I have five critically important things to tell you about Ford Motor’s Explorer Hybrid:
First, all the launch woes of the then-all-new 2020 Explorer appear to have been rectified here in 2021. The many documented problems Ford endured with the arrival of a reinvented Explorer were so egregious, one of Ford’s most senior executives was fired (or took “retirement”). The botched launch also very likely hastened the welcome departure of the former CEO, too.
But the nightmare of a botched new-model introduction of one of Ford’s most important, most profitable rides, is history. You can buy a 2021 Explorer feeling relatively confident in the quality and reliability.
Second, the most important interactive tool here in this SUV (sport-utility vehicle), the infotainment screen, is ludicrously small in this age of large, useful, engaging screens – with the standard well established by Tesla and followed quickly by others, such as Volvo and Kia/Hyundai. How Ford’s product planners managed to botch the screen that allows you to successfully interact with the Explorer’s many and varied electronic functions is mystery for the ages. What were they thinking? Cost-cutting? Yes, I am aware of the better screen available in pricier, still, Explorers.
Look, please, go test drive the newest Explorer with its teeny screen and then compare it to, say, Kia’s newly reinvented Sorento. You will see precisely what I mean. The Sorento has a screen that stretches across the top of the centre console, with readouts far sharper than the Explorer’s, and better functionality. I’ll put it this way: the Explorer’s screen is an iPhone 5 at a time of iPhone 12s. Ugh.
Third, you want the Hybrid version of the Explorer, hands down. It’s a triumph of performance and fuel economy and adds just $3,000 to the sticker price.
Base, XL and XLT Explorers come with a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-banger that on paper looks strong enough: 300 horsepower/310 lbs-ft of torque. But this little Ecoboost engine is raspy and noisy when pushed hard, say when towing or carrying a big, heavy payload up a steep and long stretch of highway. British Columbia’s Coquihalla Highway comes to mind.
The Hybrid, rated at 318 hp/322 lbs-ft, looks only marginally more powerful than the 2.3, yet in real-world driving it delivers, smooth, seamless hybrid power and is particularly attractive for those tow. Like all Explorers, the gearbox is a 10-speed automatic and all those ratios help to maximize performance. Fuel economy, 9.6 litres/100 km combined, is fine – and you need only fill up with regular fuel.
Fourth, the second-row bucket seats are abysmal. Again, what were the product planners thinking? They are undersized, poorly padded and, worse, not elevated such that the kids who are likely going to be sitting back there in this family rig will spend their time looking at the front buckets’ headrests. This is a recipe for car sickness.
Look, theatre-style seating – slightly and importantly elevated second and even third rows – is not a novelty nor a revelation. Ford’s designers and engineers have surely seen this in competitors. So, what happened with the Explorer?
As for the third row in my tester, this is a small space for short-term rides involving little people who are as flexible as a Cirque performer. Thankfully, they flop down easily, with quick access from the rear through a hands-free tailgate that I absolutely love.
Finally, design. Here, Ford thoroughly nailed things. This is a strong look, very consistent with the Explorer’s long and successful heritage, but modern and tidy in its shapes and proportions.
A few other thoughts.
The ride quality is first-rate, very driveable and with a welcome lack of roll in cornering for such a tall, all-wheel-drive rig, such as was my tester painted in a handsome Infinite Blue (extra $450). That lovely paint job added, of course, to my $53,799 well-equipped tester.
Kudos to Ford for its Co-Pilot 360 system, with all its standard driver-assist features which in my sample rig included adaptive cruise control (a must for long trips) and voice-activated navigation. The final price, not including $1,900 for destination and delivery, came to $56,949. Not cheap.
But then, there is nothing cheap about the current Explorer; even the least expensive, non-hybrid, is listed in the mid-$40,000s. Yes, the Hybrid XLT is another $10,000, but I would argue it’s worth every penny for anyone who truly wants an Explorer.
Now, Ford, what about that infotainment screen?