growl into the cabin, though it can occasionally drone. The V-6, in contrast, provides a traditional and strong engine note that didn’t seem nearly as quiet as the 365-hp 3.5 EcoBoost engine we drove in the Sport model, which had a more sensitive throttle tip-in. Sending 2016 Explorer variants through a full series of Motor Trend instrumented tests will give us a better picture about whether the 2.3 EcoBoost and its extra 3-4 mpg on the highway is worth the $995 US to efficiency-minded customers over the regular V-6 — both engines are available on the base, XLT, and Limited trims.
What hasn’t changed on the significantly refreshed 2016 Ford Explorer are packaging deficiencies that no mid-cycle refresh can fix. Some may notice that the crossover’s flawed seating position has drivers sitting more inboard than should be necessary, making it just a tad more difficult to get in and out of the vehicle. And although no one except those coming out of an Expedition EL will call it small inside, maximum cargo capacity pales in comparison to the 2015 GMC Acadia behind all three rows and compared to the outgoing 2015 Honda Pilot behind the first and second rows. But hey, the Explorer looks great, right? The Ford’s blacked-out A-pillars and pulled-forward C- and D-pillars still make for a great design, even for those who don’t upgrade from the Explorer’s two 18-inch wheel styles to one of the four available 20-inch wheel designs.
During our relatively short time behind the wheel, we found the Explorer Sport with its 3.5 EcoBoost, the Explorer 2.3 EcoBoost, and high-volume Explorer V-6 are best suited to a more relaxed driving style (it is a nearly 5,000-pound crossover). Ford slowed the steering ratio of all but the Sport models compared to the 2015 Explorer, and the result is what you’d expect with most six- to seven-passenger crossovers: they perform competently on back roads as long as you take it easy. We can accept that, but wish the well-equipped $44,195 US-to-start 365-hp Sport model had somewhat more aggressive sport seats.
If it were our money and a more practical loaded minivan were out of the question, we’d probably skip the Sport treatment and go for the new $53,495 US Platinum model, which also features all-wheel drive and the 3.5 EcoBoost engine. The Platinum model is loaded with everything Ford can throw at and inside the Explorer, including an enhanced parking assist system (you control the gas/brakes but not the steering) with Parallel, Park Out, and Reverse Perpendicular systems — that last system works well, though because it might sometimes need to straighten itself out to center in the space, we still probably wouldn’t use it in a crowded lot. The Platinum also includes so-called Nirvana leather with soft inserts and visually engaging quilted details, as well as real wood trim, real brushed aluminum trim, leather over the dashboard and upper doorsill panels, a fabric-covered A-pillar, front-seats massaging function on the back and seat cushion, an exclusive 500-watt Sony sound system, a 10.1-inch digital screen in the instrument cluster, and more. Because the other Explorer trims already look so good, the Explorer Platinum is a trim that Acadia Denali or Grand Cherokee Overland buyers could consider for the added features as much as the subtle exterior upgrades.
The refreshed 2016 Ford Explorer is better looking than it’s ever been, and now offers more technology including a 180-degree front camera and standard LED low-beam headlights. Ultimately, the not-class-leading cargo space and challenged entry/exit (watch the back of your pants as you stretch across the doorsill) won’t matter too much to buyers. Instead, the real question is how quickly Ford can respond to what’s sure to be increased demand for a nameplate that’s been a mainstay on American roads since the 1991 model year.