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2021 Ford Explorer Review

The 2021 Ford Explorer is the latest in a long line of popular midsize 3-row SUV/crossovers to wear the Explorer badge. This is now the second year of the vehicle’s sixth generation. And although the exterior design couldn’t be mistaken for anything else but an Explorer, there’s a different story beneath the skin.

In some respects, it’s a return to tradition. Before the fundamentally front-drive, unibody construction of the fifth generation, the Explorer always had rear-wheel drive and a body-on-frame arrangement. With this generation, Ford has reinstated rear-wheel drive, but it retains the more refined unibody approach. Towing ability is still eminently useful, despite that being an upside of the old body-on-frame ways.

The precision handling that rear-wheel drive imparts helps the Explorer deliver a top-notch, smooth-riding driving experience. Blend that with a comprehensive array of safety/driver-assist features, connectivity technology and a comfortable cabin, and this 3-row SUV becomes suitable for extended road trips as well as suburban chores.

A longer wheelbase than its predecessor (again, facilitated by employing rear-wheel drive) results in more legroom in each row. The third row is still tight, as is cargo space behind those rearmost seats, but the cabin is welcoming otherwise.

The midsize 3-row SUV/crossover class includes several formidable rivals like the well-established Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and the Kia Telluride. The 2021 Explorer is up to the task. It also has two extra advantages over most of the competition, a sporty 400-horsepower ST variant and a hybrid version.

What’s New for 2021?

Four new Explorer models make their debut for 2021: a lower-priced Enthusiast ST, a lower-priced RWD Platinum, a new Platinum Hybrid, and a luxurious Explorer King Ranch.

The one-up-from-base XLT trim receives heated front seats as standard. It also offers a heated steering wheel and a Sport Appearance package as options.

What used to be a 10-way power-adjustable front passenger seat in the top three trims now has 8-way power adjustment. The mid-level Limited trim also loses some erstwhile standard features and makes them optional.

A cargo management system becomes standard in the top Platinum trim, optional in the rest of the 2021 Explorer range.

And there have been some minor changes in the choices of exterior colors. For example, Silver Spruce goes out, Carbonized Gray comes in. See the 2021 Ford Explorer models for sale near you

What We Like

  • Fuel-efficient drivetrains
  • Ford Co-Pilot360 is standard throughout
  • User-friendly infotainment system
  • Sporty Enthusiast ST performance model
  • New RWD Platinum model

What We Don’t

  • Kids-only third row
  • Cheesy cabin materials

How Much?

$33,470-$55,725

Fuel Economy

The four lower trims of the 2021 Explorer range have a turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine that generates 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque.

Rear-wheel drive (RWD) is the standard configuration and all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists 2021 Ford Explorer fuel economy at 21 miles per gallon city/28 mpg highway/24 mpg combined driving (RWD) or 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 mpg combined (AWD).

The Limited Hybrid has a 3.3-liter gasoline V6 engine and an electric motor. Total system output is 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive is also optional in this version.

The EPA puts Explorer Hybrid fuel economy at 27 mpg city/28 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (RWD) or 23 mpg city/26 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (AWD).

The Platinum and King Ranch Explorers, powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 with 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, are rated by the EPA 18 mpg city/26 mpg hwy/21 mpg combined with RWD and 18 mpg city/24 mpg hwy/20 mpg combined with AWD.

Expect the AWD Ford Explorer Enthusiast ST, with 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque, to be rated at 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

A 10-speed automatic transmission is deployed in every 2021 Explorer. The ST and Platinum versions also have paddle shifters.

Standard Features and Options

The 2021 Ford Explorer comes in standard Explorer, XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, Enthusiast ST, Platinum, and Platinum Hybrid versions. 

All-wheel drive is standard on several models but a $2,000 option elsewhere. Prices include a $1,245 destination charge.

The base Explorer ($33,470) comes with 18-in alloy wheels, LED headlights/daytime running lights/taillights, powered liftgate, remote start/lock/unlock, tri-zone automatic climate control, cloth upholstery, 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, 40/20/40 split/folding second-row seat, 50/50 split/folding third-row seats, 10 cup holders, Ford Co-Pilot360 (forward collision mitigation with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assistance, automatic high beams), eight airbags, 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, Bluetooth, two USB ports (one Type-A, one Type-C), AM/FM/satellite radio, Wi-Fi (for up to 10 devices), Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, and 6-speaker audio system.

XLT ($35,245) adds roof-rack side rails, acoustic-laminate window glass, heated side mirrors, keyless entry/ignition, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 6.5-inch color LCD driver information cluster, heated front seats, 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, 4-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, power-folding second-row captain’s chairs, and the same USB arrangement for the second row.

This trim may also be ordered with a heated steering wheel, the enhanced Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package (with evasive steering assistance, post-impact braking, Active Cruise Control with stop/go, lane centering, speed limit sign recognition, voice-activated/touchscreen navigation, and Sirius XM Traffic/Travel Link). And the new-for-2021 Sport Appearance package with 20-inch alloy wheels and various exterior elements finished in Carbonized Gray. 

Timberline (45,760) is an off-road-oriented trim of the Explorer and the first in a new sub-brand for Ford SUVs. It has a unique appearance package plus some features to improve off-road capabilities like standard AWD, hill-descent control, a Torsen limited-slip differential, steel skid plates, special tires and suspension, and increased approach and departure angles compared to the regular Explorer. Other features include 18-inch gloss black wheels, unique tow hook badging, a 360-degree camera, the Ford Co-Pilot360 safety tech suite, and available Forest Green paint that is exclusive to the Timberline model.

Limited ($45,955) has 20-in alloy wheels, LED fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, 360-degree camera system, heated/leather-wrapped steering wheel, self-dimming rearview mirror with universal garage-door opener, ambient cabin lighting, leather seating surfaces, 8-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, heated second-row seats, second-row shades, dual chrome exhaust tips, Co-Pilot360 Assist+ driver aids, wireless charging, and a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system.

Limited Hybrid ($51,100) has all the features in the regular Limited trim, but swaps in the hybrid drivetrain.

Limited trim also offers power-folding third-row seats, memory settings, hands-free liftgate operation, heated side mirrors, and a power-adjustable steering column as options. These features were standard last year.

The new lower-priced Explorer Enthusiast ST ($48,750) is an AWD model with leather seating surfaces and perforated inserts along with silver stitching and the ST logo. Also standard on the new Enthusiast ST are a 12.3-in digital cluster and a heated steering wheel with the ST logo and paddle shifters. Quad exhaust tips, in chrome, are complemented by 20-inch machined alloy wheels and side-view mirrors with ST projection lamps.

ST ($53,850) brings the turbocharged V6, sport-tuned suspension, paddle shifters, heated sport steering wheel, 2.3-inch configurable driver information display, trim-specific interior accents, Active Park Assist 2.0 (self-parking for parallel and perpendicular spaces), automatic emergency reverse braking, and four chromed exhaust tips.

All 2021 Ford Explorer STs also are available with upgraded brakes, red-painted brake calipers, and 21-inch alloy wheels.

Platinum ($55,725) goes back to a non-sport suspension, then adds a dual-pane moonroof (optional in the other trims), adaptive headlights, diamond-stitched/perforated-leather upholstery, leather-covered dashboard/door tops/central armrest, run-flat tires, illuminated front scuff plates, and various trim-specific exterior accents.

The new lower-priced RWD Explorer Platinum starts at $52,480, while the new Explorer Platinum Hybrid starts at $53,085.

As a luxurious King Ranch model, the 2021 Ford Explorer starts at $52,350 (RWD) or $54,350 (4WD). In addition to its mahogany-colored interior leather with multiple King Ranch logos, this new Explorer gets a leather-stitched instrument panel, a Stone Gray mesh grille insert, and 20-in alloy wheels.

ST and Platinum trims both qualify for a Premium Technology Package that includes massaging/multi-contour front seats, vertically oriented 10.1-in touchscreen, and a 14-speaker/980-watt Bang & Olufsen surround-sound system.

Other options include a Trailer Tow package, cargo management system and a rear-seat entertainment system with dual screens.

Safety

Every Explorer comes with eight airbags and mandatory safety features like stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes. 

The Ford Co-Pilot360 array of driver aids is standard across the 2021 Explorer range. Limited trim and above also have the Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package.

In crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this generation of Ford Explorer earned a maximum 5-star score overall, with five stars for front and side-impact protection. Only the rollover test produced a still-respectable four stars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) made the Explorer a Top Safety Pick+ after it took top scores in most major crash-test challenges. Only the headlights and child seat LATCH points were considered Acceptable, the institute’s second-best score.

Behind the Wheel

The turbocharged V6 is clearly the most enthusiastic of the 2021 Explorer’s powertrains, but even the 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder provides acceptable power. This generation’s move to rear-wheel drive brings a new dynamic, with better balance and a greater feeling of control.

A common complaint regarding the new Explorer is the overwhelming amount of plastic found in its cabin. Although comfortable enough, much of the hardware doesn’t seem appropriate for a $50,000 vehicle. All the controls, however, are arranged logically and there are physical knobs for the audio volume and tuning.

Luggage space behind the third row of seats is 18.2 cubic feet. With the second and third rows folded, the maximum cargo volume is 87.8 cubic feet. This also applies to the hybrid version, whose extra hardware doesn’t encroach on cargo space. The cargo area’s floor has a double-sided covering with handily washable vinyl on one side and carpet on the other. The narrowest point is 48.1 inches between the wheel wells.

Other Cars to Consider

2021 Honda Pilot — A roomy cabin, comfortable ride, generous standard equipment and strong resale values keep the Pilot attractive year after year.

2021 Chevrolet Traverse — Enjoys a larger third-row seat than many of its rivals. Spacious overall, the Traverse also has a large cargo area.

2021 Toyota Highlander — Plenty of interior space, decent fuel economy and the range includes a hybrid model. The Highlander also has high scores for resale values and durability.

2021 Kia Telluride Kia brings plenty of value with its roomy and well-equipped Telluride. And there’s that great powertrain warranty.

Questions You May Ask

How much can the 2021 Ford Explorer tow?

With the optional towing package, a 2.3-liter Explorer can tow up to 5,300 pounds. The hybrid version is rated at 5,000 pounds. With the twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 in the ST and Platinum models, the Explorer can pull up to 5,600 pounds. The blind-spot monitoring system can even detect vehicles in the vicinity of the trailer

How good is the warranty on the 2021 Ford Explorer?

The 2021 Explorer is covered by a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, which is typical coverage for non-luxury vehicles.

Where is the 2021 Ford Explorer built?

At Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, alongside its Lincoln Aviator counterpart.

Autotrader’s Advice

Limited trim approaches luxury motoring, which is nice if it’s affordable. But XLT trim with all-wheel drive and the Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package is still less than a rear-drive Limited and would probably be our choice. Find a Ford Explorer for sale

Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More

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