2015 Ford Expedition EL 4x4 King Ranch review: A full-size SUV that hauls like few others

Roadshow Editors' Rating

7.0 Overall
  • Performance 8.1
  • Features 7
  • Design 6.2
  • Media 6.2

The Good With its torquey and refined turbo V6, the Expedition offers class-leading towing. Whatever can't be dragged out back will likely fit inside, as this Ford has a huge cabin and a massive cargo hold.

The Bad The Expedition's drive experience is marred by a cabin with too many hard plastics, a slow infotainment system, missing advanced safety features and dim headlamps.

The Bottom Line Only those with big families and serious towing requirements need apply.

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Ford's Expedition is imposing, particularly in EL length. Chris Paukert/CNET

SUVs rose to dominance based on their utility, rugged nature and brawny looks, but demands for efficiency diminished the breed in favor of car-based crossovers featuring more streamlined bodywork at the expense of off-road ability and hauling prowess. But fear not -- whether you're a Western Wannabe or the Real McCoy, Ford still has a rig parked squarely in your corner.

The 2015 Ford Expedition EL is that rig, and although rooted firmly in 2002 -- the year the current generation first set sail -- it still has much to recommend it. A new powertrain for 2015, combined with updated technology and a subtle facelift should be enough to keep this model on the shopping lists of those who need a hardworking, body-on-frame truck.

Compared to the Blue Oval's all-singing, all-dancing aluminum-intensive F-150 pickup , the steel-bodied Expedition's first impression is that of yester-tech. This, despite a number of key updates and the surprising fact that you won't find a V-8 engine under hood. The 2015 Expedition is powered exclusively by Ford's impressive 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 -- the very same powerplant nestled between the tin fenders of many new F-150s. Yet even though the 365-horsepower, 420-pound-feet of torque six-cylinder is bang up-to-date, the Expedition lacks some of the F-Series' available creature comforts and much of its advanced safety tech.

A comfortable cabin is dated by lots of hard plastics and discount switchgear. Chris Paukert/CNET

Climb aboard

That doesn't mean the Louisville-built Expedition is without merit. For one thing, no other SUV on the market matches its massive cabin. All three rows of seating are genuinely usable by average-size adults. Even with the way-backs in use, there's still room for cargo, particularly in this extended-wheelbase EL model. And because of the independent rear suspension (itself something of a novelty in this category), packaging is exceptional, with true fold-flat seating and low load-in height. Maximum cargo space is a voluminous 130.8 cubic feet, and even with a butt parked in every one of those eight seats, there's still nearly 43 cubic feet of cargo space behind the EL's third row. I loaded a week's worth of beach vacation clutter into the Expedition, including a 9-foot surfboard, fishing poles and a pair of cornhole game boards, and was still able to pack the cargo area casually, without resorting to luggage Jenga.

With 8.3 inches of ground clearance, getting into the cabin takes some effort, but thanks to this model's power retractable running boards, clambering aboard is easier than you'd think. Plonk down in the King Ranch's Western-trimmed heated and cooled dining-chair-height seats, and you're greeted by a mix of new and old. Outward visibility is predictably commanding, but looking around at the interior is somewhat less inspiring. Much of the dashboard is rendered from disappointingly hard materials, leavened by vertical stanchions of silvered plastic and, in the case of the King Ranch, some of the least-convincing wood applique I've seen since the death of console televisions.

MyFord Touch mapping is graphically feeling its age. Chris Paukert/CNET

On the plus side of the ledger, a pair of crisp 4.2-inch TFT displays bookend the instrument binnacle's conventional analog speedometer, providing information related to engine speed, navigation, towing, music selection and trip data (distance, fuel economy, and so on). Updated steering wheel controls mean that you needn't paw around the center console to change what's on these displays, and switchgear for the dual-zone HVAC is intuitive, though some of the buttons are surprisingly small for work-gloved hands.

Most infotainment-related functions fall to the eight-inch display screen in the heart of the dashboard, which is supervised by one of the last iterations of MyFordTouch you're likely to see in showrooms. That's just as well, because the touchscreen-based system is often frustratingly slow to boot up and respond to inputs. The navigation function itself is fairly intuitive, but the maps and related graphics are rather basic. Ford promises that its new Sync 3 infotainment architecture will be in all models by the end of 2016, and we're hoping this more sophisticated system will be considerably more quick-witted. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also said to be in the near-term works.

Downsized, but not down on power

It may seem odd that such a traditional, titanic beast no longer comes with eight cylinders, but buyers won't miss it. Running on regular 87 octane and paired with a 3.73 rear axle ratio, this V-6 has brawn to spare. It exhibits almost zero turbo lag and eagerly displays its wall-to-wall power. Aggressive throttle programming at tip-in makes for surprisingly quick stoplight getaways (but can also take some getting used to). This EcoBoost, aided by acoustically laminated side glass of our King Ranch model, makes the Expedition surprisingly quiet.

This Ford's conventional automatic may have just six speeds, but it does a fine job keeping the 3.5-liter on the balls of its feet and right in the meat of its considerable powerband. Perhaps because the transmission only has six speeds, it also feels resolute in its actions -- it's decisive and doesn't hyperactively flit between gears with annoying frequency the way some of today's newest eight- and nine-speed units can. There is a thumb rocker switch for manual gear selection on the shift lever, but it can be slow to respond and isn't as convenient to use as a set of paddles would be.

It may not look like much, but the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 is an absolute beast. Chris Paukert/CNET

Even with the V-6 and independent rear suspension, the Expedition is a towing all-star. It's rated to pull up to 9,200 pounds when properly equipped (9,100 lbs in EL four-wheel-drive spec). By comparison, GM's Suburban taps out at 8,000 pounds, Nissan's Armada manages 8,200 pounds, and Toyota's Sequoia is only good for 7,400 pounds. Given the Ford's 28-gallon fuel tank, it figures you can drag all and sundry for quite a long way. Unladen, the EPA's fuel economy estimates call for standard-length, two-wheel-drive models to net 16 miles per gallon city and 22 highway, with long-wheelbase, four-wheel-drive models like ours achieving 14 mpg city and 20 highway.

In the past, I've had real trouble reaching anywhere near EPA fuel economy estimates with many modern downsized turbocharged engines, particularly EcoBoosts. However, I was quite pleased with my 18.5-mpg results over 1,800-plus miles of mostly freeway driving. That may not seem like a particularly impressive figure, but in light of this vehicle's capability, my elevated speeds, hilly routes and full cargo hold (to say nothing of the summer heat), it's a credible showing.

An extralong wheelbase on this EL model lends the Expedition a smooth highway ride. Chris Paukert/CNET

Cowboy Cadillac ride

Thanks to its very long wheelbase, independent rear suspension and this model's computer-controlled, driver-adjustable dampers, the Expedition rides comfortably, even when optioned with massive 22-inch wheels and tires (20s are standard and still preferable from a ride-compliance standpoint). Freeway comportment and resistance to crosswinds is surprisingly good despite the Expedition having the sail area of an America's Cup winner. There's a fair bit of road- and wind-noise, but it's on par for the class.

Few drivers will ever genuinely hustle a three-row SUV on a winding road, and that's for the best. Even with three-mode driver-adjustable suspension (Comfort, Normal, Sport) toggled to its firmest setting, the Expedition is still rather softly sprung. Combined with the light, numb electric power steering, driving the Expedition over lilting country roads can be a recipe for third-row Dramamine requests even if you don't put the pedal down. Never mind the hot-rod engine; this is not a sporty utility vehicle.

Base price for the 2015 Ford Expedition starts at $45,780 for the standard-wheelbase, 4x2 XLT model. The EL King Ranch 4x4 driven here is one rung short of the most opulent model in the range (that honor goes to the Platinum) and it starts at $63,755. All-in with options, CNET's test vehicle stickered for $65,935, delivered. The Expedition is not sold in Australia or the UK, but strictly for comparison, its base price converts to £29,415 or just over AU$62,000 . The largest SUV Ford sells in Australia is the seven-seat Territory, while British Blue Oval customers who have massive hauling needs must chose from the altogether different Tourneo Custom and Transit van lines.

The rear end of the Expedition EL looks cavernous even with the hatch closed. Chris Paukert/CNET

Despite its age, the Expedition is still very much in the hunt for full-size SUV leadership, but it's a shame Ford didn't go a few steps further with its renovations. We're not just talking aesthetically (this facelift looks entirely too familiar compared to the outgoing model), we'd like to see nicer interior materials and the addition of a few key tech features. Even if you look past the shortcomings of MyFordTouch, surprising option-sheet gaffes include no proximity key (though pushbutton start is standard), no high-intensity headlamps, and no intelligent cruise control, let alone more advanced items like precollision auto-braking or 360-degree cameras.

Even with those caveats in mind, the 2015 Ford Expedition still has a lot to offer as both a burly tow rig and a capacious kin-schlepper. It's anything but all hat, no cattle.

Tech specs

Model 2015 Ford Expedition EL
Trim King Ranch 4x4
Powertrain Turbocharged direct injection 3.5-liter V-6, six speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 18.5 mpg
Navigation Standard, with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, CD
Audio system Sony 390-watt 12 speaker system
Driver assistance Blind spot monitor, rear view camera, front and rear parking sensors
Base price $63,755
Price as tested $65,935

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