2017 Ford Explorer XLT AWD (USA)

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There will probably never be complete agreement as to what was the first SUV, but few can deny the fact that it was Ford’s Explorer which did much to popularise the genre in the 1990s. Needing a large vehicle to carry people and lots of stuff over long distances and frequently over rough terrain or coping with some of the extremes of weather that afflict the USA, a vehicle that civilised a truck sufficiently as well as adding the requisite number of seats seemed to be just what many buyers wanted and it was not long before the market had a number of these truck-based models on offer. There were compromises, of course, with the driving dynamics somewhat impeded by those very origins of machines with separate chassis and the early SUVs were generally not as comfortable to ride in or as quiet as a traditional passenger car. Ever creative, and with sales in the sector continually rising, which made the business case that much easier, the motor industry came up with what got christened the Crossover – a vehicle with all the attributes of size and ground clearance of the SUV but designed very much like a car. It took time for some of the established SUV models to make the switch but one by one they did. Ford were among the last to do so, with their 2011 Explorer which eschewed the body on frame chassis of the first generations of Explorer in favour of a car-like platform that offered standard front wheel drive and the option of an all-wheel drive set up. At launch not everyone was convinced by the change, even though the resulting product was objectively better in so many ways, and of course by the time this Explorer went on sale, it faced a crowded market with lots of competition. The press did not rate it all that highly, with the car failed to be acclaimed as a class-winner. Even so, being a Ford, it has sold strongly to retail and fleet customers. It is a popular car for the rental fleets, too, offering lots of space for a rental price not a lot more than you would pay for a traditional family saloon. I sampled the current body-style towards the end of 2015 and found it a massive improvement on its predecessor, and indeed rather liked it.

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The Explorer underwent a mid-cycle update for the 2016 model year, with a raft of detailed changes. Some were cosmetic including smoother bodywork, LED headlights and a new grille, whilst inside there were revisions intended to make the interior nicer and quieter. Trim and equipment change and notably there was an upgrade to the latest Sync 3 infotainment system. The 2 litre 4 cylinder Ecoboost engine was replaced by a more potent 2.3 litre unit which can be paired with All Wheel Drive unlike its predecessor and a top of the range Platinum morel was added. There were few further changes for 2017, but the Explorer now offers a Sport Appearance Package for lower trims, rendering a more aggressive look with 20-inch wheels, a grey grille insert and black cladding, black roof rack, and grey leather seating with grey suede accents and contrast stitching. Otherwise, it carries over unchanged. Whilst all these updates were welcome, ordinarily I would have considered them not to be substantive enough to prioritise testing another version of the car especially in identical XLT AWD trim, but sometimes there is not that much rental car choice. I arrived back in Los Angeles from Phoenix on a Wednesday morning, which is never a high point in rental car availability and having wandered around the extensive facility concluded that this was the best option for the day’s rental. It would be a slightly shorter day than some as it was mid-morning by the time I pulled out, ready to see what the facelifed Explorer was like.

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The test version of the Explorer had keyless starting which is always useful, especially when hopping in and out whilst taking photos, as it means the key can stay firmly in my pocket. There are a choice of 4 and 6 cylinder engines in the Explorer range. Fitted to the test car was the familiar 3.5 litre V6 unit which develops 290 bhp, and is coupled to a 6 speed automatic gearbox, just as had been the case with my previous test car. As before, it proved willing and smooth but it did need to be worked hard to made decent progress, with torque seemingly a bit lacking lower down the rev range. That may account for the rather disappointing fuel consumption that I achieved. Having driven 129 miles in the day, I needed to put in 8 gallons to fill it up, which computes to a rather thirsty 16.125 mpg US or 19.265 mpg Imperial, a slightly worse figure than I achieved back in 2015 when I also took the Explorer on a mix of the LA valley freeways and some canyon roads (but different ones). It is of course possible that the tank was not as full on collection as it was on return, even though the needle was showing full on both occasions, but even so this provided the reminder that cars of this size and weight will consume plenty of fuel. Whilst getting burst of acceleration out of the Explorer was relatively hard work, once it was a steady speed, then this was a peaceful place to be, with low noise levels, helped no doubt by the fact that the car features an acoustic windscreen.

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Previous generation Explorer models fell down more than somewhat with their other driving dynamics, but Ford addressed most of that with this latest shape car, as I found out in my test in 2015. The steering is well judged with some feel to it yet it remains light enough to make the Explorer easy to position and to manoeuvre, though you are never going to forget the fact that this is a large vehicle. Handling is also good, as are grip levels. You have to remember that this is a large, heavy car with a relatively high centre of gravity but once that is taken into account, it is decently agile, though there is some body roll and the Ford will understeer if you tackle the twisties with too much enthusiasm. The fact that the Explorer is a popular police vehicle tells you that the US forces of law and order clearly rate it, too (though they coped with the somewhat unruly Crown Vic for years, it must be remembered!). The test car came with All Wheel Drive, which is selected from a rotary dial on the centre console. You also get hill-descent control, hill-start assist and Ford’s Terrain Management System, which is a selectable four-mode system that optimises traction electronically for different conditions. My test stayed strictly on the tarmac, or just off it for photographic purposes, so I cannot vouch for the Explorer’s abilities off road. The ride is smooth and comfortable, with the test car running on the standard 245/60 R18 wheels. More importantly, this generation Explorer has addressed the issues with the brakes that so alarmed me on the previous generation, with the set-up providing plenty of stopping power and no cause for alarm. There is a foot operated parking brake. All round visibility is generally good, with plenty of glass and although the rear of the car is a long way behind you, the near vertical rear end styling means judging the back of the Ford is not that hard and the task is made easier by the fitment of a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors. There is a second piece of glass in the upper corner of the door mirrors which goes a long way to eliminating the blond spots, which I always find helpful.

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Whilst the overall design of the dashboard and interior layout of this Explorer was the same as the car I tested a couple of years back, there were a surprising number of differences between the two. As before, the main moulding is black. It is made of decent quality plastics which are actually softer to the touch than you might be expecting. An inlay of milled aluminium effect metal which is of course actually plastic is used in front of the passenger and on the centre console and the steering wheel and gear lever are leather wrapped. The dash fits neatly with the door casings and the flowing shape of the instrument cowl and the way the design appears cohesive is good. Ford’s stated goal is Audi-like quality, and whilst they are not there yet, this is a good effort overall. But you had better like buttons, as there are an awful lot of them, as seems to be the way with Ford products at present. We will get to that. Unlike the previous version, there are now two large dials, for rev counter and speedometer, with smaller fuel level and water temperature gauges inset in the lower portions. All use the turquoise pointers that Ford currently favour and which I quite like. The dials are clear and easy to read. A series of trip computer displays are available, presented between the main dials and which you can cycle through using some of the many buttons on the steering wheel boss. Here you will also find the audio repeater and cruise control buttons, resulting in a rather busy look. There are two chunky column stalks for indicators and front and rear wipers, with the lights functioning from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the infotainment system and the climate controls. The latter had a particularly small 4.2″ colour screen and an awful lot of buttons to operate it. Given the frustrations that people have expressed with the Ford Sync system then the number of buttons is perhaps understandable, but it did make the design look complicated. In reality it was quite easy to select a radio station and to retune to another one. The system did include XM Satellite radio but you no longer get Navigation in this trim level. Systems that feature this have a much larger display screen. A separate bank of buttons, with a matching style, are presented below this for the air conditioning control, with a lower row used to control the settings fro rear seat occupants. These are genuine buttons again, Ford having replaced the touch sensitive pads they had used in earlier versions of this generation of Explorer. By contrast the centre console only contains the gearlever and the rotary dial for the AWD settings as well as the usual cupholders.

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The Explorer is quite a tall vehicle, with generous ground clearance and this was most apparent when getting in and out when I felt a more obvious need to step up somewhat than you experience with some rival products. Once installed you are greeted by seats which are trimmed in a mix of two shades and patterns of cloth, unlike the previous XLT model I tested on which leather was standard. You now need to buy a Limited version to get leather trim. The driver gets all-electric adjustment of the seat, including a lumbar support, but in this trim the front passenger has a more limited offer, with electric adjustment only for fore and aft and rather meanly, no height adjustment on the seat. The steering wheel telescopes in/out as well as up/down, so it was not hard to get the driving position I wanted, You certainly do feel that you are sitting quite a bit higher than in a regular saloon car (which indeed you are), so the driving position is, as they say, commanding. With soft seats, and plenty of bolstering, as well as high set armrests, it was also comfortable, though in the end I did not have any particularly lengthy spells behind the wheel during my test.

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There is plenty of space in the second row of seats, with not much in the way of central tunnel intrusion to compromise the seating position of the middle occupant, and of course the SUV styling means that there is more than enough headroom. You do need to be wary of the metal bar across the footwell under the front seats, though. The seats are on sliders, so quite how much legroom is available will depend on the relative position of these seats within their range and indeed how well set back are the front seats. There is a modest range of adjustments for the seat backrests, too. There is no central armrest. Occupants here get grab handles on the door pillars and their own separate climate controls on the back of the central console unit. There are air vents in the roof.

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Access to the third row is gained by tipping the second row seat backrest forward and then pulling the entire seat up out of the way, then you can clamber through the gap. Like most 7-seaters of this overall size, this is the point that you realise that these seats are really intended for children rather than adults. There is actually reasonable room back here, but most definitely for two. The seats are high enough relative to the body of the car that there is a decent depth to the footwell so your knees to not end up in your chin and yet headroom is not unduly compromised, either, so adults could sit here without being completely uncomfortable and because the second row of seats are on sliders, if they are set well forward there would be ample leg and knee room, too. There are air vents in the roof.

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As you might expect, the boot space is fairly modest with the third row of seats erect, though it is more generous than on some other cars of this class. The space is quite wide and it is very deep, extending somewhat lower than the base of the tailgate, taking advantage of the well into which the folded seats fit, though the side areas of the boot are much higher than this so that depth does not extend across the full width of the boot. The rear-most row are split 50/50 and are lowered quite easily by tugging on the release chord which then allows the seat unit to cantilever down into the well that extends from the rear of the car to the base of the second row, creating a flat loadspace. The resulting load area is big and should be more than adequate for the luggage of five occupants. Folding the second row of seats down – and these are asymmetrically split – gives even more space with a very long platform which is flat all the way from the front seats to the tailgate. Roof rails are standard, so further carrying capacity could come from here, and the Explorer has a fairly significant towing capacity, able to haul up to 3000 pounds. Inside the cabin there is plenty of provision for odds and ends. As well as pockets on all four doors, there is a generously-sized glovebox, an indented area on the dash top, a lidded cubby under the central armrest as well as a recess in front of the gear lever whilst those in the second row get rear map pockets and for those in the third row there are mouldings on each side of the seats which also included a cupholder.

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The entry-level Ford Explorer ($31,160) comes as standard with the 3.5-litre V6 engine, front-wheel drive, 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic LED headlights, LED taillights, rear privacy glass, roof rails, a rearview camera, cruise control, air-conditioning, rear climate controls, a 60/40-split second-row seat, 50/50-split third-row seat, a six-way power driver seat (manual recline), a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a 4.2-inch display screen, Sync (Ford’s voice-activated phone/entertainment interface), Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and USB/auxiliary audio inputs. The XLT adds upgraded brakes, body-coloured door handles, front foglights, heated exterior mirrors, rear parking sensors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a keyless entry code pad and push-button ignition, an eight-way power driver seat, a six-way power front passenger seat and XM satellite radio. The Explorer Limited models come with the 280 bhp 2.3 litre turbo four-cylinder engine as standard (the V6 is optional) and 20″ alloys as well as more comfort and convenience items such as leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, interior ambient lighting, heated and ventilated front seats and a heated second row, power-adjustable pedals, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, an 8-inch touchscreen display with the new Sync 3 interface, a 12-speaker Sony sound system and navigation as well as power-folding third-row seats. There are more substantive changes ushered in by the Sport variant. It has most of the Limited’s features but comes with a gutsy turbocharged 3.5-litre V6 (365 hp, 360 lb-ft of torque) and sport-oriented suspension tuning. Likewise, range-topping Platinum ($53,235) trim levels are offered solely with the turbo V6 but not the unique suspension and steering tuning of Sport models. Platinum variants make standard the features offered as options on lesser trim levels. The result is the kitchen sink of comfort and driver assistance features to suit the most well-heeled buyers. Highlights include a panoramic sunroof, a parking assistance system, adaptive cruise control, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a 12-speaker Sony audio system. For the Platinum, a rear-seat entertainment system and power-folding second-row captain’s chairs are optional. All-wheel drive is available for all trim levels, including the Explorer XLT AWD ($35,775), which is the version I tested.

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For those looking for a 3-row Crossover, the Explorer ticks all the boxes pretty well. It is spacious and practical, decently finished, pleasingly refined and not bad to drive. Of course it faces lots of competition these days, with just about every mainstream and premium brand offering vehicles on the US market having a rival, and many of them have good products, too. Finding the one you like the best will come down to personal choice, influenced a bit also by just how large or not quite so large you want your crossover to be. The slightly smaller ones, such as the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe are that bit easier to drive, but will suffer from an accommodation point of view so if you really do need the space, then you are more likely to be looking at the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia, as well as the Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9 before you contemplate those with a more premium badge and price tag. I’ve not driven that many of these in their latest guise, and by all accounts several of the ones I have yet to sample are among the best in the class, so I can’t declare a favourite but I can at least say that the Explorer is a perfectly acceptable product that fully deserves the success it has had. If this is what you end up with at the rental counter then you should not be asking for a substitute in the way that you probably needed to do with the previous generation of the model.

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