To an undiscerning eye, the 2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid doesn’t look all that different from its predecessor. Sure, there are sleeker headlights, a more aggressively tapered roofline and sculpted body sides, but there’s nothing revolutionary about it. Beneath its skin, however, some big changes took place. Its new, rear-wheel-drive platform with a 6-inch longer wheelbase, for example, is a big departure from its previous front-drive architecture.
Under the hood, customers can select from three different engine options. The base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, and for families with a need for speed, there’s also a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 400 horsepower in the performance-focused ST trim. Those looking for max fuel economy, though, will be most interested in Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid 2021 with a bladder-busting driving range of more than 500 miles.
New Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid 2021
The 2021 Explorer Hybrid is the first electrified drivetrain offered by Ford in its popular midsize SUV. It combines a naturally aspirated 3.3-liter V6, a 10-speed automatic transmission and a 35-kilowatt electric motor with a 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Total output punches in at 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque.
In standard rear-wheel-drive form, the Explorer Hybrid returns an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, bettering the base four-cylinder’s 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Those living in areas where slick conditions are common will be able to option all-wheel-drive with a hit to efficiency, dropping fuel economy to 23 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. That said, an EPA-estimated driving range of more than 450 miles is still no joke, nor is a tow rating that betters the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s capabilities by 1,500 pounds, for a total of 5,000 pounds.
Overall, the interior isn’t hugely different from before, with the exception of the optional, 10.1-inch, portrait-oriented infotainment display. My Limited Hybrid model, however, has the standard, 8-inch screen along with embedded navigation, a Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A wireless charging pad is also standard on this trim, and there are myriad 12-volt, USB-A and USB-C ports scattered throughout the cabin.
An optional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster is an optional bit of tech, with a function called the Calm Screen, which only displays a small amount of information in order to reduce distraction. Think of it as a modern take on Saab’s old Night Panel function. In general, the new Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid 2021 represents a nice improvement over its predecessor. It’s not a massive leap forward in any way, but that’s because the fifth-gen model was already decent and well-liked by consumers. If I can register any complaint, it’s that the hybrid drivetrain is pretty loud, even with the Explorer’s active noise-cancellation tech.
The Explorer might not look all that different than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The new model enhances the old one’s look with a slightly more tapered roofline, nicely sculpted body sides, and a longer wheelbase with shorter front and rear overhangs. Sleeker headlights and redesigned fog lights spruce up the front fascia, though the Explorer’s rump looks largely the same as before.
The big change for 2021 is actually underneath the Explorer’s skin. The longer wheelbase comes courtesy of a new, rear-wheel-drive platform, which is a big departure from the front-drive architecture normally used for midsize crossovers. The rear-drive platform not only makes the Explorer a little better to drive, with better overall handling, it means the SUV can tow a maximum of 5,600 pounds.
Out in the wild, the hybrid powertrain can get the Explorer (slowly) moving around parking lots and away from stops on pure electric power. Dipping even a little bit deeper into the right pedal vibrates the V6 engine to life to help get things moving at brisker pace. In the default Normal drive mode, power is acceptable to shove the SUV around town with ginger transmission shifts. Toggling to Sport mode — my favorite — livens matters up with better throttle response at tip in, pull throughout the rev range and quicker cog swaps.
Another price for the emphasis on performance is fuel economy only marginally superior to that of its more pedestrian siblings. Officially, Transport Canada rates the Explorer Hybrid at 9.6 L/100 kilometres. That is only, say the critics, slightly better than the base Limited version, whose 2.3-litre turbo-four ekes out 10.3 overall. That may be true, but the Hybrid is also more energetic than the little blown four and any time you can get more urge and better economy, no matter how minimal, is a good day.
That said, Ford’s primary competition for its new Hybrid will be Toyota’s electrified Highlander, which until this year, was similarly V6-powered. However, for 2021, Toyota decided to mate is Hybrid Synergy Drive to a 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four and it now boasts 240 horsepower. That said, its overall fuel economy is vastly superior to the Explorer’s with a rating of 6.9 L/100 km overall. Even with hybrids, it seems, there is no free lunch.
The Hybrid doesn’t struggle on a steep, winding, uphill climb, either. The 10-speed transmission doesn’t hunt for gears, and will happily skip a cog or two when needed. On the way down, the Hybrid’s regenerative brakes don’t feel all that different from the Explorer’s standard stoppers, with progressive pedal response and no grabby tendencies.
Neither Ford or the EPA have official fuel economy data for the 2021 Explorer Hybrid yet, though the automaker says the electrified SUV should be able to travel about 500 miles between fill-ups. The Explorer has an 18-gallon fuel tank, so my quick math estimates a 27- or 28-mpg rating.
The Explorer’s base engine is a 2.3-liter, turbocharged, EcoBoost I4 making 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. Stepping up from there, you’ll find a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 with a more robust 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet. The ST gets a higher-output version of that 3.0-liter engine, with 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet — stay tuned for a separate review of this model later. Finally, we get to the brand-new Explorer Hybrid, which is the version I’m testing for the sake of this first drive.
Every Explorer comes with Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance suite, which bundles things like blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist. The Hybrid, though, comes standard with the Assist+ pack, which adds adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech, speed limit sign recognition and evasive steering assist.
The gasoline-electric powertrain is only available on the Explorer Limited trim, so it comes with standard equipment like LED headlights and taillights, rain-sensing wipers, heated and cooled front seats, heated captain’s chairs in the second row and power-folding third row seats. Speaking of which, the second-row seats fold up quickly for easy access to the third row, though the way-back is kind of tight for passengers. Fold the seats down and you’ll find nearly 88 cubic feet of cargo space and a big enough area to haul four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood.
The one thing the new Explorer Hybrid does have down pat, however, is comportment. The gas/electric engine combo, as I mentioned, is exemplary. Noise, vibration and harshness are well contained, power more than adequate, and I suspect, with a little more tweaking in future models, the fuel economy will improve. Combined with a smooth-shifting 10-speed automatic, it’s a sweet-driving powertrain.
The only thing that could make it better is if Ford combined that 44-horsepower electric motor with its 2.7-litre EcoBoost V6, rather than this 3.3L naturally aspirated version, for more torque and (probably) better fuel economy. I’m sure Ford has all manner of reasons — be they price-based or specific technical issues — but, wow, would that be a differentiator.
Building an Explorer Hybrid isn’t too complex. Since Ford is only offering the hybrid powertrain on the Limited trim, the main decisions center around the drivetrain and a couple of big interior niceties. Beginning with the $52,280 base price tag, not including $1,195 for destination, I will spring for the $2,195 all-wheel-drive system to better cope with Midwest winters, and I’ll also throw on the $325 roof-rail crossbars for the added flexibility of carrying stuff on the roof if needed.
The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid will cost you $52,280 to start.
All in, my Explorer Hybrid carries a $55,995 price tag. That’s a tad more expensive than the $55,170 rear-wheel-drive test car, which arrived outfitted with an available panoramic roof, but not by much.
Like most things in life, adding hybrid efficiency to the 2021 Ford Explorer isn’t free. Stepping into electrification from a Limited model with the base turbo I4 engine tacks on $4,150. That’s steep, considering a comparably equipped Highlander Hybrid Limited starts at $46,000 with standard all-wheel-drive. That said, people in the market for midsize hybrid SUV with a supremely spacious interior packed to the brim with tech and extra towing might could make the Ford worth the extra cheddar.
Explorer launched some 30 years ago, it was an instant hit. Since then, more than 8 million Explorers have found happy homes, and this totally redesigned, sixth-gen 2021 Explorer should only further the SUV’s appeal, especially for those looking for the extra practicality and efficiency of a hybrid.
The Hybrid is pretty expensive, too: $52,280 to start or $57,975 all loaded up like the one you see here, including $1,095 for destination. Yes, it’s based on the Limited trim, but keep in mind the aforementioned Highlander Hybrid starts around $37,000. Heck, even the three-row Lexus RX 450h is cheaper.
However, you can save a few bucks by opting for the base XLT model, starting at $36,395. A non-hybrid Limited trim starts at $48,130 while the Platinum jumps up to $58,250. New for 2021 is an ST variant for those go-fast families, starting at $54,740.
The Hybrid features a 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery (mounted unobtrusively under the second row of seats) — large compared with small subcompact runabouts, but not a huge reserve considering its weight (2,254 kilograms). Feeding the smallish 44-horsepower electric motor — sandwiched in between the engine’s crankshaft and the 10-speed automatic’s torque convertor — it doesn’t allow for much electric-only range. Oh, I managed about five kilometres of gas-free driving at one point, but I was treating the throttle like a first-time dad changing his first diaper; any sudden movement might end up in an unwanted squirting of, well, you know what I mean. Driven more typically, I never really got any EV-ish motoring, though as mentioned previously, that silent mode was replaced with a certain bullishness off the line. Ford engineers have confirmed that they tuned the Hybrid more for performance and towing capacity — 2,268 kilos — and the price is a reliance on internal combustion.
Electrified, not electric
Under the hood, the Explorer Hybrid has a 3.3-liter, naturally aspirated V6, complemented by a 1.5-kilowatt-hour battery and 35-kilowatt electric motor. The Hybrid delivers a total of 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque, and buyers can spec the electrified powertrain with either rear- or all-wheel drive. A 10-speed automatic transmission handles shifting duties.
The Explorer Hybrid doesn’t allow me to choose when it uses electric power, and it just operates in its most efficient mode all the time. It relies on battery-only power at parking lot speeds, the engine kicking in when you’re up and moving on the road. The Explorer Hybrid certainly doesn’t leap off the line, but it gets up to speed quickly enough, and offers ample power for cruising and passing along the open highways of my test route.
For safety, every Explorer comes with Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance suite, bundling forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist. The Hybrid, though, comes standard with a 360-degree camera and Assist+ package, which adds full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech, speed limit sign recognition and evasive steering assist.
These big SUVs are becoming more minivan-like
Though Ford claims the 2021 Explorer is quite off-road worthy — and I have no reason to doubt them — it does look and feel like a butched-up family hauler. No, there’s no sliding door or hideaway seats, but this latest Explorer feels more like an old Chevy Suburban — the ultimate, well, soccer-mom SUV — than the traipsing-over-hill-and-dale Explorers of old. That’s not so much a criticism as an observation, made all the more obvious to someone who spent virtually no time in the last generation Ford and can only judge the new version against Explorers long past.
Ford tuned the Hybrid for torque
The very first thing I noticed — apparent before I had driven even a kilometre — is that the Explorer Hybrid has excellent low-end punch. It might even have a little too much, other journalists complaining of overly aggressive throttle tip-in right off idle.
I had no such plaints, just praise for the way the electrified V6 jumps off the line. Oh, all that promise peters off once you’re past 60 km/h or so — the gas portion of the 2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid is but a 3.3-litre V6 and a non-turbocharged one, at that — but one can’t help be impressed with the its initial verve, especially considering that it boasts 318 horsepower.
With a 4,969-pound curb weight, the Explorer Hybrid is more than 600 pounds heftier than the base model, and it’s apparent from a dynamic standpoint. The weight makes itself known when turning in for corners and under braking, though the suspension does an admirable job keeping body motions in check. Steering features a satisfying weight and is reasonably responsive to inputs. The tuning for the regenerative brakes, however, needs some work. At the top of the pedal, brake force is light and doesn’t progressively strengthen when applying more pressure — until you reach a certain point, that is, where it abruptly bites down hard. This make smooth stops challenging.
On the tech front, Sync 3 oversees infotainment features with an 8-inch touchscreen, embedded navigation, a nice-sounding 12-speaker B&O audio setup, a Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Sync isn’t lightning-quick to switch between menus, but it’s snappy enough and intuitive to work through. Sync 3 is its intuitive and feature-rich self in the Explorer Hybrid. To charge smart devices, a wireless charging pad also comes standard on the Limited, keeping my phone happily juiced, while anyone else riding with me can plug into the myriad 12-volt, USB-A and USB-C ports sprinkled throughout the cabin.
Heck, there’s even a 110-volt outlet with a three-prong plug in here. When it comes to hauling cargo, the new 2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid is set up for that, too. Behind the third row, there’s 18.2 cubic feet of room and 47.9 cubic feet at your disposal after folding the rearmost seats down. Flipping the second row down opens up 87.8 cubes — the same amount of space found in non-hybrid Explorers. The hybrid doesn’t suffer any space penalties thanks to the liquid-cooled battery pack being built into the chassis below the second-row seats.