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2021 Ford Explorer: Choosing the Right Trim

When a full-size SUV is more than you need, the 6- and 7-passenger 2021 Ford Explorer can easily handle most chores, be it hauling kids to their next game or carrying lumber and supplies from the local hardware store. The Explorer’s rear-drive layout is unique in this class, a design that allows for greater towing and better handling.

The five available trim choices are unique enough to change the Explorer’s personality for a more personalized feel. Up against heavy hitters like the Toyota Highlander, Subaru Ascent, and Chevrolet Traverse, the Explorer relies on its technology features, expressive styling, and cutting-edge powertrains – including a new hybrid engine – to win over consumers.

Unlike the Honda Pilot, the Explorer offers a wide variety of options and packages over the entire trim range, allowing buyers to pick and choose the features they need.

2021 Ford Explorer (Starting at $32,450)

The Explorer is the trim name for the entry-level model in the SUV’s lineup. This model is mainly for fleet sales, but consumers can order one if they so desire.

With delivery and fees, a base Explorer will probably sell for just a shade over $34,000. On a 60-month loan at 3% APR financing, the monthly payment would be around $610. Find a Ford Explorer for sale

2021 Ford Explorer XLT ($34,225)

For just $1,800 over the base Explorer, the XLT offers more features buyers want in an SUV. It also opens the door to more optional upgrades while keeping the price in the range most families can afford.

Order an Explorer XLT with no options, and you’ll get a 2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine, 18-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, a power liftgate, cruise control, plus proximity key keyless entry with push-button start and LED daytime running lights. Ford’s clever SecuriKey keyless entry pad is also standard, as are heated side mirrors.

The Explorer XLT uses Ford’s SYNC 3 infotainment system with an 8-inch touchscreen and includes Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa, and Android Auto integration. Also included is FordPass Connect with a Wi-Fi hotspot (subscription required). There are two USB ports in the front console (one “A” and one “C”) and two at the back of the center console facing the second-row seats.

While this system is sound, it is not as fast or wire-free as the newer SYNC 4, which unfortunately is not an upgradable option on the 2021 Explorer.

The XLT’s cabin includes tri-zone climate control, a 6.5-inch digital instrument cluster, a 10-way power driver’s seat, a 4-way power passenger seat, heated front seats, and second-row captain’s chair seating with a center console. The 50/50-split third-row seat can be manually folded to create a flat loading floor.

Ford’s Co-Pilot360 safety and driver-assistance suite is standard on all 2021 Explorer models. It includes pre-collision alert with automatic braking and pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and auto high beam headlights. Also onboard is hill descent control, hill start assist and rear backup sensors.

Options for the XLT trim are numerous, although buyers will have to move up to the $3,450 202A High Package to obtain most. Checking this box brings a heated steering wheel, ActiveX seating material, remote start, and LED fog lamps.

Upgrades for the Explorer XLT include Co-Pilot360 Assist that brings adaptive cruise control with lane-centering and traffic-sign recognition, Evasive Steering Assist, and voice-activated navigation.

Other options of note include Intelligent 4-wheel drive, an 8-way power passenger seat, 20-inch alloy wheels, a dual-pane panoramic glass moonroof, 35/30/35 second-row bench seat, and a heated steering wheel. A Sports Appearance package brings bigger wheels and tires and adds visual upgrades such as chrome exhaust tips, unique badges, and grille bars with mesh inserts.

With destination and fees, the Explorer XLT sells for around $36,000. Figuring a 60-month loan at 3% financing and no money down, a monthly payment of approximately $650 would be the norm, or about $40 more a month the base Explorer. Find a Ford Explorer XLT for sale

2021 Ford Explorer XLT includes:

  • SYNC 3 – Ford’s infotainment system uses an 8-inch touchscreen with clear menus and easy-to-understand controls. SYNC 3 allows seamless integration with smartphone apps, satellite radio, and Ford’s suite of apps and services.
  • Lane-keeping assist – part of the Co-Pilot360 suite, this system helps keep the vehicle in its lane by monitoring lane markings and alerting the driver to any course variation. If no action is taken, the system can nudge the vehicle back into its lane.
  • Tri-zone air conditioning – helps keep all three rows comfortable with cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter.
  • Power liftgate – activated by a button on the liftgate or key fob. Opening the liftgate remotely allows more effortless loading and unloading when your hands are already full.

2021 Ford Explorer Limited ($45,005)

The Limited trim includes most of the XLT’s optional equipment, then ups the ante with a more luxurious interior, more distinctive exterior, and more upscale options not offered on the XLT.

$45,000 is a big jump from the XLT’s sub $35,000 asking price until you add all the standard features that are optional on the lesser trim.

The Limited’s standard equipment list builds from the XLT’s, adding leather seating, heated and ventilated front seats, and heated second-row seats with a power-folding feature. The Limited also gets a heated leather steering wheel and second-row sunshades.

A 360-degree monitor augments the Limited’s standard backup camera with a split-screen, and the heated side mirrors can be electrically folded. Co-Pilot360 Assist is also standard on the Limited, bringing adaptive cruise control, auto high beam headlights, and Evasive Steering Assist. Forward parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers are also standard.

Music lovers will rejoice at the Limited’s 12-speaker B&O audio system, and the wireless charging pad means front-seat passengers can now charge a smartphone without the tangle of wires hanging from the dash.

The Limited trim also opens to door to the only hybrid engine option. For an additional $4,000, buyers can upgrade to a 3.3-liter hybrid powertrain. As it is not a plug-in vehicle, the Limited Hybrid does not qualify for federal tax credits, and its mileage isn’t all that much better than the non-hybrid version, making the extra cost a bit of a head-scratcher. On the flip side, the Explorer Hybrid’s 5,000-pound tow rating easily beats the 3,500-pound tow rating of its nearest competitor, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

On the options list, the Limited offers a rear seat 110-volt outlet, driver’s seat memory, a foot-activated power liftgate, and power operation of the steering column and folding third-row folding seats. Like the XLT, the Limited can be outfitted with a dual-panel moonroof, dual-headrest rear-seat entertainment system, and a Class III trailer tow package.

Without options or discounts, a Limited out the door will cost about $47,000. On a 60-month loan at 3% APR the monthly payment will be $845, or roughly $200 more a month than an XLT. Find a Ford Explorer Limited for sale

2021 Ford Explorer Limited includes:

  • Heated and ventilated front seats – we all know about heated seats, but the Explorer’s seat also uses cooling fans to circulate chilled air through the perforated leather.
  • B&O audio – this 12-speaker system was crafted for Ford by renowned Danish audio and electronics manufacturer Bang & Olufsen. It has terrific sound, deep bass, and plenty of volume.
  • 360-degree camera – the bird’s-eye view camera system allows the driver to see all around the vehicle, with a split-screen showing the rearview screen right alongside the 360-degree view.
  • Power-folding third-row seat – eliminates the need to stretch or strain to lower or raise the third-row seats. Just push a button, and one or both seats will automatically go where you want them.

2021 Ford Explorer ST ($52,830)

The Explorer ST is the choice for people who love to drive, love performance, yet still need a roomy and versatile SUV. Ford knows how to make cars go fast, and they’ve carried their knowledge to the ST trim.

The ST’s standard engine is a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 good for 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. Ford equips the ST with standard Intelligent 4-wheel drive to deal with this much power, then bolts on a sport suspension and wide 20-inch aluminum wheels surrounded by performance tires.

The ST is easily distinguished from its luxury cousins, although content-wise it is similarly equipped to the Limited. Outside, there’s lots of blacked-out trim, a black mesh grille, and black mirror caps. Quad chrome exhaust tips are another clue you’re following behind an ST, as are the blacked-out taillight lenses.

Building off the Limited’s standard and optional equipment list, the ST adds a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster (Ford calls it a productivity screen), sport front seats, and a sport-style steering wheel with shift paddles.

Co-Pilot360 Assist is standard, enhanced with Active Park Assist self-parking feature and reverse automatic braking. A Class III trailer tow package is also standard, giving the ST a max 5,600-pound tow rating.

Options for the ST are pretty exciting, bringing this Ford into the same realm as some high-end European performance SUVs. Buyers can opt for a Technology Package that brings an enhanced 980-watt, 14-speaker B&O sound system, 10.1-inch tablet-style infotainment touchscreen, and multi-contour front seats with a massage feature.

The ST High-Performance Pack adds 21-inch wheels, high-performance brakes, and red-painted brake calipers.

Without options, discounts, or your own shrewd ability to work a deal, the Explorer ST stickers for around $55,000. Using the same 60-month loan calculation as the Limited trim, an ST will add about $140 to the monthly payment or a few dollars shy of $990. Find a Ford Explorer ST for sale

2021 Ford Explorer ST includes:

  • Active Park Assist 2.0 – can automatically guide the Explorer into tight parallel or perpendicular spots with minimal input from the driver. Simply activate the system, follow the voice prompts, and the Explorer does all the rest.
  • 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 – delivers impressive power to all four wheels, helping the Explorer ST sprint to 60-mph in just a tick over 5 seconds. Fuel economy of 24 mpg hwy suggests you can now have your cake and eat it too.
  • Active Motion seats – another fancy way of saying massaging seats, these available front seats employ a lumbar massage pad and active moving seat bottom zones. The idea is to keep your legs and back from getting cramped and help keep blood flow moving.
  • 12.3-inch Digital Productivity Screen – provides a vast digital screen for speed and tachometer readouts and a display for settings and controls for various functions like navigation, audio, and driving modes.

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum ($54,480)

At the top of the Explorer pecking order is the loaded Platinum trim. And at nearly $55,000, platinum is what you might need to reasonably secure one.

Like the ST, the Platinum trim uses a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6, but with only a single turbocharger for a slightly less robust 365 horsepower. Intelligent 4WD is standard, as is a 3.31 non-limited-slip rear axle.

Outside, quad chrome exhaust tips and 21-inch wheels make a definitive statement, while in the cabin, genuine wood accents and a tri-diamond pattern with contrasting stitching graces the seats. Adaptive headlights that turn in the vehicle’s direction are standard, as is the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster.

Also standard is Active Park Assist and automatic reverse automatic braking. The Platinum trim has all the Limited’s standard features and most of the ST’s as well. The only options are a twin-panel moonroof, 10.1-inch LCD tablet-style touchscreen, multi-contour massaging front seats, 35/30/35 second-row bench seat, and the 14-speaker B&O audio system.

Drive off in a Platinum with no additional options, and you’ll be looking at a monthly payment of around $1,015, or about $20 more than the ST. Find a Ford Explorer Platinum for sale

2021 Ford Platinum includes:

  • Adaptive headlights – these upgraded LED headlights swivel in the direction of the vehicle’s intended path, helping illuminate dark curves before the driver reaches them.
  • 21-inch wheels – look amazing and provide impressive grip when cornering. The narrow sidewall does produce a firmer ride, and replacement tires don’t come cheap.
  • Genuine wood accents – the Platinum’s interior features Gray Ash Swirl real wood on the dash
  • Class III trailer tow package – includes a Class III frame-mounted hitch and electrical connectors for a maximum tow rating of 5,600 pounds.

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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