A lot has changed in the past 26 years, but this still rings true: The Ford Explorer is midsize SUV royalty. More than any other nameplate, it brought the newfangled sport-utility vehicle into suburbs, as a big, comfortable replacement to the niche Bronco II. Since then, its become a fixture of the American landscape. There are probably several in your neighborhood right now. It’s also been established as the snack of choice for the T-Rex, and was likely the last police car that pulled you over. Ford sold 224,000 of them in 2015 alone, making it far and away the best-selling mid-sizer in the U.S. It beat that for 2016.
I had a 2016 Explorer Platinum for a week, and it really was a case where you don’t notice just how many Explorers there are out there until you’re driving one. Maybe it was a location thing; after all, I’m at the focal point of the Tri-State area, a 13,318 square mile region where over 10% of all SUVs sold in America go. What’s more, the Explorer has proven to be the best-selling SUV here with millennials. Not the smaller Edge or Escape, the Explorer. “Public perception of millennials is about 10 years out of date,” Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle told me. “They don’t have a skateboard under their arm anymore, and they aren’t going to buy what they did 10 years ago.”
Kids with their first taste of independence are going to move to the city, own a small car (or no car at all), and keep marketing and ad men up at night as they figure out how to sell everything from computers to fast food to these damn kids. But 25- to 34-year-olds are going to get married, have kids, and move to the suburbs, just like their parents. And 25- to 34-year-olds are buying Explorers like never before. No wonder I liked it so much, I’m right in the middle of that demographic.
The Explorer got a substantial refresh for 2016, returning to a rugged square-shouldered look that’s been missing from this generation since it debuted in 2011. New from the A-pillar forward, it’s an inch longer than the ’15 model, and while it’s big (16.5 feet long, 2.5 tons), it wears all that sheet metal well. Overall, the redesign is both masculine and refined, walking that line better than most of its competitors.
In Platinum trim — a range-topping spec that’s new for ’16 — the Explorer gets handsome 20-inch rims, fog lights, extra chrome accents, and a dual panel moonroof. My test Explorer came in a deep metallic shade of blue called “Blue Jeans,” a gorgeous color that wouldn’t have looked out of place on your grandfather’s Lincoln Continental. Paired with the Platinum exterior upgrades and tinted windows, the Explorer looks upmarket and substantial, just like you’d expect an (as tested) $53,815 SUV to.
Exterior pros and cons
+ The ’16 facelift instantly makes the Explorer one of the best-looking SUVs in its segment.
+ The Satin chrome, 20-inch rims, and dark paint color on my tester gave it a presence that made it stand out everywhere I went.
+ “Blue Jeans” is hands down one of the best colors offered by any manufacturer. I hope it (or something similar) is available on the ’17 Lincoln Continental.
– Rear fascia doesn’t look all that different than it did in 2011.
– Matte plastic lower cladding is certainly rugged, but from certain angles, it clashes with the chrome and deep paint.
– The Big C-pillars aren’t your friends when it’s time to change lanes.
Before 2016, the only Explorer with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 was the Sport model, which starts at $43,500. Now the new Platinum has it too, for all the customers who want every option the Explorer has to offer and all that power. Much has been made of the EcoBoost, and rightfully so; the 600-horsepower twin-turbo mill found in the Ford GTs racing at Le Mans this year isn’t all that different than the one found in the Platinum — just don’t expect Ferrari-beating power. Its 365 horses and 350 pound-feet of torque are enough to make the big SUV feel plenty quick, making on-ramps and highway passing a breeze, and allowing you to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Paired with a six-speed automatic, that power is smoothly sent to the front wheels until you select four-wheel drive, available through a Range Rover-esque dial on the center console. It came in handy on my brief, dry off-roading jaunt, and it left me wishing that I had more time to run through all the terrain settings, especially the hill-descent control.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Yes, the Platinum’s 3.5-liter V6 is a close cousin to the engine found in the GT. Instant bragging rights.
+ Even without the supercar’s 600 horsepower, it’s plenty quick for its size.
+ Nice throaty engine note when accelerating suits the Explorer perfectly.
– Even in an age when engines are covered in plastic, there isn’t much to see under the hood. I pity the poor mechanic who has to change your spark plugs.
– With an average 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway, it likes to drink gas.
– The only transmission is a six-speed automatic at a time when the competition is moving to eight- and nine-speed units. We wouldn’t be surprised if Ford’s new 10-speed auto is offered in the next-gen model.
EcoBoost aside, the interior is the real reason why you’d want to upgrade to the Platinum, and it doesn’t disappoint. The first thing you notice is the massive expanse of leather that covers the dashboard. Not some of the dashboard, like its competitors; all of it, save for the defrost vents and advance collision warning light below the windshield. Along with the aluminum and (thankfully real) ash wood trim, virtually everything you touch feels high quality. This extends to the doors, shift knob, steering wheel, and anywhere you or your passengers will spend any time.
The wide, quilted leather bucket seats are firm, supportive, heated and cooled, and surprisingly well-bolstered for such a luxury-oriented SUV, all things I had the chance to get very well acquainted with them while stuck in traffic for 10 hours on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. But the end of my 200-mile ordeal, I didn’t feel fatigued or stressed — something I couldn’t have said while stuck on the I-95 corridor. The same can be said for the second-row captain’s chairs, which have their own HVAC controls, with vents in the center console and overhead.
There’s plenty of room for a full-size adult in the second row, but the third row is cramped for adults. My Platinum had power stowing rear seats, which folded and retracted them into a deep well in front of the tailgate, creating a cavernous flat floor that looked like it could swallow anything short of a sheet of plywood. Who says you need to sacrifice utility for luxury?
Interior pros and cons
+ Leather, wood, and metal trim make the Platinum feel truly special.
+ Seats stay comfortable whether you’re driving through rolling farmland or stuck in holiday traffic.
+ Luxury extends all the way to the third-row seats.
– But those seats are pretty cramped for adults.
– There isn’t much hard plastic inside, but what there is (glovebox door, door bins) stands out amid the opulence.
– The Platinum is just as rugged as any Explorer, but we’d be nervous hauling mulch, paint, a lawn mower, or anything that could mess up such a nice interior.
Tech and safety
Along with the generously-appointed interior, the Platinum has just about everything you can get in the Explorer as standard equipment (the only options my tester had were the second-row bucket seats and console). That means you get the full-power memory seats, power tilt wheel, and three-zone climate control (including the rear seats) for comfort, plus voice-activated Sync with MyFord Touch infotainment system, the lane-keeping system, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitors, trailer sway control, 180 degree camera, and Ford’s automatic parking function with its 12 sensors, all included in the name of safety. Information for all these systems is shared by the MID (which cleverly spills over into the digital center of the tach), and the big, clear touchscreen.
Also notable is the 500-watt, 12-speaker Sony stereo system, with its standard Clear Phase software that refines and boosts the audio signal. The result is a big, booming sound that fills the big interior and keeps things crystal clear, whether it’s coming from the CD player or the standard satellite radio. Simply put, the system is one of the best on the market, and was nearly as impressive as the Meridian system I tested in the $148K Range Rover Autobiography earlier this year.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Lane-keeping system and blind spot monitoring systems make the big truck easy to drive anywhere, from Manhattan traffic to narrow rural roads.
+ Comprehensive yet discreet steering wheel controls make accessing Sync a breeze without taking your hands off the road, and if you hate buttons, voice control is a gem.
+ We’re glad to see that there are plenty of analog controls to augment the touchscreen.
– The touchscreen can feel a bit slow sometimes, especially when typing in an address.
– The screen also has a knack for collecting fingerprints. The ones in the photo above were from a morning’s worth of driving.
– Lane-keeping system gets a little too presumptive in city driving, but then again, we’d rather have it working than not.
I was able to run the Platinum through a little of everything in the week I had it: grueling Manhattan traffic, miles of highway (and highway gridlock), rolling rural roads, a little off-roading, and even some twisty mountain roads. In almost every situation, it performed like a champ; eating up city potholes as deftly as it did highway miles, and while it felt ponderous on tighter winding roads, it can be given a pass — it is a two-and-a-half ton SUV, after all.
Wrap up and review
It’s been said that the Escalade largely occupies the space that the full-size, loaded Fleetwoods did a generation ago in Cadillac’s lineup, and I think the same can be said for the Explorer Platinum. It’s Ford’s big, tasteful, luxury offering, filling a space occupied by the Crown Victoria a generation ago, and the LTD, and Galaxie 500 before that. Except of course the Explorer can tow a 5,000-pound boat and can go off-road. And people my age are buying them like crazy.
Millennials aren’t just buying the entry-level trucks either. The range-topping Sport and Platinum make up over one-quarter of all Explorer sales, proving that there really is a market for this new everything-but-the-kitchen-sink model. It should be more than enough to help it retain the midsize SUV sales crown yet again, and after a week in one, I think it probably deserves it.
Next to the competition, the Explorer looks cleaner and more upscale than most of its competition, which runs the style gamut from too busy (the Toyota Highlander), to forgettable (the Chevy Traverse). And inside, the level of comfort and luxury makes it feel like a bargain even with its $50K-plus price tag, and its arsenal of safety and tech features are integrated in a way that’s clean, user-friendly, and never feels overwhelming.
The Explorer Platinum is a well-executed, legitimate luxury SUV that masks any flaws it has with loads of modern tech, all-American luxury, and a new look that gives it a presence that’s often missing in the segment slotting just below offerings from BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Lexus. Entering adulthood is rarely painless, but it doesn’t seem all that difficult when you’re behind the wheel of reigning SUV royalty.