The automotive industry’s constant babbling about vehicle platforms and architectures can sometimes sound like a whole lot of hair splitting and baloney. The sixth-gen Ford Explorer arriving for 2021 is neither. It may look like a modest step forward from its predecessor, but there’s a lot going on underneath that makes this transformation more significant than it appears. Its new unibody platform with a longitudinally-mounted engine and standard rear-wheel drive mimics the layout found in many luxury SUVs, marking the third major change to the Explorer’s construction after it went from being a body-on-frame, truck-based SUV for its first four generations to being a transverse-engined crossover for its fifth.
It was about time. The previous-gen Explorer aged less than gracefully over a life span stretching from 2011 to 2021, and its ancient Volvo-derived architecture—with origins dating to before the turn of the century—was largely to blame. Those bones, which are fossils by automotive standards, have finally given way to this new sixth-generation model’s rear-wheel-drive-based (all-wheel drive is optional) layout, which brings a wide range of improvements.
New Ford Explorer 2021
Ford has revealed that the upcoming 2021 Ford Explorer will reintroduce the popular XLT Sport Appearance Package, bringing back an option that pairs prettay, prettay well with the bold styling of the latest-gen model. The 2021 Ford Explorer XLT Sport Appearance Package adds Carbonized Grey grille, skid plates, Explorer hood badging, dual chrome exhaust tips, and 20-inch wheels on the outside and ActiveX Light Slate two-tone seats with accent stitching on the inside, helping it stand out from the Explorer lineup just that little bit extra. You can expect the XLT Sport Appearance Package to be pretty popular if history is any indication: According to Ford, 25 percent of all Explorer XLTs sold had the Sport Appearance Package when it was available, and it was particularly popular with young’ns.
Ford may have started the transition of its ST sub brand with the Edge ST, but the 2021 Ford Explorer ST completes that transition from spunky hot hatches to performance crossovers. The 2021 model year was the last for the Fiesta ST, so we bid adieu to the little cars, and say hello to our considerably quicker SUV overlords. Ford’s history of ST-branded cars isn’t eons long, so while we lament the loss of the small performance cars that started it, attaching the badge to an SUV isn’t sacrilege.
For the Explorer ST, Ford dropped in a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 that produces 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. Ford claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds and a top speed of 143 mph. That’s quick, but it’s still no monster like the Durango SRT is. Specially-tuned firmer dampers and springs are fitted to the ST, and since our tester was equipped with the $995 ST Street Pack, we also got performance brakes and 21-inch aluminum wheels. Much of the ST’s appeal comes in its modified appearance, too. We noticed the red ST badges right away, one on the unique black mesh grille and the other on the liftgate — those are the same locations as STs before it. You get quad exhaust tips, different side molding and more black trim throughout to give the Explorer a sportier curbside character. On the inside, all STs are generously equipped with a ton of standard features, but you also get a special ST steering wheel, leather sport buckets and contrast stitching on various interior parts.
While the interior design may border on uninspired, the Explorer’s cabin is functional and comfortable—at least for those in the first two rows. Getting into the standard third row of seats is now easier thanks to a new mechanism that moves the second-row seat out of the way at the touch of a button. Once back there, however, passengers will find that the seat is too close to the floor to be comfortable for older kids or adults. Rivals such as the Chevy Traverse and the Volkswagen Atlas provide more comfort in the third row. We managed to fit four carry-on suitcases behind the Ford’s third row, and we fit a total of 31 bags with both back rows folded flat.
An 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment is standard and includes Apple CarPlay/Android Auto capability and a Wi-Fi hotspot. The system is both attractive and responsive, but it doesn’t have a rotary controller that could help make the interface more intuitive. To get the optional 10.1-inch vertically oriented screen you’ll need to upgrade to either the Platinum or the ST models. Still, every model is available with voice-activated navigation as well as a rear-seat entertainment system. Apart from the base Explorer, a 12-speaker B&O audio system is standard.
Some of the Explorer’s static improvements are due less to its layout change than to its new platform, which isn’t a hack job like its predecessor’s. Because the old model’s platform had been dramatically stretched to create such a large SUV, its interior was oddly proportioned. Wide side sills and a high cowl created a bathtub-like feeling in the front seats, and there wasn’t as much useable cargo space inside as its large footprint suggested. The new car’s seating position is far more natural, and outward vision is improved. Cargo space is effectively a wash compared with the old Explorer, as the new car has more cargo volume with all seats folded but fewer cubic feet behind the second and third rows when they’re in use.
Still, many of the Explorer’s front-wheel-drive-based competitors are packaged better, and the Ford’s third-row seat is especially disappointing. Although getting back there is easier than before thanks to a button that easily tumbles the second-row seats (offered either as a three-place bench or individual captain’s chairs), the back row’s bottom cushion is low and unsupportive. This problem, in which passengers’ knees are forced into their chests, plagues many third-row seats, but rivals from Subaru, Volkswagen, and Chevrolet give occupants more space to uncurl from the fetal-tuck position.
We found the first two rows to be more pleasant than before. Even in lower trim levels, the door panels and dashboard use mostly soft-touch materials and everything fits together well enough. The dashboard lacks design flair, but we’re willing to give it a pass because it’s so functional and easy to use. The climate-control buttons are logically laid out, the radio can be controlled by real tuning and volume knobs, and the central touchscreen display looks crisp and has well-organized menus. A cool but slightly gimmicky vertically oriented 10.1-inch touchscreen also is an option.
The 2021 Ford Explorer is partly responsible for the crescendo of SUV sales that began in the early 1990s, and the latest example is chock full of popular content and useful capability. With three rows of seats and loads of cargo space, the Ford is purpose-built for shuttling families. Its powertrain roster includes a capable turbocharged four-cylinder, an efficient hybrid option, and a powerful twin-turbo V-6. Along with a comfortable ride and a unique sport-tuned model, the Explorer’s broad lineup provides something for everyone. It’s also loaded with standard equipment such as automated emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. Although the 2021 Explorer has an unimpressive interior and small third row, the SUV that helped start it all continues to dutifully serve the masses.
Due to its myriad powertrain and drivetrain combinations, the Ford Explorer 2021 has varying EPA fuel-economy ratings. The rear-drive hybrid model is rated as the thriftiest overall, with estimates of up to 27 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Adding all-wheel drive reduces the hybrid’s ratings by 3 and 4 mpg, respectively. We tested the latter on our 200-mile real-world route where it only managed 24 mpg highway. Comparatively, the 400-hp Explorer ST earned 25 mpg on our highway test, which beat its EPA rating by 1. We also tested the four-cylinder Explorer with all-wheel drive. The government estimates that version will earn 20 mpg city and 27 highway—we saw 28 mpg during our highway test. EPA FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST)Combined/city/highway: 20–28/18–29/24–27 mpg.
Sturbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.3-liter inline-4, 300 hp, 310 lb-ft; DOHC 24-valve 3.3-liter V-6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft + AC motor, 44 hp, 221 lb-ft (combined output, 318 hp, 322 lb-ft; 1.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack); twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6, 365 hp, 300 lb-ft
Base, XLT, and Limited trims come with a 300-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and it motivates the Explorer along with authority. The lead-foot drivers among us will prefer either the 365-hp twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 in the Platinum model or the sporty Explorer ST, which uses a 400-hp version of the same engine. A hybrid is new to the Explorer lineup for 2021 and pairs a 3.3-liter V-6 engine with an electric motor for a combined output of 318 horsepower. When properly equipped, the Explorer can tow up to 5600 pounds. The Explorer rides on an all-new rear-wheel-drive platform, but all-wheel drive is still optional; a 10-speed automatic transmission is standard across the board. Ride and handling are both agreeable and composed but far from entertaining; the Explorer ST is far more athletic, and its extra power and stiffer suspension make it a real performance SUV.
The few driver-assist systems that don’t come standard are offered as reasonably priced options, and desirable features such as a power liftgate and three-zone automatic climate control are included across the board. Mainstream four-cylinder XLT and Limited models are priced competitively in the high-$30,000 to high-$40,000 range, and for that kind of money the Explorer is a compelling contender in the nonluxury three-row SUV throng. (A less expensive base model that starts in the low $30,000s is forthcoming.)
Paying nearly $55,000 for the hybrid or even beyond $60K for a fully loaded Platinum model is a tougher sell. You can get the closely related and more nicely appointed Lincoln Aviator with the same twin-turbocharged V-6 for similar money, not to mention some seriously posh European SUVs for just a few thousand more. But the fact that we can even discuss the Explorer in this sort of company with a straight face means that this domestic SUV has entered a new milieu, not least of all because of what’s going on underneath it.
- Base: $33,960
- XLT: $37,870
- Limited: $49,325
- Limited hybrid: $53,475
- ST: $55,935
- Platinum: $59,445
We think the mid-level Limited model is the best Explorer for the money. It’s also the only one available with the hybrid powertrain, which costs an extra $4150. While the hybrid makes sense for people who can take advantage of its lofty EPA-rated city mpg, we found the standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine to be sufficiently potent and more efficient on the highway. Likewise, it can still tow a sizeable 5300 pounds when equipped with the towing package. We’d also add all-wheel drive for $2000. Apart from that, we’d stand pat with the Limited trim’s desirable standard features. These include a 12-speaker B&O audio system, 20-inch wheels, a heated and power-adjustable steering wheel, leather upholstery, power-folding third row, and upgraded drivers assists such as adaptive cruise control.
The Explorer ST made headlines with its 400-hp V-6 (we will review that model separately), but engine choices for the rest of the lineup include a 300-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four, a detuned 365-hp version of the ST’s twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6, and a hybrid drivetrain that uses a 3.3-liter V-6 with a single 44-hp electric motor. The Ford/GM co-developed 10-speed automatic is the sole transmission choice for every engine, and all Explorers can tow between 5000 and 5600 pounds when equipped with an optional towing package. The twin-turbo 3.0-liter engine available in the Platinum, meanwhile, packs a real punch. Despite being detuned slightly from the ST’s 400-hp version, the 365-hp tune in the Platinum moves the Explorer around with authority and sounds good to boot.
The new 2021 Ford Explorer hasn’t been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Every Explorer is also outfitted with a host of standard driver-assistance technology and available with upgrades such as self-parking assist.
Ford made the new Ford Explorer 2021 better in every possible way. The diverse range of powertrains, impressive technology and superb design all combine to make an excellent SUV.
- Engine3.0L Twin-Turbo V6
- Power400 HP / 415 LB-FT
- Transmission10-Speed Auto
- 0-60 Time5.5 Seconds
- Top Speed143 MPH
- Engine PlacementFront
- Curb Weight4,701 LBS
- Towing5,600 LBS
- Cargo18.2 – 87.8 Cu-Ft
- Base Price$55,835
- As Tested Price$59,915
The Explorer hybrid introduces a new type of gas-electric drivetrain setup to the Ford lineup that the company refers to as a Modular Hybrid Transmission. Rather than the power-split setups seen on many smaller, more economical hybrids, the Explorer hybrid doesn’t use a planetary gearset or dual electric motor-generators. Instead it places a single 44-hp electric motor between the V-6 gas engine and the 10-speed automatic transmission. Intended for larger vehicles that are meant to tow and haul, this hybrid system relies less on the electric motor and focuses more on power and capability than fuel sipping. We suspect that similar gas-electric powertrains will make their way into the promised hybrid versions of the next-generation F-150 pickup and upcoming Bronco SUV.
Thanks to a claimed curb weight that’s about 200 pounds lighter than the old Explorer, the 2.3-liter engine is perfectly adequate, with smart transmission mapping making the most of the available mid-range torque. The hybrid offers a bit more output, at 318 horsepower combined, but its added weight offsets that so its acceleration feels about equal to the turbo-four’s from our seat-of-the-pants perspective. But the hybrid’s lack of refinement is a letdown; perhaps the rough transition between electric and gas power and the spongy brake pedal can be solved with better tuning. And they should be, given its $4150 premium over the four-cylinder. Although it looks much like the model it replaces, the Explorer is all new for 2021 and boasts much-improved ride and handling, interior features, and modern powertrains.
Chief among them is the way that the new Explorer drives. Ford engineers say that the rear-drive chassis brings a newfound sense of balance thanks to its improved weight distribution, and they’re right. Where the old model was ponderous and unwieldly, the new one is composed and collected over a variety of terrain. Overboosted steering prevents it from feeling particularly agile, but proper damping keeps body motions minimal and the ride fluid and stable. While it is far from playful, the Explorer inspires confidence on a twisty road and has gone from being one of the worst-driving three-row family SUVs to being one of the best.