Road Test: 2012 Ford Explorer Limited

At first glance, there is much to admire about Ford’s Explorer, completely reinvented and repackaged last year as more of a crossover than the body-on-frame SUV it once was. It is good-looking and sporty with the utilitarian nature of the two-box wagon body style (without going macho overboard). And, especially with the top Limited trim level, there is a full load of tech and convenience features to rival that found in pricier luxury rigs.

But the big deal for the 2012 model year is in the powertrain department — the addition of a new turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder, a more fuel- efficient alternative to the existing 3.5-litre V6. This makes the Explorer the first Ford model in North America to come with the EcoBoost four-banger. Some manufacturers are going the hybrid route to achieve maximum fuel efficiency in their sport-utes. Others are offering diesel engines as an alternative. Ford has hitched its wagon to boosted smaller-displacement gas engines to ease consumer pain at the pumps.

In the Explorer’s situation, this means a robust 2.0L injected turbocharged and intercooled engine to ostensibly offer the power of a V6 while delivering four-cylinder fuel economy. This direct-injected, turbocharged and intercooled engine pushes out 240 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and develops 270 pound-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm and is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

I don’t know how it would fare with seven aboard and towing a trailer but, with my wife and me and a week’s worth of groceries aboard, the stout 2,047-kilogram SUV proved reasonably peppy — at least in traffic conditions. On a foot-to-the-floor blast to 100 kilometres an hour, an acceleration time of just less than 10 seconds is OK but hardly the stuff of legend.

And consider this: 1. The EcoBoost engine is a $1,000 option. 2. Premium unleaded gas is “recommended,” especially if you want to make use of all 240 hp. 3. The turbo four is only available with front-wheel drive. If you want all-wheel drive, it’s the V6 for you. 4. Fuel economy, although better than with the V6, is not a huge improvement. A front-drive V6-powered Explorer is rated at 11.7 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 7.8 L/100 km on the highway. The EcoBoost Explorer is rated at 10.4 city and 7.0 highway.

On that last point, my own experience with the four-cylinder generated an average of 12 L/100 km during a week of suburban commuting, which, compared with other gasoline-powered mid-sized SUVs I have driven over the past couple of years (albeit AWD versions), is more than acceptable.

Less than acceptable is the Explorer’s handling; the sport-ute drives more like a minivan, with numb, heavy (electric power-assist) steering and little connection with the road. When making turns, it feels more like I’m aiming the vehicle into the corner rather than guiding it through. It’s not as though I was expecting BMW-like reflexes, but the Explorer just feels ponderous. However, it does soak up bumps and potholes with aplomb, isolating all occupants from nasty road irregularities. And the cabin is quiet; Ford engineers obviously expended considerable effort in quelling noise, vibration and harshness.

I do have a beef with the rest of the interior, though — at least with how it’s configured. The problem is that, despite its overall size, the Explorer is cramped with the seven-passenger setup (as are almost all less-than-full-sized SUVs trying to cram in three rows). Yes, the cabin is wide (at least it feels that way from the front seats) and there’s plenty of head- and legroom for those up front, but there’s insufficient legroom for adult-sized comfort in the second- or third-row of seats. And, with the back row up, cargo space is severely compromised — I had to fold the seats to make enough floor room for the aforementioned groceries. If you truly need all seven seats, Ford’s funky Flex is a better bet.

Driving the topline Limited is no hardship from a comfort and convenience standpoint — the rig is loaded. Not just that, the quality of the cabin materials and the fit and finish are certainly in keeping with the tester’s near-$50,000 price tag. This brings me to the MyFord Touch system, the super-duper interface for operating the radio, climate control and navigation system, as well as connecting with cellphones and portable music players. The system does away with most knobs and buttons — and Ford has been raked over the coals for its complexity. As a faithful adherent to keeping it simple, I find the graphics for the touchscreen and dashboard displays bright, bold — and distracting. Also, tapping the screen while wearing gloves is an exercise in futility. Still, after removing the gloves and with a bit of practice, I could navigate through the sub-menus to find what I needed. The upshot? Yes, it could be a hell of a lot more user-friendly, but I wouldn’t scratch the Explorer off my list based on MyFord Touch alone.

However, I can’t help but be disappointed with the Explorer as a whole. The SUV’s unwieldy handling is my biggest beef, followed by the tight cabin configuration and lack of AWD. As for the EcoBoost four-cylinder, it seems a complicated way to deal with fuel economy, where a more prudent solution — especially for overweight SUVs — would be to follow the German automakers’ lead and offer a diesel option.

Ultimately, good looks only go so far.

Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive mid-sized SUV
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 240 hp @ 5,500 rpm; 270 lb-ft of torque @ 1,750 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P255/50R20 (optional)
Price: base/as tested: $41,199/$48,279
Destination charge: $1,500
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 10.4 city, 7.0 hwy.
Standard features: Automatic headlights, high-intensity-discharge headlamps, keyless entry keypad, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather-trimmed power front seats with heat, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, dual-zone automatic climate control, Sync connectivity system, MyFord Touch, reverse sensing system, reverse camera, power-folding side mirrors, power windows, power liftgate, remote start, adjustable pedals with memory, body-colour front grille
Options: Equipment Group 302A ($2,800); EcoBoost engine ($1,000); dual-panel sunroof ($1,750); navigation system ($700); 20-inch polished aluminum wheels ($600)

Photograph by: Handout photo, Ford