The Ford Explorer is recognizable all over America. With millions of units sold, it has helped define the family-oriented crossover as we know it today. A full redesign for 2020 put the SUV on a rear-wheel drive platform with a choice of turbocharged or hybridized engines. The 2021 Explorer is available in six- or seven-seat layouts.
Riding a swell of hype generated by its RWD platform, the redesigned Explorer arrived in 2020 to much anticipation. Then, we drove it.
Indeed, this Explorer's more performance-oriented construction makes it quite fun. The hybrid model feels uncompromised, the sporty ST trim is downright quick, (even if it lost a comparison to the back road-crushing Dodge Durango SRT), and maximum towing capability is commendable. However, when we drove an Explorer with the 2.3-liter turbo-four engine and 10-speed automatic, we found the ride "bouncy and unsettled," and noted a slow-to-shift transmission and poor noise insulation.
It's also a letdown in nearly every criterion on which three-row family SUVs are measured. The interior is packed with cheap-feeling materials, and unfinished details hint at low-quality construction. The first two rows offer good passenger space, but the third row is sized for young children. At least Ford's Sync infotainment system is user-friendly.
For 2021, Ford cut prices and added equipment across the lineup, which addresses our concern that the Explorer is overpriced. Nonetheless, based on the overall experience, we think there are many better options in this segment.
All Explorer models use a 10-speed automatic transmission. The basic engine is a 2.3-liter turbo-four that produces 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. It's paired to RWD as standard or AWD optionally. In MotorTrend testing, Explorers equipped with this engine accelerated from 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, regardless of driven wheels. EPA-rated fuel economy is 21/28 mpg city/highway for RWD models, and 20/27 mpg for AWD models.
The Explorer Platinum and ST trims feature a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6. In Platinum trim, it makes 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, while in ST guise, it's tuned to 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. New for 2021, RWD is standard, and AWD optional with this engine. We recorded an Explorer ST's 0-60 mph acceleration at 5.3 seconds. In either trim, EPA-rated fuel economy is 18/24 mpg.
The Explorer Hybrid models use a 3.3-liter V-6 and electric motor, which combine for 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque, sent through either standard RWD or optional AWD. Our testing measured a 7.7-second 0-60 mph time from an AWD model. Fuel economy rated by the EPA is 27/28 mpg with RWD, and 23/26 with AWD.
Ford has long used the ST badge to designate sporty, performance-oriented versions of its vehicles. The Explorer ST launched for the 2020 model year, and for 2021, the Enthusiast ST variant is added to the range. What's the difference? The main change is that the Enthusiast ST is RWD while the full-on ST is AWD. Both are powered by the same 400-hp, 415-lb-ft twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 engine. The standard ST also has some extra trim details, but the Enthusiast ST might provide a bit more tail-happy fun. With these changes, the Enthusiast ST is also a few thousand dollars less expensive than its AWD-equipped ST counterpart.
From the NHTSA, the Explorer earns a five-star overall safety rating (out of a possible five stars), which includes five-star scores in front and side crash testing and a four-star rollover score. From the IIHS, the Explorer earns 2021 Top Safety Pick+ designation, the highest possible rating.
Standard active safety and driver assist features include automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. Adaptive cruise control is optional or included depending on the trim level. A semi-autonomous parking aid is included on ST and Platinum trims.
With all its seats upright, the Explorer offers 18.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Folding the third row expands that to 47.9 cubic feet. With the second and third rows lowered, maximum cargo capacity measures 87.8 cubic feet.
The Explorer can fit up to seven passengers in its standard three-row configuration or six passengers if the available second-row captain's chairs are chosen. Front-row headroom measures 40.7 inches without a sunroof, which compares to 41.3 inches in the Chevrolet Traverse. Second-row headroom is 40.5 inches, slightly more than the Traverse's 40.0 inches. Third-row passengers in the Ford have 38.9 inches of headroom, while those in the Chevrolet have 38.2.
The Explorer's front row legroom of 43.0 inches bests the Traverse's 41.0 inches. So does its second-row legroom, which measures 39.0 inches compared to 38.4 inches. Third-row legroom in the Explorer is a bit less, at 32.2 inches against the Traverse's 33.5 inches.
As standard, the Explorer has an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, while a 10.1-inch unit is fitted depending on options or trim level. A 6.5-inch gauge cluster display is standard, but a 12.3-inch all-digital gauge display is available. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Wi-Fi hotspot capability, and front-row USB ports are standard on all trims. Second-row USB ports are included on XLT trim and above, and built-in navigation is included on Limited trim and above. A six-speaker audio system is included, while 12- and 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium setups are available.
The XLT trim is closer to the bottom of the 2021 Explorer range than the top. Yet it's still the one we recommend. No, the XLT model doesn't have the same technology, niceties, or performance as higher-end Explorer models. But if you're eyeing one of those, we think your dollars are better spent on a different SUV entirely—like the mechanically related and comparably priced Lincoln Aviator. Meanwhile the Explorer XLT provides good three-row functionality and some helpful conveniences for a sub-$40,000 starting price. If you're set on a 2021 Explorer, we think the XLT trim hits a good balance between dollars and sense.
Want to learn more? Check our our detailed guide on every 2021 Ford Explorer trim level.
|$500||Ford announces a Bonus Cash on select models for eligible Military personnel.||01-03-2022|
|$500||Ford announces a Certificate Program on select models..||07-06-2021|
|$2750||Ford announces a Bonus Cash on select models to be used as trade in assistance. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||0% Financing for a maximum term of 36 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||1.9% Financing for a maximum term of 60 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$1000||Ford announces a Bonus Cash on select models for eligible Military personnel. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$1500||Ford announces a Lease Cash on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||3.9% Financing for a maximum term of 72 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||0.9% Financing for a maximum term of 48 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||4.9% Financing for a maximum term of 75 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$0||5.9% Financing for a maximum term of 84 Months - Ford announces special APR financing on select models. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|
|$2500||Ford announces a Bonus Cash on select models for eligible returning lessees. [Regional Incentive. See dealer for availability.]||07-06-2021|