Ford has found the perfect vehicle in the new Explorer to take on the Europeans in the SUV market, says Alvin Thomas.
The Oxford Dictionary describes an explorer as a “person who explores a new or unfamiliar area”. So, when a vehicle adorns a nametag such as that, it should be special and, quite frankly, extraordinary. It should be a vehicle that can scale deserts and tackle strong wadis. It should be a vehicle that can rescue itself from adversities and forge new paths as it goes along. In short: it should be a true explorer.
So, what exactly then is the “Explorer” nametag doing on a three-row, seven-seater crossover SUV? The Explorer has quite a past. Google images of the SUV and you will see pictures of it scaling unbelievable terrains with ease.
The SUV was so loved that it was featured countless times in movies and TV-series. This was the liberating American SUV of the early 1990s; the one that embodied the sports-utility vehicle culture into the hearts – and minds – of Americans… and subsequently, the whole world.
But many moons have passed since then and what I am looking at today is the fifth-generation (facelifted in 2016) Explorer. Yes, upon first glance, it looks nothing like any of its predecessors but is still pretty impressive.
Let’s start with the front fascia: flanked by two macho-looking headlamps, the Explorer takes a sharp turn from that of its rather mellow trucklet forerunner. This carries forward to the bold and striking fog lamps and chunky yet fashionable bumper. The latter is finished in three colour tones of gun metal (body colour), black and silver! Even the skid plate to protect that crank case and axle is exposed to give it that added macho-esque stance.
In comparison, the Explorer comes with a long wheelbase, wide stance (almost sports car wide) and handsome proportions to counter that macho front. However, the side profile and the rear – including the tail lamps – are carried over from its predecessor. Even then, the SUV rides considerably low (though not entirely) and is incredibly easy to get in and out of.
The interior is carried over, this year, with no changes, either. However, the cabin materials have taken a turn for the better as there are now more soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard, window sills and armrests. Oh and there’s mood lighting, too.
But the biggest change has to be the slick “MyFord Touch” touchscreen with SYNC3. It helps control the audio, which is channelled through a brilliant 12-speaker Sony sound system; Bluetooth; ventilated seats; massage functions and even the air-conditioner settings.
As with new Fords, the dashboard has physical buttons as opposed to those dreadful light-sensitive ones from previous years. You can use these buttons to take control of the air conditioning, audio settings and even the self-parking functions.
The seats meanwhile are all clad in faux leather and are mildly bolstered. Mind you, it is still miles better than in some other American SUVs on the market today. But, the driving position is quite low, and that combined with the long front hood means it is quite hard to see out of if you are under 182cm tall. Of course, you can work around that by simply hoisting your seat all the way up or making use of the front cameras.
Space throughout the cabin is plentiful. The legroom in the second row is infinitely better than those of its rivals from Asia and the third row is anything but above average in space. I found myself (being the healthy man I am) extremely comfortable although head room in the third-row could have been a tad better. Still, I did not feel claustrophobic at all but if you do, there’s a panoramic sunroof that covers the length of the SUV.
The space in the boot is quite good when the third row is hunkered down. However, there’s a 60:40 split available in the second-row seats should you need to cram in irregularly shaped goods. Meanwhile, the third-row seats can be stowed or deployed using buttons placed strategically in the boot.
Underneath the hood of the Explorer lies a well-tuned 3.5-litre V6 pumping out 290hp and 346Nm of torque. It is mated to a traditional six-speed torque-converter automatic transmission that sends power to all four wheels. This is good enough to sprint the Explorer from zero to 100kph in well under 10 seconds.
The torque is available at its peak at well under 4,000rpm, which makes city commutes quite a breeze. However, you will have to rev the engine up to 6,500rpm to make the most of the power at higher speeds. Even then, this has to be one of the faster SUVs currently out there. Overtaking is a breeze, thanks to the clever gearbox, which kicks down efficiently and holds gears while still maintaining decent fuel economy.
If you need more control of the gearbox you can also take the steering-mounted paddles. The gear shifts using the paddles may not be as slick as those found in the dual-clutch gearboxes of today but it is still quite hasty. On the plus side, the engine does sound rather good, with plenty of gruff at high revs.
The Explorer handles corners rather well, especially when off-road. Of course, there’s a generous amount of body roll when you push things past its threshold but you’ll still have to ravage the steering (figuratively) to actually cause any form of disturbance in the balance of the vehicle. Still, comparing it to most its rivals from America, the Explorer does exceptionally well.
There are generous amounts of grip from the alloys wrapped in wide 245/60 rubber and the car generally sticks to its line when pushed into a corner. However, push it harder and it will understeer. Still, traction control channels the power rather efficiently, eradicating any form of irrational manoeuvres made by the driver.
The turning circle is fabulous for a vehicle of this size, thanks to the generous steering locking angles, which makes parking and city driving easier.
The ride is extremely smooth, with very little in the way of ground imperfections making their way into the cabin. It doesn’t feel floaty either, which is a plus, considering its competitors managed to make me feel sea-sick after travelling long distances. Kudos must go to the engineers who tuned the suspension.
The Explorer also gets a quicker steering ratio this time around. This means you don’t have to turn as much to get good turning angles but there’s very little feedback translating from the steering.
During my test, I did manage to lumber the Explorer into the valleys and mountains of Al Amerat. There’s a “terrain selection” dial aft of the gear-shifter that gives you everything from sand-driving to mud-hunting but there’s no low-range gearing available.
Still, the limited slip-rear axle lets you take on some loose surfaces without the fear of getting bogged down. I could dissect the whole valley of Al Amerat without getting stuck. But I refused to carry on forward as the Explorer does sit rather low, and I risked damaging the internals.
In all, I had a very good time with the Ford Explorer. It’s definitely one of the formidable family haulers in the business with a flair for off-roading. However, is it the best off-roader money can buy, today? Probably not but I’ll tell you this: the Explorer is definitely one of the best and well-rounded SUVs of this age. It is everything you want your SUV to be and for the first time ever Ford is competing with the Europeans in this market. Land-Rover had better watch its back.