Ford's latest SUV is certainly a looker, but David Booth finds little else to fall in love with.
Road Test: Beauty of Ford's 2012 Explorer Limited is only skin deep
Here in North America Ford is feted as a cause célèbre among car makers, though I think Europeans and consumers in the Middle East and Asia might be a little more sensible. Largely because it managed to avoid the much-hated bailouts that Chrysler and General Motors relied on during their bankruptcies, the Dearborn, Michigan-based manufacturer is seen as more successful, better managed and more worthy of accolade.
The problem for me is that, whenever I've tested any of their recent models, I have been left nonplussed. With the exception of the new Focus and the ubiquitous F150 series of pickups, I have found recent Fords plagued with the same mediocrity that makes McDonald's hamburgers such a popular dining experience for North Americans. It's not that any suffer one singular debilitating fault that triggers my angst, but just that they don't drive particularly well, aren't particularly frugal at the petrol pump or, for that matter, don't cost dramatically less than the competition. None truly shine in an increasingly competitive marketplace that should punish the prosaic.
The Explorer - actually two versions of the Explorer: V6 and EcoBoost four - I recently tested is a perfect example of this banality. Of the superficial, there is much to boast. The styling is quite comely, the interior spacious and the MyFord computer interface, at first glance, bright, cheerful and inviting.
More closely perused, however, the parts just don't add up to an A+ whole.
The interior, while remaining appealing, does suffer from the complication of the MyFord system. Stick with the basic menus and all is good; things shine brightly and the functions are easily navigated. Start foraging into the submenus, however, and those myriad functions that Microsoft promises can be as elusive as the D: port on a 128 Pentium.
For instance, turning on the seat heaters upon start-up was a doddle, two touch-screen buttons prominently displayed on the bright LCD screen. But start playing on the navigation system's menu and then try to access the same seat heater buttons and you will know the very definition of frustration. At least I did. Oh sure, some 14-year-old telecommunications expert is going to write in and tell me how easy it is, but no matter how stupid I really am, I defy anyone to explain to me how two disappearing switches on a touch-screen are superior to two easily manipulated hard-wired switches on a dashboard. It should be noted that Ford is taking criticisms of its MyFord system seriously; updates are being sent to owners that can be self-installed or uploaded by a dealer. Whether these will actually reduce the complication, however, is another matter.
Another interesting note is that the Explorer Limited - Ford having a preoccupation with safety - has a bright red warning light that alerts the driver any time emergency braking might be called for. It's effective and appreciated but a cynic - moi? - might say it's necessary because the Explorer's brakes feel so wooden and unresponsive.
More damning, however, are the engine selections. The standard motor - the only one available in the UAE, and the only one available anywhere with all-wheel drive - is a 3.5L V6. It is neither powerful nor frugal. It needs higher revs to move the 2,047kg SUV (wasn't the switch from body-on-frame to the current unibody chassis supposed to make this thing lighter?) and with that comes some noise, vibration and harshness.
Nor is fuel consumption anything to write home about. I averaged just under 12.0L/100km cruising at 120kph; sacrifice barely one litre for every 100km more and you can relish in the supercharged goodness of a 510hp Range Rover. Overall, my mileage was close to 14, again not far off a fair number of more powerful and satisfying rides.
The solution, says Ford, is EcoBoost, in this case an optional 2.0L turbocharged inline four, which is not available here. In North America and elsewhere, for an added US$1,000 (Dh3,675) you get two less pistons (though one extra turbocharger). Nonetheless, the EcoBoost four is, by far, the better engine, its 240hp backed up by an even more impressive 366Nm of torque. And, because all that torque arrives as low as 1,700rpm, there is no need to rev its little heart out, making the Explorer decidedly quieter.
But it is still not the complete solution. Despite an excellent rating - 10.4L/100km in the city and 7.0 on the motorway - my average fuel consumption was more than 12L/100km overall. Better, yes, than the V6 it replaces, but not quite the revolution in fuel economy Ford's marketing mavens trumpet (please note that Consumer Reports magazine came to the exact same conclusion when it tested the EcoBoost V6 in the F150). It's also worth noting that, for the time being at least, the Explorer's uprated EcoBoost four is only available in front-wheel drive.
That said, if you must drive an Explorer - its come-hither visage and bright, shiny baubles too attractive to resist - it's really a shame the EcoBoost isn't available on our shores as the smaller engine makes for a far more sophisticated ride. Just know that, while there may not be many better-looking SUVs out there, there are a number that drive better.
Price, base / as tested
Dh135,000 / 189,000
Engine 3.5L DOHC V6
Power 290hp @ 6,500rpm
Torque 346Nm @ 4,100rpm
Fuel economy, combined