Ford says it sold more than 7 million Explorers worldwide since the model first launched back in 1990. That doesn't seem like a stretch -- I think everyone knows someone who's owned one of these at some point. More recently, since the Explorer ditched its body-on-frame foundation for a more compliant unibody platform in its fifth generation, it's become a fixture on US roads all over again, often with kids' soccer teams inside or stick-figure family decals on the windows.
Like its Nissan Pathfinder rival, the Explorer found new life by updating its SUV roots, transitioning to unibody crossover underpinnings, a move that showed Ford was smartly prioritizing urban exploring over off-road excursions. Improved ride comfort, a spacious three-row cabin, plenty of tech features and more fuel-efficient engine options added some much-needed shine to the Explorer nameplate back in 2011. The move worked, jumpstarting sales long after the fourth-generation model's showroom fortunes had gone cold.
So, how best to test a 2016 Explorer Limited, which just received a mid-cycle update? Shuttle a group of rambunctious kids around town? Load it up with a bunch of flat-packed particleboard from Ikea? Go shopping at the bulk warehouse club and buy enough frozen food to last me until 2017? All good ideas, but previous experience suggests this vehicle does quite well in those situations. Instead, I decided to see how the new generation did as a "Bourbon Explorer," taking a road trip from Detroit down South to tour the whiskey distilleries of Kentucky and Tennessee. (Don't worry, I drove responsibly!)
With many miles to cover over lots of rolling terrain, power and fuel economy were real concerns. Enter the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, an engine new to the Explorer for 2016. It replaces Ford's 2-liter EcoBoost mill, and brings with it an additional 40 horsepower and 40 pound-feet of torque, for a total of 280 hp and 310 pound-feet. That engine also achieves an EPA highway rating of 26 miles per gallon, not bad as a $995 option on all-wheel-drive Limited models like the one I drove.
Two other engines are available. A 3.5-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque serves as the base engine, while hot-rod moms and dads can spring for a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 with a whopping 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet. All engines come mated to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission.
My turbo four-cylinder was up to the task of motivating this 4,571-pound barge along on the flat expressways through Ohio, where it turned in an average of 23 mpg. I have no doubt that number would be closer to the 26 mpg EPA estimate, if only I had taken it a little easier. On city streets, the Explorer motored away from stops briskly with no discernible turbo lag and sufficient power, and the transmission performed well-timed and seamless gear changes. The Explorer's city EPA rating is admittedly less impressive, just 18 mpg.
It wasn't until I was further south in Tennessee, tackling the hills, that the little engine began to struggle. Downshifts happened often, followed by a coarse engine note that filled the cabin as the 2.3-liter worked hard to climb and pass slower traffic. I wouldn't go so far as to say the mill felt underpowered in such situations, but it certainly had to give its all -- and that was just with just two people and luggage aboard. Fuel economy dropped down to 18.2 mpg, too, which made me wonder how it would've performed with all seven seats filled and more luggage.
Overall fuel economy for the 1,300-mile trip came to 20.5 mpg, a somewhat-impressive figure considering the mass of this vehicle. In the Explorer's case, I think engine downsizing with forced induction works well enough, but if you're regularly in hilly country and have a large family to tote around, you might want more power.
About 20 hours of drive time also meant ride and cabin comfort were put to the test, and the Explorer delivered. Even though my tester sat on optional 20-inch wheels, it rode beautifully. Its suspension smothered road impacts and the cabin remained quiet, with very little tire noise coming from the wide Hankook Ventus S1 Noble2 rubber. In fact, the Explorer was so smooth that it threw off my butt-speedometer, causing me to often drift above the posted speed limited without realizing it.
Thankfully, the Explorer's comfy ride didn't mean it was sloppy in corners. On the contrary, it proved sure-footed, with well-controlled body motions. The chassis just slurped up the miles on both dry and damp roadways, with its well-tuned, medium-effort steering and direct responses being ideal for this sort of duty.
The cabin's front buckets seats were cushy, yet offered support in all the right places, helping ward off fatigue, and it was easy to find a comfortable seating position with all the adjustments available from the seats and steering column. After our long trip, both my passenger and I felt fine -- we could have jumped back into the Explorer and done another 20 hours if necessary.
Another reason why I didn't mind spending all those hours in the Explorer was because the Limited is such a nice place to be. Everything looks and feels premium inside, with wrapped and stitched surfaces, as well as matte-finish wood mixing beautifully with silver trim pieces. The single-best change for the Explorer's mid-cycle refresh has to be the decision to ditch the 2015 model's maddeningly unresponsive touch-sense climate controls. I give a lot of credit to Ford for listening to its customers and making the change to more conventional and intuitive switchgear.
The one minor annoyance I experienced inside stemmed from the Explorer's too-thick lower A-pillars, as they obstructed the forward-facing view quite a bit.
If I had additional passengers, the heated, second-row captain's seats would've been prime real estate, as they offer plenty of legroom, not to mention creature comforts like rear climate control, USB charging ports and a 110-volt plug to provide juice for things like laptops and tablets.
The third row's tighter confines remains best reserved for kids. However, access is easy, as there's a power-fold second row that slides and flips forward with the push of a button. When not in use, the third row folds flat (also with the push of a button) to open up 43.9 cubic feet of cargo space, enough for a couple of mountain bikes, among other things.
My trip was also made better thanks to advanced driver-assist features including adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring. For the long, straight and boring interstate slog, the former was stupendous, although the system did momentarily freak one night, briefly slamming on the brakes after detecting a car in the next lane when coming over a crest. Blind-spot monitoring was flawless and much appreciated, particularly in the rain, when it provided extra reassurance during lane changes.
The navigation system with SiriusXM Traffic proved handy, too, faithfully alerting me of accidents and construction on our route. To avoid trouble areas, it offered alternate routes a couple of times and kept us from losing precious time sitting in traffic.
I've become well-versed with the Blue Oval's Sync voice control and MyFord Touch infotainment system by now, and find them fairly easy to use. The Bluetooth connected to my Samsung Galaxy S6 quickly, but the center touchscreen remained a little slow jockeying between menus. Unfortunately, Ford's new Blackberry QNX-based Sync 3 infotainment system hasn't made it to the Explorer yet, and neither have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. According to a company spokesman, all of this technology is coming, but a timetable remains unclear.
Even without those systems, Ford strengthened the Explorer's tech hand for 2016 thanks to the addition of an enhanced active park-assist system that now offers both perpendicular- and parallel-parking assist, not to mention park-out assist to help drivers safely exit parallel-parking spots. A hands-free liftgate is also new, and lets owners open and close the rear hatch simply by kicking a foot underneath the back bumper. It's a slick feature that came in handy whenever I had my hands full.
By the end of the road trip, not only did I have a newfound appreciation for everything that goes into making quality bourbon, I developed the same feeling for this Explorer. Three-row crossover SUVs rarely get my pulse racing in terms of their performance or styling, but driving verve and sexy sheet metal aren't exactly their primary missions. Functionality and versatility are key, and when scored on these criteria, the Explorer's merits are undeniable. It's well-suited to coddle families with space, features and nice interior surroundings.
There's an Explorer flavor for everyone, with prices starting at $31,995 for a front-wheel-drive, 3.5-liter V-6 example. My Limited all-wheel-drive tester with its 2.3-liter EcoBoost runs $44,245, while a new-for-2016 Platinum trim sits atop the lineup at $53,915. The luxury-focused Platinum is available only with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, and comes with Nirvana-leather wrapping the seats and instrument panel. It also features quilted door bolsters and trim, a 500-watt Sony audio system and other exclusive exterior appointments. Unfortunately, Ford does not sell the Explorer in the UK or Australia.
Today's three-row crossover market is a crowded one, with models like the aforementioned Pathfinder, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander all vying for attention. The Pilot is all-new and much improved for 2016, so it's a real threat. Mazda just debuted a new CX-9 at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, and it's one to keep an eye on. The Toyota remains competent but banal, and the Chevy is really long in the tooth. The Nissan? You'll have to live with its droning-but-efficient continuously variable transmission. Even with so many choices, Ford's 2016 Explorer remains a standout in the group.
Where the Explorer holds a big upper hand is with the options it offers -- it has a huge range of available engines and trim levels. It's also refined, comfortable, is great for trips both long and short and can be had with a powerful, yet fuel-efficient drivetrain. Finally, add in Ford's 2016 updates and there's more than enough to keep it at the top of this heated class.
Going forward, I'm not going to wonder why I see Explorers all over the place anymore, and neither should you.