Pros: Good fuel economy with EcoBoost engine; excellent interior; stylish exterior; numerous high-tech features; IIHS Top Safety Pick

Cons: Snug third-row seat; narrow side windows; limited towing ability; AWD not available with EcoBoost engine

If you've owned a Ford Explorer anytime over the past 20 years, the 2012 model will seem completely alien to you. The old Explorer was a truck-based body-on-frame SUV with a weak V6, a crude ride and a thirst for fuel. The newest model, introduced in 2011, employs a unit body, a sophisticated suspension setup and a line of powerful yet fuel-efficient engines. About the only thing the new Explorer gives up over the previous truck-based design is its tow rating, which drops from 7,000 to 5,000 pounds.

Beyond its stellar good looks, sleek design and ultra-luxurious high-tech interior, the 2012 Explorer separates itself from other mid-size SUVs with its turbocharged 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine. Available only on two-wheel-drive models, the EcoBoost is as powerful as most V6 engines yet delivers impressive fuel economy figures close to 30 mpg.

The seven-passenger Explorer may not be as roomy as a minivan or even some of its slightly larger GMC and Chevrolet rivals. But in the evolution of the modern SUV, this Explorer takes top honors for design, features and value.

Comfort & Utility

The Explorer's interior is so handsome and well equipped that one might easily mistake it for a Land Rover or BMW interior. High-quality materials abound, and the modern dash with optional Ford SYNC and MyTouch controls make it easier and safer to operate a cell phone or iPod while driving. The Explorer's front and second-row seats are nicely padded. The front seats offer good leg and lower back support, although we would like to see the passenger's seat on the base model equipped with adjustable lumbar support, which you can get on the XLT and Limited models. The first two rows are more than adequate for adults, but the third-row seat is on the smaller side and best suited for kids with short legs. The Explorer's second row has standard 60/40 split bench seats. The optional captain's chairs have a small pass-through that makes it easier to reach the third-row seat. With the third row folded flush into the floor, the Explorer offers a generous cargo hold. But with the seat in place, there is room for little more than a few gym bags or some groceries.

Noteworthy standard equipment on the base Explorer trim includes air conditioning with rear climate control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel with controls for cruise and audio, AM/FM/CD with six speakers and an auxiliary audio input jack and shaded privacy glass. The XLT adds a media hub with USB port, a reverse sensing system, keypad entry, heated side mirrors and a wide range of upscale options such as leather seating and navigation. The Limited includes leather seating, SYNC and MyFord Touch, heated front seats, power adjustable pedals, dual-zone automatic temperature control and a 390-watt Sony sound system.

Technology

Technology is the 2012 Explorer's strength. Beyond the SYNC information and entertainment system and the Sony audio controls, the Explorer can be equipped with Ford's MyTouch configurable instrument display. MyTouch uses two configurable LCD screens, one on each side of the speedometer, that display various functions, as well as a large screen in the center stack for organizing cell phone, iPod, climate control and navigation functions via voice command. When equipped with the optional Navigation and Sirius Travel Link, the Explorer can help you avoid traffic jams, alert you to weather conditions, report on sports scores and movie times and locate the cheapest gasoline in town. You can even add a Wi-Fi mobile hub for accessing the Internet.

When equipped with optional all-wheel drive, the Explorer's sophisticated Terrain Management System features four settings: Normal, Mud/Ruts, Sand and Grass/Gravel/Snow. The system varies throttle response, torque bias to the front and rear wheels and traction control based on the setting you select.

Other technology features of note include Intelligent Cruise Control (which keeps a safe distance from traffic ahead), BLIS blind spot detection system, a backup camera, a power folding third-row seat, a power rear liftgate, active park assist (which parallel parks the vehicle for you), Intelligent Access with push-button start, heated and cooled front seats and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with dual screens mounted behind the front seat's head restraints.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Explorer's standard engine is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 290 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. When so equipped, the front-wheel-drive version earns an EPA estimated 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway; AWD models get 17/23 mpg. Optional for front-wheel-drive models is the 2.0-liter turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine that pumps out 240 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque while returning a class leading 20/28 mpg. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Safety

The 2012 Ford Explorer is equipped with numerous airbags including front, front side impact and side curtains covering all three rows. Optional on the XLT and Limited are inflatable rear-seat outboard seatbelts intended to cushion occupants from injury in an accident; they're compatible with child safety seats.

Standard safety equipment includes four-wheel ABS; electronic traction and stability control; Trailer Sway Control; Curve Control, which helps control the car when going into curves too fast; and Hill Start Assist, which keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when stopped on a steep incline.

The 2012 Explorer performed very well in both government and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing. It was given the IIHS's Top Safety Pick rating.

Driving Impressions

The Explorer feels solid and well connected to the road. Steering is firm and accurate, and the vehicle moves through curves with the ease and stability of the best sedans. From the driver's seat, however, the Explorer feels larger than it is, mainly due to the narrow side glass and the thick front and rear pillars, which impede visibility somewhat.

The 3.5-liter engine has no problem moving the Explorer, with good low-end power and a transmission that responds quickly when more power is demanded. We like the V6, but its fuel economy, especially around town, can be disappointing. Much more to our liking is the 2.0-liter EcoBoost, which gets much better fuel economy and has more torque than the V6. Torque is the force needed to move an object quickly from a standing start or when overtaking slower traffic. Unfortunately, the EcoBoost engine is not available with the AWD model, something we hope Ford will rectify on the 2013 Explorer.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Traverse - The Traverse has more front legroom and more cargo space behind its third-row seat. But the Traverse doesn't offer the strong mileage of the EcoBoost engine, and its navigation and information and entertainment technology options are not as robust.

Dodge Durango - The Durango offers roughly the same interior space as the Explorer, but it can be equipped with a Hemi V8, and it can tow more weight.

Honda Pilot - The Honda Pilot is great for resale and reliability, but the Explorer offers more headroom and legroom, a more luxurious and content-rich interior and better fuel economy with the EcoBoost engine.

AutoTrader Recommends

Unless you really need the Explorer's advanced AWD system, we think a nicely equipped XLT with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine is the way to go. There are enough traction and stability controls to help the front-wheel-drive Explorer tackle most snow and ice situations, and you can outfit the XLT with most of the Explorer's more appealing options and still get out the door for less than $40,000.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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