2013 Ford Explorer Driving Impressions

The Ford Explorer has the practicality, function and family-friendly features of good minivans, with a more rugged appeal and real off-road capability.

The optional 2.0 EcoBoost engine packs significant wallop for its size. With a peak of 240 horsepower, the 2.0 EcoBoost makes 50 fewer horsepower than Explorer's standard 3.5-liter V6, or 17 percent less. Yet the four-cylinder is nearly 50 percent smaller than the V6 by displacement. It has more torque than the V6, and better EPA mileage ratings.

Yet the problem with the 2.0 EcoBoost engine in the Explorer is that a lot of drivers will be keeping it floored a lot of the time. It often seems like it's working really hard, with a lot of sound and fury to minimal effect. If fuel-economy is a very high priority, the 2.0 EcoBoost will get the job done. But we'd guess most owners would be happier with the 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6.

Ford's dual-overhead cam, all-aluminum V6 is quite efficient in is own right. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with optional manual shifting, the V6 is smooth and responsive, with good acceleration and plenty of torque to maintain 80 mph on an uphill freeway, after a smooth and welcome kickdown to fifth gear.

We drove nearly 200 miles in a V6 Explorer, mostly at about 60 mph on casual two-lanes with about a dozen freeway miles running uphill to 80 mph, and averaged about 17 mpg. Before we got on the throttle on the freeway, we saw a 20-mpg average.

Ford put all the engineering effort it could muster into the Explorer, and got the ride, handling, and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) results it hoped for. The rigid chassis and careful tuning of the independent suspension produce a superb all-around ride. It takes corners and undulations flat, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering allows it to turn relatively tight and quick.

We sampled the AWD Explorer on an off-road course, and we've never tested anything off road that absorbed deep ruts and huge humps so smoothly. We're talking 10 mph here. It was as if the Explorer had a few extra feet of travel in the suspension.

The Explorer's optional all-wheel drive system has no transfer case. That saves weight, and minimizes the fuel-mileage penalty that invariably comes with AWD. Instead, the Explorer maximizes off-road traction with a fancy electronic-control system called Terrain Management.

There are four modes to the system, which the driver sets with a knob behind the shift lever. In the Normal mode, on dry pavement, the vehicle runs at about 90 percent power to the front wheels, 10 percent to the rear. Torque shifts to the rear as needed, if the front wheels lose traction and can't do as much work. Normal mode is what you'll use most of the time, rain or shine.

The Snow/Gravel mode allows less wheelspin, provides conservative throttle control, and enables earlier transmission upshifts. This should help stabilize handling, making the Explorer easier to control in sloppy conditions, though you'll still need to exercise care when slowing down.

The Sand mode provides more aggressive throttle, holds the transmission in gear longer, and desensitizes traction control. Because, unlike in snow, to make progress in sand you need wheelspin. Mud/Ruts allows more torque as throttle increases. Stability control is desensitized to help maintain momentum over soft or uneven surfaces.

Terrain Management also includes Hill Descent Control, which proved itself on a steep downhill on the off-road course, holding the Explorer's speed to 4 mph without driver input. It's proven itself in many vehicles we've tested, including many Land Rovers. On an icy hill, it could save your life or at least help you avoid crashing and damaging your vehicle. If you think you'll need this feature, it's worth learning how to use it most effectively.

Of course, the standard front-drive Explorer and its various traction enhancing systems do an excellent job in their own right, even in a driving snow, if the travel surface is pavement.

The Explorer will tow 5000 pounds when equipped with the tow package, and includes trailer sway control, which works with the stability control. There's also a rearview camera with zoom, which will guide you to position the hitch ball directly under the trailer hitch cap, and make you feel like an astronaut docking his spacecraft.

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