2021 Ford Explorer Review
Ford redesigned its Explorer last year and is giving this midsize three-row SUV a few more updates for 2021. New to the roster is the King Ranch trim; it slots between the Limited and the top-trim Platinum in terms of price and equipment. There's also the new Timberline. Its lifted ride height, all-terrain tires, limited-slip rear differential and steel skid plates combine to make this the most capable Explorer for going off-road and getting out into nature.
But what if you aren't in the market for one of these seriously well-equipped models? Even budget-friendly versions of the 2022 Ford Explorer are notable for a variety of reasons, including this SUV's rear-wheel-drive layout. Most competitors, such as the Honda Pilot and Kia Telluride, have a front-wheel-drive layout.
Ford has gone with traditional rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive is optional) for a few reasons. Handling and overall balance improve dramatically when you stop trying to steer and power a vehicle from the same end. Towing stability and powertrain selection also benefit. Indeed, the Explorer is one of the better choices in the midsize three-row SUV class for towing. But while Ford Explorer is a pleasure to drive and has a big cargo space, it's kept in check by its comparably expensive sticker and an interior that doesn't meet the standards set by its price. Check out our in-depth Explorer Expert Rating below to learn more.
The Ford Explorer has uncommonly good balance and poise for a midsize three-row SUV. It's not the roomiest, but its standard infotainment and safety tech offerings are competitive. Two things hold it back: subpar materials quality and high pricing.
How does the Explorer drive?
The Explorer is the three-row SUV to get if your priorities include balanced handling and strong acceleration. Unlike a lot of other SUVs in this class, it feels eager and light as you drive around turns. There's a lot of grip too.
The latest Explorer can handle lots of power, and Ford takes full advantage. The sturdy turbocharged four-cylinder base engine easily outpaces the competition. And there's a bonkers turbo V6 in the Explorer ST for those who believe too much is never enough. Both are helped along by a 10-speed transmission. It kicks down faithfully when you need it to, but in city traffic, when you're just lightly getting on and off the gas, its shifting is too indecisive.
How comfortable is the Explorer?
The Explorer's front seats are nicely shaped and comfortable. But we don't recommend the optional massaging ones — the mechanism behind the massaging can make the seats feel lumpy when it's off. Seat comfort gets progressively less cushiony as you move back to the second and third rows. Our Explorer Limited test vehicle rode smoothly most of the time, but smaller road imperfections were a little more noticeable than in some other SUVs.
Operating the automatic climate control system can require more manual adjustments than expected; the air vents won't pump out as much air as you want when you lower the temperature, for instance. Another drawback is that the Explorer isn't as quiet as it should be. The sound of the engine isn't well masked, and you can hear gusty wind noises at even moderate highway speeds.
How’s the interior?
Things look decent from the driver's perspective. Front-seat space is abundant, and the driving position is nicely adjustable. It's generally easy to see out thanks to adequate glass area and good-size mirrors.
But middle- and rear-seat passengers aren't as well taken care of. Middle-row knee room and legroom are not up to the standard set by others in the class, and the third row is unlikely to impress taller-than-average adults. Rear door access can be clumsy if the doors can't be opened past the first detent because space is tight between the large door map pockets and the prominent rear wheel arches. The third-row power-folding mechanism is nice, but raising the row for passengers must be done from the hatch area.
How’s the tech?
Every Explorer comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, the Sync 3 infotainment system, and support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Limited comes with built-in navigation and a strong-sounding Bang & Olufsen premium audio system. Do not be tempted by the optional 10.1-inch vertical touchscreen. Its skinnier profile does not work well with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and the display of the rearview camera.
The Explorer is well equipped with driving safety aids. All Explorers come standard with automated emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, cross-traffic and blind-spot monitoring, and automatic high beams. The Limited also has adaptive cruise with lane centering. These systems work well. However, the alerts sound overly similar, and the lane centering system may falsely accuse you of taking your hands off the wheel.
How’s the storage?
The Explorer's cargo hold is generous. With the third-row seats up, it's a bit tighter than in some other SUVs, but you can still fit three or four rolling suitcases back there. There's a good amount of small-item storage up front for your odds and ends, and child seats are easy to install in the middle row.
The Explorer's rear-drive architecture makes it especially well suited to towing, even if the rating of 5,000 pounds isn't particularly distinctive. The Trailer Tow package comes with an easily accessed receiver hitch, four- and seven-pin wiring, full support for an add-on electric trailer brake controller, a tow-haul transmission mode, and an enhanced blind-spot monitoring system that covers the length of the trailer.
How economical is the Explorer?
On paper, the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine has slightly better EPA fuel economy estimates than its closest competition. The rear-wheel-drive version gets 24 mpg combined, and the all-wheel-drive model gets 23 mpg combined. Depending on what you compare it to, that's generally 1 or 2 mpg better.
But we could not match these figures in practice, possibly because this turbocharged engine feels overeager. Our test average was 21.1 mpg, and our driving included a long freeway stretch. This number lined up more or less exactly with lower-rated competitors that we drove in the same way.
Is the Explorer a good value?
You don't have to look very far or very hard to see plasticky interior plastics, unsightly gaps and mediocre design details. These would be understandable if this vehicle was a bargain, but it's not. The competition's very well-equipped top-level models cost less than a lowly Explorer XLT with minimal options. What's more, the Explorer's stiffest competition offers stronger warranty coverage.
You'd have to be the sort who puts a high premium indeed on mountain road agility and powertrain performance to offset these drawbacks. On paper at least, the 2.3-liter EcoBoost will reward you with better fuel economy. But we found it hard to replicate the EPA ratings in the real world, and in our tests the Explorer came out no better than its rivals.
You'll still peg the latest model as an Explorer, but this new one has a strong stance and sleek proportions that suggest motion. And this is no hollow promise because it offers a much better driving experience than any previous Explorer — or the majority of its competition. It's fast, it has poise and balance, and it likes to be hustled through corners. This Ford is the one to get if your daily drive includes mountain roads or interesting corners.
Which Explorer does Edmunds recommend?
The base Explorer is generously appointed, but we suggest stepping up to the XLT trim for its nicer interior and additional convenience features. If the Limited trim didn't have such a big price jump, that would have earned our recommendation for its added safety and luxury features.
Ford Explorer models
The 2021 Ford Explorer is a midsize three-row SUV with seating for seven (six if you opt for the second-row captain's chairs). The Explorer is available in base, XLT, Limited, ST, King Ranch and Platinum trim levels. Most models receive a four-cylinder engine, while the top trims get a more powerful V6. A 10-speed automatic is the only transmission offered and drives the rear wheels. All-wheel drive is available as an option. There is also a hybrid variant that's covered in a separate review.