I’ve long since given up on the idea that it’s possible to have a truly unbiased review of an automobile — or anything else, for that matter. Nevertheless, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In the service of that, I’m going to say up front that I completely despisethis generation of Explorer. I didn’t like it when I reviewed an early model five and a half years ago, and I like it even less now that alternatives like the refreshed Grand Cherokee exist.
The worst thing about the Explorer is that it’s fundamentally a crappy version of the Ford Flex. The Flex is a thinking person’s station wagon. The Explorer is an idiot’s SUV. Perhaps a kinder, and more accurate, way to put it is this: the Explorer is a Flex remixed to appeal to women. I’ve yet to meet a woman who likes the Flex. In order to stop this from being a 1,200-word combo-diss-fest-and-Flex-hagiography, I’ve hired the infamous Danger Girl to offer some balance in my review of this brand-spanking-new-with-24-miles, $44,065, front-wheel-drive SUV.
Let’s do this.
Our Explorer came courtesy of the National Car Rental Executive Lane. It had a relatively strange option combination, being front-wheel drive with the optional 3.5-liter V6 and a dual-pane sunroof. Danger Girl absolutely dug it from the moment she saw it. She likes the facelifted front end, and on this we have to agree; the 2011 Explorer looked like it had already been in a mild collision with something that was both indestructible and steeply sloped. The rest of the styling is pretty standard modern-Ford issue, right down to the ridiculous 20-inch wheels.
The magic of the Explorer is that it takes a vehicle that has plenty of usable room for seven adults and turns it into a tumblehome-addled five-seater with a penalty box for a third row. Like it or not, however, we live in a world where successful people tend to avoid having large numbers of children almost as assiduously as they avoid having any truly close friends whatsoever. For the modern family load of two narcissists plus one helicopter baby approximately the size of a roast turkey, the Explorer fits the bill nearly as well as a 1978 911SC would.
There is a market out there that consists almost entirely of women who will not stop looking at their late-model iPhones no matter what is going on around them. They’re going to love this new Explorer. To begin with, the electrostatic-touch center stack that I thought represented one of the 2011 model’s few truly respectable features has yielded to a bunch of real buttons. The same thing has happened in the Navigator and the Expedition. It’s not right, not to my eyes, but it’s what the people want.
More importantly than that, we now have SYNC 3 with Apple CarPlay support. Danger Girl thought this was, approximately speaking, the eighth wonder of the modern world. This system, installed in a 1974 Mercury Bobcat with an active fuel-tank fire, would still impress her as the greatest thing ever. During our drive from the Nashville airport to NCM Motorsports Park, where I watched my brother win the first-ever SCCA Targa event, DG tirelessly iterated through every available control and feature, often chirping like an agitated cat as she did so.
I remind the readers that my wife is not the usual thirty-something suburban airhead. She actually owns an automobile with a current SCCA Pro Racing logbook, a distinction she shares with perhaps one-thousandth of one percent of the Best & Brightest. But she could not stop talking about how great it was to have the apps on the screen. Her sole complaint: She uses Google Maps, but SYNC only appears to integrate with Apple Maps. I considered pairing my Galaxy S5 to test Android functionality, but decided to stare out the window instead.
Ford’s brilliance in targeting this vehicle at women was further proven by the differing opinion DG and I held of the cockpit. I thought it felt like sitting in the middle of a large, dark bucket. There’s so much wasted space in this vehicle. Surely no human being is so obese as to need all the air between the seat bolster and the door. DG thought it was “great” and “very secure-feeling.” We both liked the dual-pane sunroof, however. It’s large, bright, and remarkably quiet when open.
Rear-seat accommodations aren’t as spacious as they should be, but there were no complaints for the brief time that we had four adults in the car. The general look of the interior drew compliments, particularly the muted wood and chrome trim of the Limited spec, but DG’s inner racer started to come to the fore when she noted that some of the trim reflected sunlight in an unpleasant manner. “Distracting, to say the least.”
The engine/transmission combination also failed to charm her. Freeway traffic north of Nashville often runs at 95 mph. The 3.5-liter Ecoboost Explorer might be fine with that, but this normally aspirated version can’t cut the mustard. It often dropped a few gears at the slightest provocation and charmlessly moaned its way up the tach before CLONK-ing back to top. This, in a brand-new vehicle.
Our Explorer was assembled in a remarkably sloppy fashion. I’m not used to this kind of build “quality” in a modern Ford. The pictured gap between the passenger-side console and door was particularly egregious, but it wasn’t unrepresentative of the rest of vehicle. It made me wonder how something like that got out of the factory front door.
Should you buy this Explorer? Hell no. Not as long as the Flex is still around. Please. Look at the Flex. It does every single thing this Explorer does … and it does those things better … and it also does some things an Explorer can’t do … and, best of all, the Flex is slightly cheaper.
That’s my opinion, anyway. Danger Girl says: “If I was thinking about replacing my Tahoe, I’d absolutely consider this. It looks great, and the SYNC is just wonderful, and it has a lot of space inside.” My attempt to discuss the Flex was cut short with, “The Flex is sooooo ugly.” Heresy, I tell you!
So there you have it. I think it’s horrible. My wife thinks it’s great. I’d rather have a Flex or a Grand Cherokee; she thinks the Flex is hideous and the Grand Cherokee is cramped by comparison. The public, apparently, agrees with her and not me. But surely we can all see that this vehicle is now authentically long in the tooth. The next Explorer needs to be better. Ever since 1991, the Explorer nameplate has been consistently attached to cynical exercises in consumer manipulation and staggering gross profit. It’s time for Ford to do better. In the meantime, if you are seriously considering a 2017 Explorer … there’s probably no way I’m going to change your mind, is there?