2016 Ford Explorer Limited 2.3L Ecoboost 4WD Review
The Ford Explorer is one of those SUVs that causes pause about paying more for a premium brand. We’re seeing that more often lately, mainstream volume brands creating much more appealing high-end models than ever before, this one even taking on some similar styling characteristics to the revered Range Rover brand that Ford previously owned through its now defunct Premier Automotive Group. I happen to like the design a lot, its overall appearance combining a sophisticated inner-city look with a go anywhere ruggedness, this of course backed up with off-road prowess.
The grille is more truck-like than some in this class, but still endowed with a certain elegance that befits a luxury ute, while the new headlight design incorporates signature LED elements stretching across the top of each lens, down the outer edge and partway across the lower corner. Below that a new set of C-shaped (and reverse-C) fog lamps pull design cues from the latest F-150, again Ford giving this off-road capable SUV some of the visual chops truck buyers like, these 4×4 overtones continuing with a matte black lower valance, a body-color undertray, more black cladding down each side, the Limited getting chrome body moldings integrated into the rocker trim that gets visually balanced with chromed exterior door handles and a set of chrome roof rails up top, while the rear view is enhanced with a nice rooftop spoiler, a new version of Ford’s upside-down L-shaped tail lamps, a chromed liftgate garnish, and a body-color diffuser-style bumper cap set within more black cladding that surrounds a set of rear reflectors overtop two chrome-tipped tailpipes. Ford rounds out the design of my tester with a set of optional twinned five-spoke 20-inch alloys that typify that ideal balance of elegance and toughness this SUV portrays. All-round, the Explorer Limited is a great looking SUV.
Similarly the Explorer Limited’s interior goes further than many in this class when it comes to refinement, style, and electronic sophistication. The dash top is soft touch and wraps over to the halfway point of the instrument panel plus down each side of the center stack, the malleable synthetic even going all the way around that stack so that nothing hard or sharp rubs up against the knees. The premium pliable plastics continue overtop the door uppers, while both the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger and the doors are made richer looking thanks to an extremely attractive matte hardwood and aluminum-look trim that wouldn’t be out of place in a pricey premium SUV. The wood not only looks real but feels it to, with a substantive solidity instead of the usual cheap and hollow fake plastic trees used by most rivals. Additionally, the door inserts receive a padded leatherette covering that’s nicely detailed with contrast-stitched French seams, while the armrests underneath are suitably padded and comfortable. Ford doesn’t go so far as to soften up the lower door panels, but many premium brands don’t either. Even Audi’s outgoing Q7 didn’t include a soft-touch glove box lid until this latest generation arrived, although it did feature fabric roof pillars, something that often separates premium from mainstream. But let’s get real, Ford has never once tried to position the Explorer as a premium model, unlike GMC with its pricey Denali brand, although in most ways this Explorer Limited looks and feels a great deal more upscale than the Acadia Denali.
Of course, we’ll be dealing with an all-new Acadia Denali very soon, so we’ll leave that comparison for when it arrives sometime this coming summer, as I presume it’s going to be much better than the current vehicle. In the here and now the Explorer serves up some of the nicest electronic interfaces in the industry. This model doesn’t get Ford’s new Sync 3 infotainment system, which is a bit of a shame as it’s so excellent in every way. Still, I’ve been a proponent of the MyFord Touch system since it debuted, really liking its quadrant layout with phone controls in the top left quarter, navigation top right, entertainment bottom left, and climate bottom right. It has always made sense to me, although I know this is not true for everyone in the industry, as it’s received its fair share of criticism. To me it’s bright and colorful, clearly laid out in one of the higher resolution displays available, and filled with extremely nice graphics, while it’s also fully featured with just about anything a user could want, this side of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, plus some of the new apps Sync 3 offers.
Ahead of the driver is Ford’s usual array of full-color high-resolution multi-information displays, the Explorer positioning a separate screen on each side the center-mounted speedometer, the latter featuring a beautiful aqua-blue lighted needle and metal accent around its circumference. No matter the trim level all Explorers also benefit from excellent quality interior switchgear, from the window toggles and lock buttons to those across the steering wheel spokes, while the center stack audio and HVAC controls are especially well laid out, high in quality, tightly fitted and well damped.
Just like most large SUVs the Explorer offers a lot of interior space. The front seats are extremely roomy and the optional multi-adjustable driver’s seat in my tester was over-the-top comfortable, although you still might feel like you’re sitting in first class back in the second row, as my loaner featured separate buckets with a large console at center. This includes cupholders in the front portion and a raised, padded and stitched leatherette armrest just behind that can be lifted to expose a very large storage bin incorporating a removable tray. Overhead there are separate HVAC vents and reading lights for each passenger, plus a hook for hanging clothes.
Accessing the third row is easy thanks to those second-row seats that pop up and out of the way for a clear path to the rear. When the second row is pulled slightly forward so that it was still comfortable for my five-foot-eight medium-build, there’s still ample room for my knees and about three inches above my head in the third row, plus a fairly comfortable seat. More importantly there was room for my feet, which wasn’t the case in a full-size Cadillac Escalade I recently drove, a vehicle that’s essentially the same as the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. You’d think that bigger means more space, but the Explorer proves this isn’t always the case, the full-size GM SUV’s rearmost seats only suitable for children. I’d be amply comfortable in the Explorer’s third row even for a long period of time, while it gets nice large side windows so your passengers won’t feel claustrophobic, plus separate overhead vents for each rear passenger, a reading light in the center, its own set of stereo speakers in the rear upper corners, plus each side gets its own cupholder plus rubberized storage bins for what-have-you. What’s more, my tester’s airy panoramic glass sunroof overhead helped make the third row feel more inviting even though it didn’t extend all the way to the rear of the vehicle. The third row doesn’t get the optional inflatable seatbelts of the second row, but that’s understandable.
After accessing the cargo area via a hands-free powered liftgate that only needs the wave of your foot under the rear bumper, there’s a lot of luggage space behind the third row. My tester incorporated a really useful cargo net, while the Limited’s third-row seats are capable of powering flat individually or together. Just press a button on the cargo sidewall and the chosen side will fold completely flat into its recess. The middle row needs to be folded manually from the side door, but when doing so the headrests automatically fold down too, making for an almost completely flat load floor from the very rear to the backs of the front seats; there’s a slight rise up to the folded second-row seatbacks so as to protect the center console. By the numbers the Explorer offers 21.0 cubic feet of capacity behind the third row, or about the size of a very large sedan’s trunk, plus 39.4 cubic feet behind the second row and 81.7 cubic feet behind the driver and front passenger when all rear seats are laid flat. That’s a sizable cargo area capable of swallowing up loads of work and play equipment.
While the Explorer Limited is obviously larger than it looks, it drives more like a crossover than most 4×4 capable SUVs. No doubt its agile driving dynamics benefit from those large 20-inch alloy wheels mentioned earlier, taking to fast-paced corners with deft ability, although while capable through the curves its ride is far from rough. It feels refined even over bumpy roads, whereas it’s quite maneuverable around town too, unlike some traditional truck-based SUVs, like that Escalade, that can be a bit cumbersome. Compared to these the Explorer rides on a unibody design shared with the Ford Flex and Lincoln’s variant, the MKT, although its D4 platform architecture gets greater ride height required for off-road use.
When venturing off the beaten path you’ll be glad to know that Ford has taken the Explorer in a similar direction to Land Rover, with an auto four-wheel drive system that not only incorporates a low range for overcoming challenging obstacles such as large rocks, deep ruts, mud, sand, gravel, snow and so forth, but features a simple rotating dial on the lower console for choosing off-road surfaces. Set this Terrain Management system to the far left and it remains in default auto mode, but twist it one notch to the right and it’s best suited to light off-roading, with another turn needed for the heavy-duty trails and one more for plowing through snow or otherwise slippery conditions- This makes the Explorer a very different SUV than its mid-size five-passenger Edge and seven-occupant Flex siblings, which while suitable for light-duty off-pavement excursions to the country cottage or ski hill aren’t recommended for serious 4x4ing.
It should be noted that Ford offers one of the widest arrays of SUVs in the automotive spectrum, only missing a subcompact model to compete head-on with Chevy’s Trax and the like. Along with the Edge, Flex and Explorer, Ford fills the compact class with the deservedly popular Escape, and the more truck-like full-size SUV segment with the Expedition and long-wheelbase Expedition Max. Want more luxury? Many of these SUVs get done out in distinctive and opulent Lincoln trim as well, available from the same dealership that’ll sell you this Explorer.
The Limited comes with two powertrain options including the model’s base 3.5-liter V6 with 290 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque, and a new as-tested mid-grade 2-3-liter four-cylinder Ecoboost capable of 280 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, the latter available from just 2,500 rpm with max twist right up until 4,000 rpm. The 2.3 takes off from standstill quickly and provides good highway passing performance, although it’s not the powerplant of choice for those likely to pull heavy loads. The four-cylinder is only capable of a 2,000-lb trailer whereas the base model’s 3.5-liter V6 and the Explorer’s top-line 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 are able to tow up to 5,000 lbs. The 2.3 Ecoboost shines from a regular driving perspective as well as at the pump where it’s EPA rated at 18 mpg city, 26 highway and 21 combined with 4WD. A front-wheel drive variant can save you a bit more with a 19 city, 28 highway and 22 combined rating, a good choice if you live in a temperate climate and never plan on venturing off-road. In comparison the base V6 gets a claimed 17 mpg city, 24 highway and 20 combined with FWD or 16 city, 23 highway and 19 combined with 4WD, whereas the 3.5 Ecoboost’s mileage is still pretty decent for an engine that makes 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque at just 16 mpg city, 22 highway and 18 combined. On that note you’ll need to upgrade to Sport or Platinum trims to get that 3.5 Ecoboost which comes standard in these top-tier models, as does 4WD. I suppose I should also mention that all Explorers come with a well-proven six-speed automatic featuring Ford’s SelectShift manual mode.
A list of standard Explorer Limited features include 20-inch alloys on 255/50R20 all-seasons, auto on-off HID headlights with LED low beams, LED signature driving lights, fog lamps, LED taillights, chromed roof rails, remote start, the SecuriCode keyless entry keypad, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton ignition, metal doorsill scuff plates, auto power-folding side mirrors, ambient cabin lighting, acoustic-laminate windshield glass, a heatable and powered tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, power-adjustable pedals, driver’s seat memory, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, dual-zone auto HVAC, rear climate control, Sync with MyFord Touch, a rearview camera, a 180-degree front camera, reverse parking sensors, voice-activated navigation, a great sounding 12-speaker Sony audio system with satellite radio, two USB ports and an SD card reader, a 110-volt household style power outlet, a universal garage door opener, perforated leather upholstery, heatable and climate-controlled front seats, heatable second-row outboard seats, third-row 50/50 split PowerFold seatbacks, a foot-activated hands-free powered liftgate, Ford’s Easy Fuel capless fuel filler, tire pressure monitoring, hill start assist, hill descent control, trailer sway control, AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, SOS Post-Crash Alert System, a perimeter alarm, and all the usual airbags plus front knee blockers.
My tester was upgraded with $995 2.3 Ecoboost, $2,000 for 4WD, and the $3,000 Equipment Group 301A package that adds auto high beams, an auto-dimming driver’s side mirror, rain-sensing wipers, multi-contour front seats, inflatable second-row outboard seatbelts, Enhanced Active Park Assist with Park Out Assist, Perpendicular Park and Side Park Sensors, blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning with lane keep assist. Additional standalone features included the upgraded twinned five-spoke 20-inch alloys mentioned earlier for $595, adaptive cruise control with collision warning and brake support for $1,150, the second-row buckets with center console for $845, the dual panel panoramic glass sunroof for $1,595, and all-weather floor mats for $75.
I suppose after running over that long list of features there’s no need to stress any requirement to move up to a premium brand when it comes to the Explorer Limited, and it’s not even the top-line trim level with both the previously noted Explorer Sport and Platinum still available higher up the food chain. It’s one classy ride that’s filled with refinement, high-tech and quality, plus NHTSA 5-star approval, and at an as-tested $50,555 plus freight and dealer fees it’s a much better deal than many mainstream volume branded competitors as well as any premium badged 4×4-capable competitor.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press.