Imagine, for a moment, you are a plant. Well, not just any plant. You are Robert Plant, and everywhere you go, people want you to sing “Stairway to Heaven”. I’d rather not, you tell them. Never liked that one much, to be honest. We’ve a much better song that I’d much rather sing. Called ‘Kashmir’, dontcha know. Much better, that one. For years, you refuse to perform the song. You cancel a proposed Led Zeppelin reunion because the promotion company insists, positively insists, that you play “Stairway”. You’d rather play “Kashmir”. And since you don’t really need the money, that’s the end of it.
I suspect the people who run Ford can sympathize a bit with Mr. Plant. Their “Stairway” is a four-door SUV called the Explorer. You might have heard of it. Sold a bunch, that Explorer, even though it was always kind of a hokey tune, a Ranger truck with a cap and a couple rows of plastic-leather seats, perched sky-high on underinflated Firestones.
The Explorer was never a truly outstanding answer to the family-wagon question, so a couple years back Ford created the Flex, which is an outstanding answer. It should have made the Explorer obsolete, but there were two problems. It wasn’t really an SUV, and it wasn’t an Explorer. And since Ford, unlike Zeppelin’s Golden God, needs the money…
The first two generations of Explorers were fundamentally pickup trucks. This one is fundamentally a car, which is to say it’s another variant of Ford’s much-loved (and much-hated) D3/4 platform. The company makes no secret of this, preferring to point out all the ways in which D3 has been updated for modern duty in general and SUV duty in particular. Although the rocker-panel-covering doors and bizarre QIX-pattern footwells remain, the driver now sits in an entirely new relationship to the rest of the vehicle.
Wide is the word here. The Explorer’s driver seat feels almost centrally located. There’s clear air between the chair and the armrest, with the door itself seemingly a foot and a half thick. The modern tradition of shoulder-height sills is fully respected in this car, as well. My transactions with the local Burger King gave me the distinct impression of being trapped in an oubliette, passing money and food through a distant trap door. It’s as far from the thin-door, narrow-body 1994 original as one can imagine, and it’s clearly designed to pander to all those perceived security issues supposedly experienced by female drivers.
My contract with TTAC allows me to make one “Xzibit” joke every month, so here it is: Sup dawg, we heard you like Audis, so we put an Audi in your Explorer so you can feel smug while you drive, yo. Ford didn’t just benchmark the leading German interior designs with this new vehicle; they actively riff off them. My favorite part? The power-lock button. It’s set within a delicate, perfect chrome ring, which is then set within the shiny black speaker grille for the door-mounted tweeter. As a complete design and execution statement, the Explorer’s interior is easily a match for that of the Grand Cherokee. The Japanese and the GM Lambdas aren’t even on the same playing field, and you’ll need to lease a Q7 with all the options if you want to see the next round of the game.
Ford’s complete myFordTouch system makes its second appearance here after the debut in the Edge. As with the Edge, there’s that odd cognitive dissonance between the pressure-touch main screen (as one might find in a modern automated teller machine) and the capacitance-touch center stack (think iPhone or Droid). Nor is the HVAC system particularly glove-friendly, unless you’re one of those hipsters who wears the special iPad gloves. If you are one of those “people’, feel free to go back to Jalopnik and read today’s feature article on hovercrafts, experimental aircraft, celebrity genitalia, or whatever other non-automotive thing they’re doing today. If, on the other hand, you are a member of that harried species known as “the American parent”, you will simply adore the way it’s possible to wipe down the whole console at once with a damp rag. No buttons means no crevices for dust, food, coffee, or soda, you see. That kind of stuff matters.
Speaking of parenthood for a moment… Let’s talk child seats. The Flex is a kid-seat superstar, able to effortlessly swallow two of today’s monstrous rear-facing infant enclosures without cramping the other passengers or permanently disfiguring the seatbacks ahead of them. It also has adult-sized seats in the third row and plenty of ways to get back there. Only minivans do it better.
Don’t expect the same accomodation from the Explorer. There’s a price to be paid for SUV styling, and in this case the price comes in the form of a shorter wheelbase. Forward-facing seats are okay, as demonstrated here by my fellow stunt driver John “Trip” Baruth III, but putting an infant in the second row will mean discomfort for the people sitting in rows one and three. Do not, however, imagine for a single moment that any of the competition is even slightly better in this regard.
By the numbers, the Explorer’s cargo capacity falls way behind that of the GM Lambdas, with approximately eighty cubic feet of max space versus one hundred and sixteen, but numbers might not tell the whole story. Real-world capacity probably isn’t that different, and the web forums are abuzz with allegations of clever measurement and fractions of cubic feet found in cubbyholes. Still, if you need the absolute maximum storage, the Acadia and siblings are the ticket. Same goes for towing: the Explorer tops out at five thousand pounds. To be fair, however, a Tahoe or Expedition would have far more towing and cargo capacity at a cost which wouldn’t be much higher. My experience pulling my race car on an open trailer with my Flex indicates that the D4 chassis is more than up to the job, but that the transmission just feels delicate. Serious towing with a sideways gearbox frightens me, and it should frighten you, too.
I was lucky enough to get some snow and ice during my time with the Explorer, and I found it to be more or less as competent as the AWD Flex, which is to say competent enough. As with the Land Rovers and Jeeps, there’s a “terrain dial” with four settings. I didn’t read the manual, but the settings are clearly for
- Truck Mode
- Spaceships And Railroad Tracks
- Cactus Proximity
- Giant Snowflakes
Rotating the dial produces a “click” and the satisfying sense that one has chosen an appropriate response for a situation. If there is any other effect, I could not discern it. The AWD system behaves about the same in all circumstances, permitting a little slip in the front before kicking the back in sans subtlety. Apparently the amount of permitted wheelspin is different in each setting, with the Spaceship setting being the most strict, just in case the aliens are police aliens looking to write tickets for street racing.
Speaking of… There’s not yet an EcoBoost option for the Explorer, whether you take “EcoBoost” to mean the fuel-economy-optimized four-cylinder option promised last year or the full-speed-ahead Taurus SHO engine that makes the Flex so entertaining to operate. Instead, there’s the single Duratec V-6 that powers most of the big Fords. It’s fast enough and it’s willing to rev when required, but if you want to hustle you’d be better off with a HEMI Durango. This isn’t aimed at the driving enthusiast. Feel free to wave your pink slip at an Enclave or a Pilot, but your neighbor’s RAV4 will show you its taillights.
Who is the Explorer customer? Well, it will have to be somebody with a decent job. Ford’s not a discount car company any more, and it’s trivially easy to bust the $40K mark when specifying an XLT, to say nothing of the Limited. The typical “intender” is probably female, upper-middle-class, image-oriented. She may have a few kids, or she may be an empty-nester. She won’t take the Explorer off-road, but then again, only a very committed few ever did, and they were used-truck buyers, not new-truck buyers. She will like the new styling — I was surprised how many positive comments I received about a vehicle which I personally thought was on the wrong side of visually generic — and she will adore the interior.
As a Ford salesman in the mid-Nineties, I continually struggled to divert Explorer buyers into Taurus wagons. I had a dozen reasons primed and ready to go in favor of the ovoid bull, from fuel economy to crash safety, with a pinch of comfort thrown in. I never made a convert. If you’re in the market for an Explorer, you’re in the market for an Explorer, period, point blank. The Flex is a fabulous vehicle, and “Kashmir” is a fabulous song, but in the long run… she’s buying a “Stairway to Heaven”.