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2016 Ford Expedition EL XLT AWD (USA)

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Back in 1999, my work suddenly required me to travel overseas, and I well remember one of the first trips. It was to Colorado Springs, to spend a week with one of those long-forgotten Dot.Com start-up businesses, who had persuaded my then client to spend a lot of money on the new web front-end to their systems that they were going to build. A group of four of us from Europe needed to pay a visit. When we landed at Denver airport, one of the party, a then business partner and now good friend, declared that he “would sort out the rental vehicle”.  After a few minutes at the counter, he declared success and we headed out to collect what he had secured. It was massive. Indeed, that had been his prime requirement, to get the very biggest thing that was available, he later said, as we put our luggage into one corner of the Ford Excursion that was to be transport for the week. Our cases looked lost in there, and as we spread ourselves out in the cabin, we realised that if we’d brought twice as many colleagues as we had done, they would all have fitted in. As it started to snow, someone remarked that we could all sleep in it, should the need arise! I do then recall some slightly worried comments as Olivier, the driver and renter of this behemoth, then watched the average fuel consumption read out as he piloted us the 70 or so miles to our destination. It never reached double figures. The Excursion was a vehicle of its time. Essentially a Ford F250 truck adapted for passenger use, powered by an immense 6.6 litre V8 petrol engine and conceived as a competitor for the established Chevrolet Suburban. In 2000, it achieved sales of over 50,000 units, but as fuel prices continued to rise in the 21st century, demand dropped off, and Ford deleted the model in late 2005. But the market for a commodious 8 seater SUV had not completely gone away, so it was not long before Ford had a replacement – nearly as big inside, but not quite so obviously massive outside. They called it the Expedition EL. This was essentially an extended version of the regular Expedition, with a longer wheelbase and more length beyond the rear wheels.

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The Expedition has its roots in a Ford Truck as well, in this case the slightly smaller F150, with which it has always shared body and mechanical components. The first Expedition was revealed in 1996, as a replacement for the long-running two door Ford Bronco. Positioned about the recently introduced Explorer in the range, the Expedition was then, and is still now, a body-on-frame constructed vehicle with a huge towing capacity but which also featured optional three row seating with first row captain’s chair seating and the same available for the second row, leather seating surfaces, illuminated running boards, heated side view mirrors, power moon roof, dual zone climate control and Ford’s Mach audio sound system with rear subwoofer. Many of these features were standard on the top-spec Eddie Bauer version. At the time – remember in 1996 the market craze for SUVs was still some way in the future – this made the Expedition quite advanced. It sold strongly from the word go. Ford updated it, largely in line with changes made to the F150 truck. A second generation model was launched at the 2002 Detroit Show, going on sale for the 2003 model year. Among many detailed changes, it marked the move to all-round independent suspension, the first full-sized SUV to do so. This was initially controversial, as many pundits feared it would reduce the vehicle’s off-road capability, but in fact, it helped matters, and also made the vehicle more civilised on road. And that was something the market was starting to expect. Making a car from your truck was no longer good enough, as customers wanted all the creature comforts that they were used to in conventional cars, just with the SUV like attributes of more space, higher seating position and some off-road capability. This version was only produced for three years before the current, third generation model was introduced. This was more like a heavy revamp of the second generation model than something that was all-new. Most of the improvements were mechanical in nature, but the changes did also include a sheet metal refresh and redesigned interior with upgraded materials.  A new long wheelbase Expedition EL, with 12 inches added between front and rear wheels, was added to the range, to act as a replacement for the discontinued Ford Excursion. The model was revealed at the Houston Auto Show, which is slightly surprising until you learn that 20% of all Expedition sales are in Texas, so this is The key market for the vehicle. Not a lot changed, except that manufacture moved to the Louisville Kentucky plant in 2009. After that most of the updates were minor trim related ones. Sales have dropped steadily, being 27% down on their 2008 volumes, leading Ford to declare that there was no business case for a replacement. That meant that at the time when main rival GM was presenting its next generation of Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon, Ford had to be content with a mere update for the Expedition and closely related Lincoln Navigator. Once again, this took place in Texas at the Dallas Auto Show in February 2014, ready for the 2015 model year. New front and rear styling was intended to provide a stronger visual link to the rest of the product range now being sold, and there were technology and equipment upgrades, also to try to bring the Expedition more up-to-date with what customers now expect (and what GM were likely to be offering) as opposed to the standards of 2007.

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Probably the most significant change as part of the 2015 model year update was the replacement of the trusty 5.4 litre V8 “Triton” petrol engine with the more modern 3.5 litre V6 Ecoboost unit. That may seem like a huge reduction in cubic capacity to take on board but in fact, the change resulted in an increase in power from 310 to 365 bhp, as well as promising greater fuel efficiency. I did not drive the Expedition in its former guise, so cannot comment on what difference it has made. There is a six speed automatic gearbox, Although this worked very smoothly most of the time, I did notice that when you lost momentum, in traffic or more especially when climbing hills, the transmission was very reluctant indeed to change down, unless you were almost brutal with it, to force the issue. As a fair amount of the test distance was covered on hilly and mountainous roads, this did get a bit frustrating at times. On less challenging inclines, though, all is well. The Ecoboost unit is smooth and refined and quite lusty, able to propel the large amount of metal that constitutes the Expedition at speeds which will not be an embarrassment in traffic. There is even quite a nice rumble at idle, that sounds almost as good as a V8. Once underway, noise levels reduce and this is quite a civilised cruiser on the freeway. Needless to say, this is not an economical machine. Although the trip computer said at one point that I had just broken through the average of 20 mpg, this was short-lived (it was the steady spend journey from collection, along the I10 freeway to Santa Monica and up the PCH through Malibu where I achieved this), as thereafter, the combination of stop/start for photos and the mountainous roads all took their toll. I covered 223 miles in the day and the fuel needle was still showing only just under 3/4 a tank, but you have to remember that the fuel tank is a wapping 33.5 gallons! I put in exactly $40 of fuel, which equated to 13.38 gallons. Do the maths and that equals 16.66 mpg US or 19.9 mpg Imperial. Scary, but not entirely surprising.

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What was also not surprising is that this does not feel that car-like to drive. Certainly not Ford car-like. If you are expecting the sort of perfectly weighted steering and well-judged handling that you get in a Fiesta, a Focus, or even the Fusion (Mondeo) and Escape (Kuga), then you will be disappointed. That said, what you do get is, for the sort of vehicle that it is, not bad. There is a chunky leather-wrapped wheel to hold. The steering is assisted sufficiently to make this large vehicle light to drive and manoeuvre, but not so over-done that you lose all sensation of what is going on. I would say that Ford have actually judged the steering pretty well. This being America, there was of course a warning sticker reminding drivers that as an SUV with a higher centre of gravity than a regular car, there is a greater risk of toppling the vehicle over on bends. You would have to be almost reckless to do so, I reckon. There is a lot of body roll and the Expedition understeers from quite low speeds. It does grip well, but this combined with the recalcitrance of the transmission all means that you are unlikely to be cornering with any particular gusto. You also need to remember that the brakes have more work to so, and to allow for longer stopping distances. It was dry, so I don’t know whether these would be as worrying as the previous generation Explorer was in the wet, but certainly the first time I needed to brake reasonably sharply, I got the reminder that a lot of mass takes more stopping. There is a foot operated parking brake, with a release lever set down low in the dash just above the pedal. The ride seemed good, with none of the pitching or float that you can sometimes get with cars of this type. It makes contact with the road on some very high profile and wide 275/65 R18 tyres. The Expedition retains it body-on-frame construction, and this makes it particularly suitable for towing very heavy loads. This was not something I was able to test. My car had the optional All-wheel drive system fitted. This is a selectable system, which is allows you to choose between 2WD or various modes of AWD. Ford call it ControlTrac. Recently they have also added a trio of new off-road electronic systems in the form of Hill Ascent Assist (HAA), Hill Descent Control (HDC), and Ford Truck Apps (FTA). FTA gives off-road orientation/geometry, 4×4 system status, and traction control system status in real-time.

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You really do notice that you are sitting up higher than everything on the road apart from trucks (and my test was on a Saturday and not on freeways where the big semi trucks, as the Americans call them, dominate), and this does give you the proverbial commanding driving position. Visibility is generally good. Both door mirrors have a second piece of glass in the top outer corner to eradicate blind spots. There is a rear view camera, which projects an image on to the audio display screen. This is useful as you do have remember that the rear of the EL is an awfully long way behind you. There is a thick C pillar which did create something of a blind spot area when you were approaching an angled junction, but otherwise seeing out of the Expedition was easy, judging its extremities was not hard and manoeuvering it – in the places I took it, which did not include crowded car parks or much in the way of urban anywhere – was not as difficult as you might think.

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If you are familiar with Ford products, then you will recognise many of the individual components that comprise the dash, instruments and controls of the Expedition, but, perhaps reflecting the age of the basic design, this one has been spared some of the busier and fussier interiors that have beset some other products of the Blue Oval in recent years, and it is, in my opinion all the better for that. Although the Expedition is primarily intended to be a utilitarian vehicle as opposed to a luxury one, ford knows that they cannot get away with a basic truck interior, and anyway, the interiors of their latest F150 and F250 models are pretty plush. At a first glance, what you see looks pretty decent. The majority of the massive dash moulding is black, as are the door casings, but there are some metal effect inlays and some very sparing use of chrome highlighter rings. Poke a little harder and you will find that many of the plastics are very hard and rather “old school”, but somehow, that does seem to matter as much here as it would in a passenger car, even if GM have upped the ante in this regard with their latest Tahoe/Yukon/Suburban rivals. A curved moulding covers the instrument dials. There are two traditional round ones, with turquoise pointers as you get in some other Ford models. Water temperature and fuel level gauges are set in the lower portion of the rev counter and speedo respectively. The markings are clear and unfussy, making the gauges easy to read. There is a digital display area between them, and you cycle through this by pressing the array of buttons on the left hand spoke of the steering wheel. There are less menus and sub-menus here than you get in some of the passenger cars, but there is still usual info ranging from a digital speed repeater to trip mileage and fuel consumption (though you may not want to remind yourself of that too frequently!). The left hand spoke of the steering wheel also contains the cruise control, whereas the right hand spoke has some audio unit repeater functions. There is only one column stalk, to the left of the wheel, which means that the wipers, front and back, are operated by twisting sleeves on the end of the stalk. Lights function from a rotary dial on the dash. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit, which is mounted high up. In the entry level XLT trim of the test car, you get a relatively basic unit, with a small display screen, and AM/FM/XM Satellite radio, as well as a CD slot, operated by a series of knobs and switches under the unit. There is then a matching array of buttons and knobs below this for the dual zone climate control. A badge reading “sync” is mounted in the centre console, and for 2016, Ford replaced the much detested My Ford Touch system with a new generation and less loathsome set up. In the case of the XLT, this means that there is voice recognition for some of the functions of the unit, but I never actually tested these out, and as I did not pair my phone, I did not test that out, either.  A large knob for selecting 2 or 4 wheel drive is mounted to one side of the lower part of the centre of the dash.  And that is more or less it. Relatively simple and uncluttered to look at, and all very easy to use.

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There are running boards on the side of the Expedition, and these certainly ease getting in and out, especially for those like me who are not that tall. The driver’s seat has electric adjustment to it, in directions, including seat height and angle, as well as backrest rake and fore/aft and a lumbar support adjuster. The steering column adjusts manually, both in/out as well as up/down. I also found a switch to adjust the positioning of the pedals, so you really ought to be able to get a good driving position. The seats are trimmed in a durable looking cloth, and despite being quite sizeable, proved very supportive and comfortable.

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Where the Expedition EL really scores in the same for the other passengers. It really will seat 8, and take a lot of luggage. There are plenty of vehicles that are sold as 7 seaters but the reality is that whilst the middle row of seats are perfectly acceptable to adults, the back row rarely is, even in some quite big vehicles. The Expedition has no such limitations. The middle row of seats are arranged to form a bench, but are actually split into three separate units and you can position them as you see fit. The position of the cushion is fixed, as there are no sliders, but you can alter the backrest angle from relatively upright to quite recumbent. There is plenty of space here, with a lot of legroom even if the front seats are set well back, and the floor is almost flat, with just a slightly raised central transmission tunnel. Needless to say, headroom is sufficiently generous you could probably wear a top hat and still fit. There is no central armrest, and the central seat lacks a headrest but occupants of these seats do get their own air conditioning controls, with vents in the roof, and they have their own audio controls as well. There are map pockets in the back of the front seats and door bins, and a pair of cup holders in the rear most part of the console between the front seats.

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To get into the third row of seats, you pull a lever on the side of the middle row seat, which pulls the backrest forward and then the whole seat tips forward leaving a good sized space through which to clamber. Like all three-row vehicles, a degree of athleticism is an advantage, more so getting out than in. Once installed, there is plenty of space. The seats are high enough up that your legs go down into a well, so you do not end up with your knees and chin in close proximity. That still leaves plenty of headroom, and although there is a little less width than across the middle row, the Expedition EL is still a wide enough car that three adults would fit across the bench.

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With the third row erect, there is still a vast boot space. This is where the real difference between the regular Expedition and the EL is most apparent, with well over double the capacity available in the EL version There are two panels on the floor, the front one of which can be positioned vertically to act as a sort of divider, whereas the rear-most one covers the jacking equipment and there is place under this cover for a few odds and ends. More space can be created by folding down the seats. The rear-most row are split asymmetrically. You will probably need to fold them down from inside the car, as the release lever is on the seat backrest, and it is too far from the back of the Expedition to reach it unless you climb into the boot. The backrests simply drop down, and as they lower, the cushion then cantilevers forward and down into the footwell area, leaving the now longer load area flat from the boot lid all the way forwards. The middle row of seats all fold down as well, and these also end up flush with the rest of the load area, so you get a vast long load bay. I joked that I could have saved money and checked out of the hotel. You certainly could sleep in it, with space to spare. The rear window opens separately from the main tailgate if you choose to do so. I think this would be more useful if you wanted to poke something tall out the back, as if you just opened it to put things in the boot, you would effectively be dropping them a long way down. Inside the cabin, there are plenty of places for odds and ends. As well as a modest glovebox, there are moulded recesses on the top of the central part of the dash, a very deep cubby under the central armrest, a useful moulded area in front of the gearlever and door bins, as well as some other little recesses on the dash itself which were small in frontal area but very deep.

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Ford sell the Expedition in four trims: XLT, Limited, King Ranch, and Platinum. All share the same mechanical package, with the 3.5 litre Ecoboost V6 being the only available engine, but the lesser trims are available with either standard rear wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. The Expedition was refreshed in 2015, and there have been no significant changes for 2016, or, for that matter, 2017, with an all-new 2018 model due to go on sale late in 2017. To any trim, you can add a moonroof for $995, second-row leather-trimmed bucket seats for $795, and a dual-headrest DVD entertainment system for $1,995. All trims are available in the EL model, which has a longer wheelbase and more interior space, for an extra $2,600-$2,800. The Expedition’s lowest trim is the XLT, which has a base price of $47,125, and this was the one in which format the test car was supplied. Standard features include satellite radio, a rearview camera, rear parking sensors, and the voice-activated SYNC infotainment system with a 4.2-inch display screen, Bluetooth, and smartphone app integration. Ford’s MyKey, which allows speed and volume limits to be set for the driver, is also standard. The Limited trim starts at $56,045  – a big jump up from the XLT – and comes standard with dual-zone automatic climate control, remote start, rear climate control, heated and cooled front leather seats, a power tailgate, heated second-row seats, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, a power-folding third-row seat, a 12-speaker Sony audio system, front parking sensors, and the SYNC 3 infotainment system with an 8-inch touch-screen display. The King Ranch trim starts at $60,615 and includes upgraded leather upholstery, HD Radio, power running boards, voice-activated navigation, and blind spot monitoring. Top of the range is the Platinum, which starts at $64,205 and comes standard with the Continuously Controlled Damping System and a moonroof.

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I quite enjoyed my day with the Expedition EL. Of course I had absolutely no need for anything this gargantuan, but I took it, because, well, because I could, and to get to try something which would be something of a nightmare in Europe. In America, where there is a lot more space, then something as big as this is perfectly manageable. If you have a lot of people and goods to accommodate and perhaps also tow, then something of this size means that you can accommodate everyone and everything in a single vehicle, and there are plenty of people who apparently need just that, which is why this vehicle exists. The Expedition is not daunting to drive, despite its bulk. You do have to remember just how much metal there is behind you when reversing, but otherwise, it feels remarkably like a much smaller machine. Until you spot the empty fuel gauge, of course. It is not unique in the market-place, as GM offer extended versions of their largest SUV, too, the Suburban and Yukon XL, as well as the luxurious Escalade ESV which is more of a competitor for the related Lincoln Navigator. These models are far newer than the Expedition, and so benefit from the latest technology and thinking and are by all accounts “better” than the Ford. The riposte to that comes later in the year, when an all-new Expedition hits the showrooms soon after production begins at the end of September. I am sure I will be driving one of those before too long, but for now, if, as a European, you want a very different sort rental car, then you have little to concern you in testing an Expedition EL.

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