They’re known as Generation Z, the gaggle of post-Millennials whose eldest members are just now legal in the pubs and bars of America. They’ve never known a world that did not include the Ford Explorer, and hundreds of thousands of them were shuttled in Explorers owned by mommies and daddies who had absolutely no intention of going anywhere off-road, but wanted something big, roomy, and equipped with 4-wheel drive.
Among midsize crossover SUVs, the Explorer still leads the pack in terms of overall sales – at last count, Ford sells 50 percent more Explorers than Toyota does the second-place Highlander.
Of course, it helps that the Explorer has become the vehicle of choice for many law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Now that the outdated Crown Victoria sedan is officially dead, the CHP (and police departments across the country) has adopted the Explorer as its favorite black-and-white patrol vehicle.
Not only does the Explorer meet the CHP’s acceleration, braking, and handling demands, it easily handles payload requirements for officers and all their gear.
Based on my week test-driving a 2014 Ford Explorer Limited, it’s easy to understand why this roomy SUV is so popular, both with everyday consumers and with police departments. It offers plenty of practicality combined with impressive performance for a reasonable price. But the Explorer is not quite perfect.
Civilian versions are equipped with three rows of seats designed to carry up to seven passengers. The good news is that the Explorer’s third-row seat is big enough for adults, and the cushion sits high enough off the floor to provide adequate thigh support and a good view out.
Unfortunately, this means that the second-row seat is relatively cramped in terms of legroom. Plus, the middle seating location is useful only for children. It sure would be nice if the Explorer’s second-row seat could be moved back to provide extra leg space when the third-row seat is folded down.
Up front, the Explorer’s seats are comfortable, but they’re on the small side and mounted toward the center of the vehicle. Additionally, the doors are unusually far away and this, combined with the undersized seat cushions, thick roof pillars and horizontal interior design themes, makes the driver and front passenger feel like they’ve just become extras in “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” (C’mon Gen Z’ers, you must remember that direct-to-video cinematic gem!)
Aside from the second-row seat legroom issue, and the fact that getting into or out of the back seat can be tricky, there are few reasons to complain about a Ford Explorer Limited. The MyFord Touch touch-screen infotainment system remains occasionally befuddling, but you get used to the touch-sensitive radio and climate controls. Eventually.
Ford also needs to improve the Explorer’s “Marginal” small overlap frontal-impact crash-test rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In all other respects, however, this is one heckuva safe SUV, especially when loaded up with the impressive list of safety-related options.
Carrying cargo is easy. Like a minivan, the Explorer has a storage well behind its third-row seat, allowing this SUV to accommodate more stuff than competitors when also used to carry the maximum number of passengers. Fold the third-row seat and the Explorer provides a big 43.8 cu.-ft. cargo space. Maximum capacity tops out at 80.7 cu.-ft.
The Explorer also has a style all its own, a genuine trick to pull off in a segment where every model is basically a couple of boxes perched on wheels. From the distinctive grille treatments and tastefully swollen fender flares, to the subdued lower body cladding and blacked-out pillars that create a floating roof effect, the Explorer looks different and it looks relatively tough (for a family-toting SUV).
Ford offers three different engines for the 2014 Explorer. Two of them are members of Ford’s turbocharged “EcoBoost” family of motors, but the 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 is presently the most popular choice in the lineup. A 6-speed automatic transmission is standard with this engine, delivering power to the SUV’s front wheels. Depending on the chosen specs, a properly equipped Explorer can tow 5,000 pounds. All-wheel drive is optional.
Dynamically, the Explorer impresses, but with one caveat. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine is just strong enough to motivate the Explorer’s hefty curb-weight, which is more than 4,500 pounds before you start adding people and cargo. As a result, the engine works hard, and my test vehicle averaged only 18 mpg, which is less than the EPA’s estimate of 19 mpg in combined driving. To be fair, that’s not really out of line with many of the Explorer’s direct competitors.
Otherwise, the only problem with driving the Explorer is related to outward visibility. As mentioned previously, this SUV’s roof pillars are thick, and the side mirrors are small and suffer significant reflection from the outboard dash vents on sunny days. Because the driver sits so low behind the massive dashboard and bulging hood, it’s hard to place this SUV’s front corners when parking.
As far as the ride and handling are concerned, however, Ford makes this sizable SUV feel remarkably athletic. The Limited model’s standard 20-inch wheels and tires helped, but the Explorer also tackled Southern California’s Mulholland Highway with remarkable grace.
No matter where you’re driving it, the Explorer’s electric steering and brake pedal are perfectly calibrated, making it easy to drive this SUV very smoothly. In the past, I’ve taken an Explorer on a long family trip, and can attest to its solid and secure feeling on the open road.
And yes, the Explorer is capable of light off-roading. As you might expect, the ultimate lack of ground clearance and wheel articulation limits how far you can actually explore once the pavement ends.
A better rating in the IIHS’ off-set crash test, along with a rethinking of the middle row seating arrangement, would be welcome improvements. As it stands, the 2014 Ford Explorer delivers a compelling blend of style, safety, practicality, and technology in a package that is genuinely pleasing to drive. That’s why the Explorer remains so popular with families more than two decades after it ignited America’s passion for SUVs.