Arguably one of the best family haulers on the market today, the Ford Explorer got a complete redesign three years ago that changed it from a traditional SUV into a more-carlike crossover.That change came after the Explorer’s astounding success over two decades as a body-on-frame truck-style sport utility.Its current exterior styling isn’t as sleek as some of the crossovers, but it’s certainly not as boxy as its predecessors.It also now comes with front-wheel drive as the standard configuration, instead of rear-wheel drive. But all-wheel drive is available on all trim levels. This is in line with the vehicle’s switch to a car-style unibody chassis.For 2014, Explorer prices begin at $29,600 (plus $895 freight) for the base front-drive model, and range as high as $40,780 for the top-of-the-line Sport model with four-wheel drive and a 350-horsepower, 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost engine.Our tester for this report was the four-wheel-drive 2014 Limited model, with a base price of $40,100.Changes for 2014 include a new electric power steering system, which Ford says provides more input to the driver on- or off-road; larger brakes for shorter stopping distances; and better towing performance. New exterior colors are Sunset and Dark Side.Even with the carlike construction, the Explorer has a solid, heavy, confident feel to it, just as though it were still a truck. That makes it a bit more trucklike in its handling than some of the sleeker crossovers, such as Ford’s own Edge. But that’s probably a concession to longtime Explorer owners, who might not want the typical crossover feel.Ride comfort is much better than before, though, and our tester’s leather front bucket seats were easy on the backside over a long highway drive.Underneath, the Explorer has the same general architecture as the smaller Edge and its larger, boxier sibling, the Flex. All three take their basic chassis designs from the Ford Taurus and Volvo S80 full-size sedans.The Explorer was originally introduced in fall 1990, built on the Ford Ranger compact pickup chassis. Later it moved to the chassis of the F-150 pickup before switching to the car-style platform for 2011.As with the Flex, the Explorer has a third-row seat and can accommodate up to seven people (six with the optional pair of captain’s chairs in the second row). The Edge holds only five.Our tester came with the base 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which cranks out 290 horsepower and 255 foot-pounds of torque (the same engine is used in the Edge and Flex). EPA ratings are 17 mpg city/25 highway with front drive, and 17/23 with four-wheel drive. That’s a 25 percent improvement over the highway mileage of the previous generation.A six-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models. Also available is a 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine ($995) with 240 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque. We had plenty of power with the V-6 engine, and the transmission shifted smoothly and never seemed to be gear hunting on downhill or uphill grades. The base model with four-wheel drive begins at $31,600; the midlevel XLT starts at $32,600 with front drive, and $34,600 with four-wheel drive. The Limited model begins at $38,100 with front drive.Even though four-wheel drive is offered, the Explorer no longer is suitable for serious off-road driving, something that is disappointing to those who enjoyed trail riding in the previous models. The four-wheel drive now has no low-range gearing, but it is designed to be at least marginally off-road capable. It includes a terrain-management system like some trail-ready vehicles, such as the Land Rover LR4. The terrain system includes settings for snow, sand, mud and normal driving. A knob allows the driver to choose the most-appropriate setting. There also is a hill-descent mode for steep downgrades.There is more head and shoulder room than in the previous generation, along with flexible seating that can be configured for more cargo and fewer passengers. Also available are second-row inflatable rear seatbelts. Ford added them to help protect children, who can be more vulnerable to head, chest and neck injuries.The system is designed to "spread impact forces across more than five times the area than conventional seat belts, reducing pressure on the chest while helping to control head and neck motion," Ford said. Those belts were part of a $6,460 package on our tester that also brought luxury seating, navigation, a power liftgate, blind-spot information system, active park assist, lane-departure warning and assist, radar cruise control, and rain-sensing wipers, among other features.Three rows of seating are standard; the two bucket seats available for the middle row add some comfort at the expense of a passenger position, and cost an additional $750. They were not installed on our tester, which had the full middle bench seat.Standard safety features include such innovations such as Curve Control, a form of electronic stability control that helps keep the vehicle upright even as it negotiates sharp turns; and a special front-impact structure.A rigid body structure helps keep occupants safe. It includes a boron front bumper beam, hydro-formed front frame rails, and high-strength steel side-impact tubes. Also included is Ford’s SOS post-crash alert system, similar to GM’s OnStar. Side-curtain air bags are installed in all three rows.Among other standard features are the electric power steering, low-rolling-resistance tires and a more-aerodynamic exterior for better fuel economy. Included are a front air dam and rear liftgate spoiler to help air move smoothly over the vehicle.Other high-tech features include the MyFord Touch driver-connect system and the Microsoft-developed SYNC integrated communications and entertainment system.These systems respond to voice commands to help keep the driver’s attention on the road and hands on the wheel, but they can be confusing and difficult to use, and can take the driver’s attention off the road way too much.This newest Explorer weighs about 100 pounds less than its predecessor through use of lighter materials, including an aluminum hood. A variable-displacement air-conditioning compressor is designed to help improve fuel economy by putting less drag on the engine, Ford says.With the V-6 engine, the Explorer can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds. We had the $570 trailer-towing package on our tester.Standard on all models are an air-filtration system, capless fuel-filler system, cruise control, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, tilt and telescopic steering column, four 12-volt power outlets, and rear cargo hooks.XLT models also get automatic headlights, a manual-shift feature for the automatic transmission, a keyless-entry keypad, a reverse-sensing system, heated outside mirrors with built-in turn-signal indicators, and a perimeter alarm.The Limited model adds power-fold outside mirrors, ambient lighting, a cargo net, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-way power driver’s seat with recline and lumbar-support features, rearview camera system, remote start, a 110-volt power outlet, an intelligent key with pushbutton start, and a universal garage/gate opener.Cargo hauling is easy with the drop-down rear and middle seats. There is 21 cubic feet of space behind the third seat, but that expands to 43.8 cubic feet with the third-row seatback folded down.Total price of the test vehicle was $47,165, including freight and options.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at email@example.com.