By Lary Coppola
I admit never being a big fan or the original Ford Explorer. However, the 2012 Ford Explorer just may be one of the best seven-passenger SUV’s on the market today. It boasts the functionality and family friendliness of a minivan, while offering serious off-road and towing capability coupled with unheard of SUV fuel economy.
Totally redesigned for the 2011 model year, and refined ever further for 2012, the new Explorer is 100 pounds lighter, five inches wider, four inches longer, with 80 more horses under the hood, 25 percent better fuel economy, and standard third row seating — with a pricetag $1,100 lower than the previous model.
In my view, the 2012 Explorer blows its competition right out of the water. It boasts 10 segment exclusives, including best EPA fuel mileage — 17/city, 25/highway — best second-row legroom at 39.8 inches, and tying the Jeep Grand Cherokee for first-in-class horsepower. The Explorer is first in cargo capacity with 80.7 cubic feet behind the front seats, with the split rear rows down — which fold at the touch of a button, bouncing back up with the pull of a lever.
Ford also claims exclusives in safety, with optional inflatable rear seatbelts and standard curve control, which applies braking to individual wheels as needed to correct corner trajectory.
Model Lineup: There are three Explorer models, the base Explorer, XLT and the Limited. All seat 7 passengers, and feature Ford’s new 3.5-liter 290-horse V6 under the hood, with front wheel drive. A new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder ($995) is optional on all three, with Ford’s Terrain Management all-wheel drive system ($2,000) an option only with the V6.
The Explorer comes standard with cloth seats, a 6-way power driver’s seat including lumbar and recline; 60/40 split rear and 50/50 third row; tilt/telescoping wheel with controls; 6-speaker AM/FM/CD MP3, sound system with optional satellite radio, air filtration, speed-sensitive wipers, power windows, power locks, power seats, overhead console, cargo hooks, four 12-volt outlets, privacy glass, halogen projector-beam headlamps, folding sideview mirrors, roof rails, hill start assist, 175-amp alternator, 17-inch steel wheels with wheel covers.
The optional 4WD Terrain Management System was obviously pirated from when Ford owned Land Rover. It uses no transfer case and includes Hill Descent Control. The driver selects the terrain with a knob (Normal, Sand, Mud/Ruts, or Snow/Gravel), and the vehicle does the rest — flawlessly.
The Explorer XLT adds upgraded cloth seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, 18-inch painted aluminum wheels, automatic headlamps, heated sideview mirrors with LED turn signals and security approach lamps, backup and perimeter warning beepers, and 400-watt Sony sound system.
The Explorer Limited adds leather seats, SelectShift manual mode for the 6-speed automatic transmission, 20-inch painted aluminum wheels, power folding sideview mirrors, ambient lighting, adjustable pedals with memory, cargo net, dual zone climate control, 10-way power driver seat, rearview camera, remote start, 110-volt outlet, push-button start, garage door opener, and MyFord Touch driver connect technology. Second-row captain’s chairs are also available.
Options include a power liftgate ($495), navigation ($795), and a Tow Package ($570) that includes trailer sway control that works with the stability camera, and a backup zoom camera that can guide your ball precisely to the hitch.
Walkaround: The 2011 Explorer looks like a new vehicle, but does have overtones reminiscent of Range Rover. Proportionately, it’s large, yet smooth with short overhangs and aerodynamically fluid lines. The hood appears short from the side, but long from behind the wheel, with two parallel humps and a scoop in the center.
The square front fenders are rounded off by wing-like amber indicators sweeping back atop the headlamps, and the rear taillamps feature LED’s.
The window outline is clean, with blackened A, B, and D-pillars, while the body-colored C-pillar slants down and back. With Mustang-like fender flares the body sides follow the lines of the Taurus, with Ford’s new signature three-bar grille rounding out the package.
Interior: Ford’s goal was to make the Explorer’s interior appear as expensive, as the BMW X5 or Audi Q7. The Limited’s leather seats (optional on the XLT) are comfortable, offering good bolstering and stiffness/softness. They’re heated on XLT, and heated and cooled with perforated leather on the Limited.
The clean, slanted center stack has stylish satin-finish trim, and houses the 8-inch color touch screen that operates the MyFord Touch system. It replaces many of the traditional vehicle buttons, knobs and gauges with colorful LCD screens and five-way buttons, and the screens can be personalized to display information relevant to each individual driver using a simple button click, voice command or touch screen tap. There are more screens than gauges, and they’re configured in four quadrants and colors depending on which function you access.
The Base model has a relatively simple 4.2-inch LCD screen, and it doesn’t come with the MyFord Touch system.
Under The Hood: The aforementioned new 3.5-liter 290-horse, Ti-VCT V6, is a DOHC all-aluminum powerplant, featuring four valves per cylinder, variable cam timing and sequential multiport fuel injection. It’s mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting.
Ford’s new 2.0 turbocharged EcoBoost powerplant is the first four-cylinder available under the hood of an SUV of the Explorer’s size in quite a while. It delivers more power than the standard V6 in the previous-generation Explorer, and offers the highest EPA mileage ratings in this class — 20/City and 28/Highway.
Behind The Wheel: I’ve driven the Explorer twice — once as part of my regular vehicle rotation, and again at the premier off-road event in the nation, the Northwest Automotive Press Association’s MudFest — which was held this year at the Dirtfish Rally School in Snohomish. Both Explorers I drove had the new V6. I found both power and acceleration to be smooth, responsive, and more than adequate — something I was very suspicious about for a V6 in a vehicle this size.
Ford put a lot engineering into the new Explorer, and got the ride, handling, noise, and comfort levels almost perfect thanks to changing from traditional truck-like SUV body-on-frame construction to a unitized body and frame like the typical sedan. The rigid chassis and independent suspension deliver a superb all-around ride. It takes corners with relatively little body roll, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering facilitates tight, quick turns.
Driving it off road at MudFest, where the Explorer held its own against the best SUVs on the planet, was an opportunity to try out the electronic Terrain Management System, which is very similar to that used by Land and Range Rover. Since Ford used to own Land Rover, it’s no surprise that it’s basically the same superb system.
Whines: The MyFord Touch system (formerly known as Microsoft Sync), while much improved, with a new, much easier to understand and use interface, can be somewhat problematic by not always recognizing voice commands. I’ve experienced this in person, as well as watched a Ford representative have the same issues at the Portland Auto Show. Every other part of it works really well though.
Bottom Line: The all-new 2012 Ford Explorer is significantly improved in every area over the previous version, costs $1,100 less than before, and the base model is a totally equipped, powerful, state-of-the-art, SUV that gets an EPA-rated 25 mpg on the highway. Starting at around $33,000, it’s a value that’s hard to beat.