2012 Ford Explorer
Base price: $28,280 – $40,680
As tested: $37,505
MPG: 17 city/25 highway
- Excellent ride and handling
- Upscale interior
- MyFord Touch and SYNC operating systems
- Less third-row room and cargo room than competition
- Desperately needs a new grille
By Jim Prueter
When the people at Ford worked on the all-new Explorer for 2011, they were determined to make it stylish and to appear a bit futuristic, but not so much that it wasn’t easily recognized as an evolution of the original.
The Explorer was an immediate success when first debuted in 1990, launching an SUV craze for families that were previously driving minivans. And the model has been a best-seller ever since.
Because times have changed for SUVs (as buyers gravitate to lighter, more fuel-efficient crossover vehicles), the folks at Ford say they wanted the all-new Explorer to deliver significantly improved fuel economy and unexpected levels of refinement while keeping all the capabilities of the previous model.
The big news is that, for the first time, the Explorer is not built on a truck chassis, riding instead on the same architecture as the Ford Taurus passenger car. Ford also took the V-6 engine and front-wheel drive from the Taurus (all-wheel drive with Ford’s Terrain Management System optional) and turned the Explorer into an impressive new crossover SUV.
Sales of the new Explorer have been up, way up. For 2011, more than two and a half times more Explorers are being sold than in 2010.
The new Explorer is about 5 inches wider and 4 inches longer than the outgoing model, making it a bit larger than the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and somewhat smaller than the trio of General Motor’s full-sized crossover vehicles — Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, and GMC Acadia. All Explorers come standard with three rows of seats, like the GM products, but don’t have as much cargo space.
The 2012 Explorer is available in three trim levels: the base, XLT, and the upscale Limited. Standard equipment includes 17-inch steel wheels, privacy glass, integrated blind-spot mirrors, roof rails, cruise control, a six-way power driver seat (manual recline), a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, MyFord advanced trip computer, and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack.
The XLT adds 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels, automatic headlamps, fog lamps, rear parking sensors, upgraded cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a keyless entry code pad, SYNC (voice-activated telephone/entertainment interface), and satellite radio (optional on base).
The Limited adds 20-inch wheels, keyless ignition/entry, remote engine start, and a 12-speaker Sony sound system with HD radio. Two additional Rapid Spec packages include a power rear liftgate and a navigation system, along with an eight-way power passenger seat, ventilated front seats, and a power-folding third-row seat.
Stand-alone options on the XLT and Limited include a dual-panel sunroof, a blind-spot warning system, a power rear liftgate, a tow package, second-row captain's chairs (Limited only), rear-seat entertainment system with dual headrest-mounted displays, and a navigation system that includes real-time traffic, weather, and other information.
Outside, the look is attractive if not brawny. We’re still not fans of the dreadful, perforated grille that’s nearly identical to the Taurus. And the rear styling, while pleasant, could easily pass for one of the GM trio crossover vehicles.
Overall the cabin was upscale. Fit and finish is first rate with soft touch material throughout, and the cabin felt larger than it actually is with comfortable, easily adjustable, and roomy first- and second-row seats, though not as roomy as the Ford Flex or the GM triplets. The third row is especially tight and best left for the kids.
Explorer’s standard 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 290 horsepower, 80 more than the previous Explorer. Fuel economy is rated at 17 city/25 highway mpg with front-wheel drive and 17 city/23 highway mpg with all-wheel drive. New for 2012 and on front-wheel-drive models only, the optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine generates 240 horsepower. Both engines only come with a six-speed automatic transmission, and for the first time, the Explorer is not offered with a V-8 engine.
Our test Explorer was the four-wheel drive XLT trim with the 3.5-liter V-6 and included a few options such as Sirius Satellite Radio, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a reverse sensing system, and what Ford calls the Rapid Spec package 201A. Included in the package were the MyFord Touch, SYNC, a rearview camera, dual zone climate control, and a premium audio upgrade for $1,750. It also came with a trailer tow package, Red Candy metallic paint, and a voice activated navigation system, bringing the total MSRP to $37,505.
On the highway, the Explorer was quiet, rode more firmly than expected, and handled crisply and predictably. Ford uses electric power assisted steering, which actually saves fuel by conserving the engine power required to drive a belt, and was pleasing to drive.
Every 2012 Ford Explorer comes standard with stability and traction control, trailer sway control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags, and MyKey, which allows parents to specify limits for vehicle speed and stereo volume. The Explorer's stability control system also includes Ford's Curve Control, which senses if you’re going into a curve too quickly and automatically uses engine braking as well as the brake system to slow the vehicle down 10 mph in just one second.
The 2012 Explorer earned the highest possible “Good” rating for crash test results and was awarded a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Our biggest gripe about the Explorer is the frustrating MyFord Touch operating system for the radio, climate control, and navigation. The system, which also interfaces with cell phones and portable music players, eliminates most control knobs and buttons in favor of an 8-inch video touch screen centered on the instrument panel. Controlled by two steering-wheel-mounted five-way switches, two 4-inch dashboard displays on either side of the speedometer can be configured to duplicate some of the same functions found on the 8-inch display screen. Sound confusing? It is.
Ford also utilizes what they call SYNC, a voice command system for controlling an iPod or the navigation system while driving. We found the operation is tediously slow and had a high error factor, misunderstanding many voice commands.
The good news is that Ford has acknowledged consumer frustrations and just introduced a new upgraded version that they claim addresses complaints and fixes bugs in both systems. Ford also announced that they will send owners of vehicles with MyFord Touch or MyLincoln Touch a flash drive that will fix the problems without a trip to the dealership.
Overall the Explorer is a very satisfying 7-passenger crossover, being car-like on road and capable off road. If you like the styling, aren’t put off by the less-than-user-friendly operating systems, and are shopping for a midsized utility vehicle, Explorer should be on your must-test-drive list.