The 2017 Ford Explorer adds a sport appearance package and Sync 3, both of which are important to today's SUV buyers.
The 2017 Ford Explorer enters the new model year largely unchanged after a light overhaul last year with smoother bodywork, improved interior features, enhanced sound deadening, and a new mid-range engine option that's greatly improved over previous generations.
The Explorer remains a decidedly family-focused seven-seat crossover and it is hugely popular with consumers.
For 2017, the main event is a XLT Sport Appearance Package that makes accessible the meaner look from last year's Sport trim—don't worry, the Sport is still there this year too. The new Sync 3 infotainment system gets second-billing, and rightfully so. It rids us of the painful MyFord Touch system, but it still has its issues. It's slicker, but still not a better alternative to Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
We rate the Explorer as a 6.7 out of 10 overall—it was terrific at its launch, but some rivals best it in a few key ways and we are less than impressed with its safety record. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Power to Explorer
The Ford Explorer is best when considered a front-wheel-drive (or all-wheel-drive) family wagon—not a rough-and-tumble SUV. To its credit, Ford doesn't boast much about the SUV's off-road chops beyond mentioning its "Snow" mode. It can, when properly equipped, tow 5,000 pounds, seat up to seven, and boast interior amenities befitting a luxury ride. Do we miss locking the hubs and low range of Explorers from yesteryear? Not even a little bit.
The base and XLT Explorers get a 3.5-liter V-6, which is used on Fords far and wide, from Flex to Fusion. In the Explorer, it's rated at 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque and capable of mid-8-second runs up to 60 mph. It's mated to a 6-speed automatic and can power all four wheels in XLT trims and higher. We won't scoff at the base engine's potential; it's more potent than many of the old V-8s.
Optional on XLT and FWD Limited models and standard on all-wheel-drive (AWD) Limited models, the new-ish turbocharged 2.3-liter turbo inline-4 is a compelling option for many buyers. It's related to the engines found in the Lincoln MKC and Ford Mustang, and is rated in the Explorer at 280 hp and 310 lb-ft. That's up significantly over the old 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, and more importantly, it's rated to tow more too: up to 3,000 pounds. It's better in every respect and it's worth considering over the base engine.
At the top end of the Explorer spectrum is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, which was uprated in 2016 to 365 hp and 350 lb-ft. It comes online with all-wheel drive in Platinum and Sport models and embodies restrained fun. It's more fired up than old V-8 engines in the Explorer, but far from Jeep's Grand Cherokee SRT model. We'll suggest that it's close to an Explorer SHO, if there could be such a thing. The Sport edition gets 20-inch wheels, upgraded brakes, and a stiffer front body structure—but it's not entirely sporty.
Safe and smart
Safety ratings for the 2017 Ford Explorer aren't out yet, but it's structurally unchanged from last year's model that was comprehensively tested by both major U.S. safety organizations. We can confidently carry over last year's ratings to this year's vehicle.
The 2016 Ford Explorer nearly aced federal testing with a perfect five-star overall rating. The only blemish: a four-star score for rollover safety, which is common among tall-riding SUVs.
Independent testing by the IIHS is another story. The 2016 Ford Explorer received top "Good" scores in moderate-front overlap crash, side impact and roof strength tests, but only "Marginal" in the small-overlap crash test. That's perplexing to us, considering the Explorer is one year removed from an overhaul and Ford's experience with the F-150 in small-overlap crash testing. It's not clear if Ford will change the 2017 Explorer to ace IIHS tests—they've done it before with the F-150—so we'll update this section after we've asked Ford.
Everything you'd expect on an SUV that starts over $30,000 is here: power windows, mirrors, and locks; Bluetooth connectivity; cruise control; cloth upholstery; steering-wheel controls; and AM/FM/CD stereo with 4.2-inch display and six speakers.
One step above the basic Explorer is the XLT trim, which adds 18-inch wheels, keyless ignition, a chrome-colored lower fascia, satellite radio, and 10-way power driver's seat.
This year's Sport Appearance Package adds to the XLT 20-inch wheels, a gray grille insert and rear applique, black roof rack, and gray leather seating with gray suede accents and contrast stitching.
Above the XLT is the Limited trim, which is a heat-seeking missile aimed at pleasing everyone, all the time. The near-luxury package adds 20-inch wheels, heated steering wheel, interior ambient lighting, leather seating, heated and cooled front seats, heated second row, and power folding third row. The sound system is upgraded to a 12-speaker Sony unit and AWD Limited models get the more potent 2.3-liter turbo inline-4 as standard (it's optional on the other models).
Sport and Platinum trims add the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 and sport tuning (Sport) or luxury appointments (Platinum). The two lines are very different takes on "sport" and "luxury" and we'd say the latter gets much closer to its goal than the former.
The base V-6 Explorer only offers middling fuel economy. The 290-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic is rated at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined, according to the EPA. Adding AWD drops those ratings by one in every category.
The next engine in the lineup, the 2.3-liter turbo inline-4, does better. Front-drive models manage 19/28/22 mpg, and AWD versions return 18/26/21 mpg. The least efficient—but perhaps most fun—engine is the turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 that returns 16/22/18 mpg.