With all the changes in the automative world in recent years, it's sometimes hard to remember that Ford once owned Land Rover, manufacturer of the Land Rover and Range Rover line of all-wheel-drive vehicles. Perhaps that's why the 2013 Ford Explorer bears more than a passing resemblance to the Range Rover, the larger of the Range Rover models. Although Ford sold Land Rover a few years before the current Explorer debuted in 2011, some similarities are obvious. They include the basic size and shape, along with the same kind of knob for selecting different all-wheel-drive settings. Both vehicles are also very stable and quiet on the road.
Of course, the Explorer sells for a lot less than the Range Rover, which is much more refined and luxurious. Then again, our top-of-the-line 2013 Explorer Sport came with a comfortable leather interior that helped give it an upscale feel. Although the Range Rover features a lot more leather in the interior, the plastic dash in the Explorer was at least soft and well-fitted.
One significant difference is found under the hood. The Range Rover offers a choice of massively powerful V8s, including a supercharged 5.0-liter version that produced over 500 horsepower. The Explorer offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four in its front-wheel-drive model and two 3.5-liter V6 engines. The base one produces 290 horsepower while the optional turbocharged one is rated at 365 horsepower.
Obviously, the Range Rover is faster than the most powerful Explorer, but most drivers should be more than satisfied with Ford's turbocharged V6, the biggest of the company's line of EcoBoost engines. Speed built up quickly through the standard six-speed automatic transmission. And it also allows owners to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Another difference is off-road abilities. The Range River comes standard with all-wheel-drive and is engineered for serious off-road travel. Although the Explorer offers all-wheel-drive, it is more suited to wet weather and mild trails. But like most Land Rovers and Range Rovers, the Explorer has an easy-to-use knob on the center console that allows drivers to quickly adjust the all-wheel-drive system for dry roads, heavy rain and snow, and sandy or rocky trails.
On the road, our test 2013 Explorer Sport was solid and comfortable, with less tire noise than some luxury cars we've driven. Like all crossovers, the seats are high off the ground, offering good views to the drive. Rear visibility was a little limited, but at least it came with a rear view camera for backing up.
Our Explorer came with MyFord Touch system. Among other things, it moves many of the climate, convenience and entertainment controls onto the large display screen in the center of the dash. One advantage is the clean appearance of the dash. Gone are many of the small buttons that plague many vehicles these days, replaced by a slick, clutter-free design. One disadvantage the fact that most of the remaining button are even smaller and harder to find quickly that before. And switching from screen to screen to make final adjustments requires too much time away from the road. Perhaps using the system will system will become natural after awhile. One week of test driving wasn't enough, however.
Once upon a time, the current Explorer would have been consider a very large SUV. The first-generation Explorer that debuted in 1990 was based on the compact Ford Ranger pickup of the time. Although it helped spark the SUV craze that undermined the sales of minivans, it was relatively unsophisticated, rising more like a stiffly sprung truck than a comfortable car. Although Explorers grew larger over time, they were still based on trucks, which made driving them a handful in downtown traffic.
In contrast, the current Explorer uses a specially designed chassis shared with the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT. Although technically a crossover, it is not actually based on a car, which is what the term originally meant. It also allowed the designers to squeeze a third row of seats into the back without stretching the Explorer to Chevy Suburban proportions. Although most suitable for children, it helps boost the Explorer's appeal as a practical family vehicle.
Being based on a specially-designed chasis allowed Ford engineers to calibrate the current Explorer's ride for comfort. The Sport version also features a sport tuned suspension that makes it more responsive that other models. Matched with the turbocharged V6 (the only engine offered in the Sport), it absorbs road imperfections with ease and allows quick lane changes when needed. Although hardly sporty by car standards, it is one of the better handling large crossovers on the market.
Also one of the better looking. The Explorer is more aerodynamic than the Range Rover, which is basically a box on a box. In comparison, the Explorer has a more streamlined front end and tapered rear end, which helps shake off the stuffiness of former sibling. In fact, from some angles it looks a little like a larger version of the Evoque, the small, sporty Range Rover that has won numerous awards for styling.
Ford debut the current Explorer as gas prices were peaking and traditional large SUVs were going the way of the dinosaurs. Judged by the numbers on the road, the crossover design and advanced features saved the pioneering model from extinction. Those who want something smaller can consider Ford's compact Escape and midsize Flex. But the redesign has kept the Explorer competitive in the field it help create, which is a real accomplishment.
Facts and figures (all models)
Model tested: 2014 Explorer Sport.
Class: Full-size crossover.
Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.
Style: Five-door SUV.
Engines: 3.5-liter V6 (290 hp, 255 ft-lbs); turbocharged 2.0-liter 4 (240 hp, 270 ft-lbs); turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 (365 hp, 360 ft-lbs - as tested).
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift modes.
Fuel Economy: 17/24/20 (3.5); 20/25/24 (T2.0); 16/22 (T3.5 - as tested).
Price: Starting at around $30,000 ($54,916 as tested).