Sitting in a rental car lot for any car enthusiast is like sitting in a panic room. Well, not really but the thought of getting a crappy basic vehicle does make the whole experience rather daunting, more than necessary. The main objective of renting a car was to get the most efficient vehicle I could find, one that would hopefully get me from Southside of Chicago to West Dundee with the least amount of fuel used possible and having decent driving dynamics too. After all most of the journey would be on the highway and a small econobox wouldn’t be much fun unless it were evenly balanced in horsepower to weight ratio.
First selection option was a Nissan Altima with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 182hp and estimated 39 miles to the gallon on the highway. This seemed like a very decent choice even though the 2008 Nissan Altima (same engine) I’ve tested in the past had a very float-y ride comfort and steering that was more disconnected from feedback than a Toyota. Sadly, that option quickly became unavailable and the next option was a Hyundai Santa Fe. First thing that popped into my mind was a Santa Fe Sport with a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder 240hp and all-wheel-drive. Fuel economy wouldn’t even be close to the 39 miles to gallon estimate that the Altima had but it would be near thirty which was still good for a 50 mile journey.
The same fate also occurred with the Santa Fe it was not available. I became even more worried that I wasn’t going to even get a compact Chevy Cruze at this point because somehow I’ve been straddled from a mid-sized to a crossover. Eventually it became clear that I was going to get something even more illogical for the road trip when the clerk walked back and asked me if the Ford Explorer were fine? I said with a big sigh, “yes that’s fine”; even though at the back of my mind I knew that this crossover was going to be a gas guzzler and totally illogical for just two people. But a free triple upgrade is better than no car at all.
I’ve driven my fair share of large vehicles and the large seven-seat crossovers are the ones that seem the most daunting to drive. It almost felt like I was driving a short bus. I didn’t mind the fact that it is a larger vehicle and the road feel was very different. It didn’t take long to get comfortable behind the wheel and the infotainment system wasn’t a mess like the previous Explorer with a sea of buttons and controls that were very confusing to navigate. It was a pretty decent design on the inside with comfortable front seats and heated steering wheel. Visibility wasn’t even an issue at all; it was very easy to see out of at all angles. I was still wishing that I had the Altima though because of the more efficient engine.
Once I arrived at home and began packing up the Explorer I was quickly reminded of how much easier it is to load a larger vehicle. The third row seats both folded down at the press of a button and even the boot opens with the wave of your foot under the bumper. It seemed that the Explorer extra little luxury features was winning me over, despite me wanting to hate this vehicle so much.
The road trip started off with a huge grin on my face because as the 3.5ecoboost engine fired up. I could feel that I was in for a real treat. A real treat as in a turbocharged six-cylinder pumping out 365hp and 350lb-ft torque; easily one of the most powerful engines I have ever driven. Flexibility on this engine is very good. It’s smooth around town and when you feel like passing people on the highway there’s tons of torque when needed for that extra kick in the pants before the turbo kicks in and you really feel the power push you into the back of your seat. These are very uncommon traits for a seven-seat vehicle. Hell this is very uncommon for a Ford even.
The first leg of the journey flew through smoothly with mostly free flowing traffic and not much slowing down and stopping. Picked up my passenger and began the long journey to West Dundee. The commanding view of the road is why I love crossovers so much and the Explorer Sport really did shine. It didn’t feel like I was going to topple over or roll over when I turned the wheel too hard, the electronic stability control made sure that I didn’t do anything too stupid. Plus the all-wheel-drive ensured I had enough traction where I needed it the most.
The second leg of the journey we experienced mild stop/start traffic that only increased the closer and closer we approached the Eden’s Junction. Once we passed Harlem the traffic opened up tremendously and I was once again able to really enjoy the 3.5ecoboost engine. It doesn’t feel like it has such massive horsepower figures until you put your foot down and the turbo kicks in. It was almost like driving a sports car in the form of a seven-seat crossover. Steering feedback isn’t as sharp as a BMW X5 and some of the materials in the interior are a hit or miss at best. The touch screen infotainment system is far less fiddly than prior and was so much easier to use than that of more expensive options. I didn’t get the chance to use the navigation system but it wasn’t needed seeing that our route only involved one highway.
Road noise wasn’t much of an issue but some wind buffeting could be heard around the side mirrors and of course being that the Explorer is more on the boxy side it felt as if we were being blown about by the crosswinds. We wished that Ford developed a system similar to Mercedes crosswind stability control; this would’ve taken some of the woes out of the driving experience during unusually high winds.
Parking and maneuvering the Explorer isn’t as daunting as it looks. The parking camera really does come in handy. We do however the parking sensors can be quite sensitive, especially when the car behind us was nowhere as close as the sensors were screaming. The headlights in auto mode take a while to activate when in a tunnel, which we found weird because as soon as you exit the tunnel the lights shut off immediately. We also disliked the long wait for the hands free boot opening, which seems to be about average with most of these systems.
Road trip summary: The Explorer is very comfortable and refined for the price. The engine offers plenty of flexibility and is smooth at low speeds. The driving position offers excellent seating comfort and the interior is eye appealing, even though in some areas it still feels lackluster. Overall the Explorer Sport is a great option among the heavy hitters, but for those who want the most bang for their buck you really can’t go wrong here. It is a package worth considering.
Average MPG: 19 mpgRunning costs: $40
Miles driven: 160 miles
Likes: Handsome looks inside out. There’s plenty of space for seven people. The 3.5ecoboost engine is so smooth and refined. The standard kit list is actually quite good.
Dislikes: The interior is a hit or miss in quality for some areas. Steering could use more feedback.