By KBB.com Editors - Updated Date: 10/24/2011
Twenty-odd years ago, Ford's Explorer introduced America to the new wagon, a truck-based SUV large enough to carry the family and all their gear, but not much larger than average mid-size sedan of the day. Over its long run the Explorer had its up and downs, but while the Explorer name carries on into the 21st century, the vehicle that now wears it couldn't be more different from the original. Instead of a truck chassis, the Explorer is wrapped in a unit body, meaning its construction is stamped and welded into a single frame making it both lighter and stronger. The 2012 Ford Explorer can still hold seven passengers or any number of bulky items, but its interior is now more sophisticated, as is its suspension, engine and available all-wheel-drive system. Set to do battle with the Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse, the Explorer has its work cut out for it. And, where the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee offer a powerful V8 engine, no such muscle exists under the Explorer's hood. That's because Ford has chosen to go a more economical route, offering a V6 and a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that provide plenty of power with superior fuel economy. The Explorer also relies on a host of innovative electronic and technology triumphs that help it keep one step ahead of the competition. Ironically, the one vehicle that stands to lose market share to the Explorer is its own sibling, the Ford Flex.
You'll like the 2012 Ford Explorer if you seek the tall ride height and useful interior space provided by a traditional mid-size SUV, but not the poor handling and fuel economy penalty. The 2012 Explorer is exceptionally well mannered, has a beautifully designed interior and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
While the 2012 Ford Explorer's available four-wheel-drive (4WD) system is one of the most versatile Ford has produced, it is not intended for serious off-roading. Those who need to tow more than 5,000 pounds will have to look to the Explorer's V8-powered competitors.
Ford's EcoBoost 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is added to the front-wheel-drive Explorer's option list. The EcoBoost engine produces 240 horsepower when fed premium fuel and is expected to return fuel economy figures in the high 20s.
It takes only a few minutes behind the wheel of the 2012 Ford Explorer to realize this is no old-fashioned truck-based SUV. The stiff body banishes squeaks and rattles from the passenger compartment, while the adept suspension aided by Ford's Curve Control system tackles winding roads like a lithe sports sedan. Match that with a bounty of standard computer-controlled handling aids, impressively weighted electrically-boosted power steering and more than capable anti-lock disc brakes, and the Explorer turns in a world-class open-road experience. Our short time testing the Terrain Management 4-wheel-drive system netted some pretty impressive results, especially considering the Explorer's modest 7.6 inches of ground clearance and somewhat soft suspension. Still, we wouldn't put this vehicle up against a Toyota 4Runner, for example, whose body-on-frame architecture and hi/lo transfer case make it more conducive to serious off-road challenges. Then again, few truck-based SUVs can match the 2012 Explorer's outstanding fuel economy, exceptional cabin comfort, user-focused functionality plus class-leading connectivity, all of which make the Ford Explorer a most accommodating travel mate.
My Ford Touch
This latest and most capable version of Ford's driver-connect technology is standard on the Explorer Limited and available on the XLT. It utilizes an even more advanced and expanded version of the automaker's SYNC voice-command system to allow and facilitate a broader range of input commands for the audio, navigation, climate control and phone systems.
A world-exclusive, this standard safety enhancement automatically senses when the vehicle is entering a given corner too quickly and automatically engages throttle and braking intervention to help it maintain the desired driving path.
Look inside a Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Pathfinder and you'll find the same dash and door panels as in their pickup truck counterparts. But, look inside the 2012 Ford Explorer and you'll see something entirely different. The elegant cabin is awash in high-quality, soft-touch surfaces, with careful attention to detail found in the most minute places. The Explorer's instrument cluster is clean and simple on the base models, and on XLT and Limited can be upgraded to include the MyFord Touch package that features configurable LCD screens in place of the traditional analog gauges. Features like the media hub, four 12-volt outlets and numerous storage spots speak to the needs of today's mobile electronics, while supportive seats in all three rows provide plenty of room for adults. At the rear, a single-piece rear liftgate opens to expose 15.7 cubic feet of cargo space, which can be expanded to a maximum of 80.7 cubic feet by folding down both rows of rear seats.
Where the Explorers of old were easily identified by their square edges and boxy upright cabins, the 2012 Explorer displays a different attitude. The lines are more elegant and the boldly rakish front end sets the tone for the rest of the Explorer's design, which includes reverse-raked C-pillars and blacked-out A-, B-, and D-pillars. The Explorer's tall doors and lower roof give it a slick, almost gangster look that mirrors the Ford Taurus, but the design is an optical illusion because there is plenty of head room inside as well as ground clearance below (7.6 inches to be exact). The Explorer's wide track benefits interior occupants with more hip and shoulder room, as well as greatly aids in improved handling and cornering. Finishing the exterior embellishments are standard 17-inch wheels on the base models, with 18-inchers on the XLT and massive 20-inch alloys on the Limited models.
In addition to its 290-horsepower V6 engine and 6-speed automatic transmission, the base 2012 Ford Explorer boasts numerous power assists, MyFord driver connectivity, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with media hub, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering column and more. The XLT adds interior/exterior trim embellishments, auto headlights, foglights, 18-inch wheels/tires, rearview camera with zoom function, premium cloth upholstery, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, SecuriCode keyless-entry pad and the SelectShift feature. Leather-upholstered, the Limited gets all that and the XLT's Driver Connect and Comfort Packages – plus a Sony premium audio system with HD Radio. Safety items include AdvanceTrak with Roll Stability Control and Curve Control, Hill Start Assist, anti-lock brakes (ABS), front/front-side/side-curtain airbags and a rollover sensor.
All Explorers offer four-wheel drive (4WD) with multi-mode Terrain Management System and Hill Descent Control. Base model upgrades include SIRIUS Satellite Radio and a tow-prep package while XLT buyers can add the Driver Connect (MyFord Touch/SYNC, premium audio, dual-zone climate control, and rearview camera) and Comfort Packages (all that plus heated leather seats). The Limited's Luxury Seating Package (perforated leather, heated/cooled front buckets, power-folding third-row seat, power liftgate and voice-activated navigation system) is available with/without the 302A Group (Blind Spot Information System, adaptive cruise control, Auto Park, HID headlamps and rain-sensing wipers). Single XLT/Limited options include navigation, dual-panel power moonroof, power liftgate, inflatable second-row outboard seatbelts and the blind spot system.
The 2012 Explorer's standard engine is Ford's high-tech 3.5-liter Ti-VCT (twin-independent variable camshaft timing) V6 that makes 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. Teamed to a 6-speed automatic, this engine earns a class-leading 17/25 mpg city/highway EPA numbers in front-drive Explorers and 17/23 mpg marks in the 4WD versions; it also serves up 60 mph in roughly 8.0 seconds and gives the Explorer a 5,000-pound max-tow rating. Optional on front-drive models is the new 2.0-liter turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine that churns out 240 ponies and 270 pound-feet of twist, but is recommended to run on premium fuel. Fuel economy ratings for the EcoBoost are an estimated 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
2.0-liter turbocharged in-line 4
240 horsepower @ 5,500 rpm
270 lb-ft of torque @ 1,750-4,000 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 20/28
290 horsepower @ 6,500 rpm
255 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 17/25 (FWD), 17/23 (4WD)
The Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) on the 2012 Ford Explorer starts right at $29,000 for a base model with an Explorer XLT opening around $32,000 and the top-line Explorer Limited commanding close to $38,500. Opting for 4-wheel drive will add another $2,000, but even a fully loaded base Explorer should still slip in around $35,000. Although more extensive personalization choices on the XLT and Limited can add $4,000-$5,000 to their bottom lines, they remain solid buys relative to their peers when new. Before you head to the dealership, check the Fair Purchase Price on kbb.com to ensure that you're getting the best deal at your local Ford dealership. When it comes to resale, KBB projects they'll also retain better-than-average residual values over time.