Among nameplates, the Ford Explorer is one of the best-known on the planet. Yet the latest version of the Explorer has taken a step away from truck influences and reeled in its trail image. It shares much of its running gear with Ford’s large sedans, as well as the Ford Flex–and while that might not be the right stuff for the Rubicon it’s just right for all-weather family transit.
Simply put, for almost everything that a family would throw at the Explorer, it does it better than before, and it does what the wide majority of us want to do in a crossover. It makes plenty of room for lots of people, or lots of stuff, and it does it much more efficiently than it ever did in the past. It holds on to those mud-running bona fides too–even if they probably were only ever weekend ambitions for most of their suburban owners.
In style, the Explorer doesn’t turn away too abruptly from the past. Inside it does its best impression of a Taurus sedan in look and feel, albeit a little more upright. Performance is buttoned-down, almost to sport-wagon standards, with predictable, benign handling and available all-wheel drive. The 3.5-liter V-6 that’s offered through most of the lineup is plenty quick, while the front-wheel-drive Explorer with an EcoBoost four is best kept for those who seldom if ever take advantage of this vehicles spacious seating. The Explorer Sport is a different personality–very quick, taut, and faster than any V-8 Explorer of the past; it’s a crossover extension of the Taurus SHO, essentially.
Those carlike underpinnings mean that the 2014 Explorer can’t quite hit the trails with the likes of the Grand Cherokee. But on-the-road handling is its forte, and it has quick, well-weighted steering plus terrific ride control, thanks to its substantial curb weight and an independent suspension. Highway miles truly are its friend.
That doesn’t preclude it from getting dirty now and then. A Terrain Management system controls stability and other systems to limit wheelspin while maintaining a 5,000-pound towing capacity. It’s definitely Explorer Lite compared to the distant past, but it’s still quite capable, in the wider view.
The 2014 Ford Explorer has one of the most spacious interiors on the market–especially if you judge it by passenger space. Up to seven passengers can fit, and five adults will be fine in the front two rows. Getting into the third row is a little tougher than it is for the Ford Flex, as the Explorer sits taller. Every inch of this interior seems to be designed with family use in mind, and a power tailgate and power-folding seats are there to make it more convenient.
Going by safety, the Explorer is one of the safest vehicles Ford builds, with inflatable rear seat belts and rearview cameras and blind-spot detectors. It also woos gearheads of another kind with MyFord Touch, the convoluted but promising system that uses voice, button or touchscreen control to govern infotainment and other vehicle functions. For 2014, second-row heated seats and adaptive cruise control are newly available on the Limited, and automatic headlamps have been made standard.
From the 1990 original all the way to the current 2014 Ford Explorer, the shape of this American family vehicle has evolved quite profoundly–in several distinct generational cutoffs. Today’s model honors that original, yet you can’t ignore that it has carlike details woven in everywhere. While the former version was a trucky ute trying to look a bit more carlike, this is eseentially the opposite.
Up close, you’ll see that the Explorer hits some high points of crossover SUV style. It’s a dialect of sharp angles and straight lines, the opposite of softly rounded wagons like the Volvo XC90 (actually a distant cousin to it). The Explorer’s visual DNA may be purely on loan here, but the tall body, big glass areas and the three-bar grille peg it as a Ford as much as its outline.
The high-performance Explorer Sport makes the most of the car-like side of its persona, with glossy black trim, 20-inch wheels, and mesh grille inserts. It has more in common with a Taurus SHO than with a big Expedition SUV, down to winged taillamps and a perforated grille, but the Explorer still avoids looking like a sedan or a minivan.
Inside, the current Explorer makes no attempt to give nod to the past–and that’s perfectly fine. Early Explorers had miserable, plasticky interiors, which got better as it was groomed upmarket. Nevermind the ungainly dashes in the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. It’s up there with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango in tailored good looks, with maybe a half-degree more of the contemporary in its win column, thanks to those exclamation points of metallic plastic on the center stack.
Audi and BMW are in its crosshairs, Ford says, and the Explorer delivers, in almost the same way the Flex and F-150 do. The cabin’s a knockout, smoothing off transitions between dissimilar plastics and putting the curvy goodness into an interior that could have been confused for a shoe-store stockroom, in the past