2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Introduction
While the 2014 Ford Explorer is a far more sophisticated machine than the original Explorer that kicked off America’s love affair with the SUV nearly 25 years ago, its basic mission remains the same. The modern Explorer, and other midsize crossover SUVs like it, are designed to comfortably and securely transport families whether the weather outside is frightful or delightful. Essentially, they are station wagons with higher driving positions and available all-wheel-drive systems that provide extra traction for snow and mud. Slap some fake wood on a 2014 Explorer’s flanks, and it might as well wear “Country Squire” nameplates along the sides.
Though not as popular as it once was, due both to the explosion of competitors over the decades as well as the proliferation of SUV models wearing a Blue Oval badge, the Ford Explorer remains a heavy-hitter among family-size crossovers. To get reacquainted with it, I packed my own family into a 2014 Explorer Limited for a trip to Disneyland and spent a week behind the wheel running pre-holiday errands around suburban Los Angeles. After hundreds of miles covered on a wide variety of roads, it is clear that despite entering vehicular middle age, the Explorer remains among the more compelling choices in its class.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Models and Prices
When buying a 2014 Ford Explorer, you choose between base, XLT, and Limited trim levels with front-wheel or 4-wheel drive and a standard V-6 or optional turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. The Explorer can also be purchased in Sport trim, 4-wheel drive, a sport-tuned suspension, and an exclusive twin-turbocharged V-6 engine.
Prices range from $30,495 for the base Explorer to $38,995 for the Explorer Limited, including a destination charge of $895. The optional turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine costs $995, and 4-wheel drive is available for $2,000. Select the Explorer Sport, and the price starts at $41,675.
The most popular version of the Explorer is the XLT model ($33,495). Standard equipment includes cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Sync connectivity, 6-way power-adjustable front seats, and heated side mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators. The Explorer XLT is also equipped with rear parking assist sensors, more robust brakes, and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Upgrade to the Explorer Limited ($38,995) and the enhancements include a MyFord Touch infotainment system, a Sony premium sound system, dual-zone automatic climate control, and Intelligent Access with push-button starting. Leather seats are also standard for the Limited model, along with a reversing camera, remote engine starting, power folding side mirrors, and 20-inch aluminum wheels.
The Explorer Sport ($41,675) adds a twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 engine, paddle shifters for the transmission, a sport-tuned suspension, a 4-wheel-drive system, and unique 20-inch wheels. This model is further set apart with blacked-out exterior trim, perforated leather seats that are heated in front, and many of the Explorer Limited model’s standard equipment.
My test vehicle was an Explorer Limited 4WD in new Dark Side paint. To the starting price of $40,995, it added a 302A option package ($5,420) with a power tilt/telescopic heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, a power-folding third-row seat, a power liftgate, and a navigation system. Rain-sensing wipers and HID headlights with automatic high-beam activation were also included in this package, along with a Blind-Spot Information System with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, a Lane Keeping System, Active Park Assist, and inflatable rear seat belts. My test sample also had Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning ($1,150) and a Class III Trailer Tow Package ($570).
The price tag was $48,140, more, as my wife pointed out, than a new Audi Q7. The Explorer wasn’t fully loaded, either, lacking a rear DVD entertainment system ($1,995), a dual-panel sunroof ($1,595), second-row bucket seats ($795), and a cargo cover ($135) that would have pushed the price well into the low $50s. You can probably guess where that conversation led.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Design
- Dark Side and Sunset paint colors
Generally, the more body-color trim there is and the larger the wheels are, the more I like the Ford Explorer’s styling. Blacked-out A-, B-, and D-pillars give the windshield and rear glass a wrap-around effect that makes it appear as though the roof is floating above the cabin, and the larger wheel selections have no trouble filling the swollen fenders. Thankfully, Ford resists the urge to paint portions of the lower front and rear body cladding in a light gray to mimic skid plates, and this, combined with tasteful chrome detailing on my Limited test vehicle, contributes to an appealing and tasteful overall look.
Tasteful also describes the cabin. Regardless of upholstery color, the top of the dashboard and door panels remains black in order to reduce glare, and silver trim does a decent job of mimicking metal. Soft-touch materials are provided for the dash top, upper door panels, and armrests, but in back the upper door panels are hard plastic. From the driver’s seat, the windshield pillars are very thick, almost intrusive upon the field of vision. My 3-year-old also had a hard time seeing out of this vehicle while riding in her car seat.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo
- Optional heated rear seats
- Second-row center console can be added to Sport model
A Ford Explorer is roomy enough, but somehow feels a little bit small inside. Occupants sit further inboard than expected, on seats that are undersized. My test vehicle’s driver’s seat didn’t provide the right mix of height and thigh support, positioning me lower behind the steering wheel than I preferred. Plus, the door panel armrest is far away, making it pretty useless. Therefore, comfort levels are average.
Second-row accommodations are snug for taller people in terms of legroom, but the front seatbacks are softly padded to help improve comfort. The center seating position is narrow with a hard cushion, and occupants straddle a driveshaft hump, rendering the Explorer a 6-passenger proposition at best.
Inflatable rear seat belts are an innovative safety feature, but they are stiffer and more unwieldy than regular seat belts, which made it more difficult for my 5-year-old to buckle herself in while sitting in her booster seat. Even adults needed to wrestle with the inflatable belts, especially in tight parking quarters where the Explorer’s enormous rear doors made it very hard for Mom or Dad to help. On several occasions, we needed to reverse halfway out of a parking space, put the Explorer in Park, open the rear door, buckle our kindergartener in, and then continue our journey. You can imagine how that won us many admirers in packed pre-holiday parking lots.
My test vehicle had power folding third-row seats, likely an unnecessarily complex addition. Access to the third-row seat is fairly easy as long as other vehicles aren’t parked immediately adjacent to the Explorer, and because toe space is slim and knee space is tight, adults will want to minimize the amount of time spent here. Thoughtfully, Ford provides solidly anchored handgrips on the B-pillars to help make it easier to hoist one’s keister out of the third-row seat.
With all three rows of seats in use, the 2014 Explorer holds 21 cubic-feet of cargo, measured to the roof. Fold the third-row seat, and the SUV accommodates 43.8 cu.-ft. of cargo behind the second-row seat. Fold both rows down and there’s 80.7 cu.-ft. of cargo space available.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Features and Controls
- Standard automatic headlights
Knowing that Ford’s MyFord Touch technology has been eviscerated by both the media and owners of vehicles equipped with the system, I took a fresh look at MyFord Touch by trying to explain how it works to my 75-year-old father. But only after a full week of using the system, and experiencing the frustration and aggravation that so many people have expressed to date, was I able to get comfortable enough with the technology to demonstrate it to Dad in a useful fashion.
For me, there are two main sources of irritation with MyFord Touch. One is that accessing simple functions sometimes requires menu changes combined with precise touch-sensitive button selection, forcing a degree of distraction that I think is dangerous while driving. The other is that touch-sensitive controls and buttons produce unintended actions if they are inadvertently touched, and then the system executes an unexpected command, causing momentary confusion.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. At some point, my wife and I began a conversation and I wanted to reduce the volume of the music so that we could better hear one another. I reached for the large rotary volume control knob on the touch-sensitive stereo control panel, and as I grabbed it, my thumb bumped against the touch-sensitive tuning buttons located right on the volume control dial. Instead of dialing down the volume of Christmas music, I instead switched satellite radio stations. For a moment, I didn’t understand what had just happened, but upon looking closer at the control panel, I realized I had accidentally changed stations.
This is the kind of stuff that software updates and bigger screens and haptic feedback technology and proximity-sensing controls often can’t fix. They are fundamental design flaws. And if you think the Explorer’s voice control technology ought to save the day, forget it. The system doesn’t employ natural voice recognition, requiring use of specific commands and a need to listen to a long list of voice prompts designed to walk the user through the programming experience.
My week with the Explorer wasn’t my first MyFord Touch rodeo, but I still found myself frequently staring at the screen and the touch-sensing Sony premium audio panel wondering what the hell I needed to do to execute a specific command. By the time I gave Dad the tutorial, I had the fundamentals figured out. At the end, Dad asked: “Why don’t they just install knobs and buttons for the stuff you need to use all the time?”
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Safety and Ratings
- Optional Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning
My 2014 Explorer Limited had several safety technologies that I think are terrific, but the new Collision Warning system that’s been added to the options roster isn’t one of them.
Starting with the basics, the Explorer has MyKey programmable safety features designed to keep teenagers focused on the task at hand, and most models are equipped with Sync connectivity that includes a 911 Connect service. With 911 Connect, as long as a paired smartphone is aboard the Explorer at the time the airbags deploy, emergency rescue personnel can be summoned and dispatched to the exact location of the accident.
Beyond this, the Blind Spot Information System is a fantastic safety feature, a perfect example of how technology solves a common driver error. I also loved my test Explorer’s automatic high-beam headlights, and while inflatable rear seat belts that help to limit injury in a collision are a Ford exclusive, they can present connection problems for kids in booster seats. Finally, given the amount of driver attention required by the MyFord Touch system, the Explorer’s optional Lane Keeping Assist technology ought to be mandatory.
As I indicated previously, I could have lived without the Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning system. For example, while returning from a day at Disneyland with my family, we stopped at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, Calif. Following the meal, we needed to get back on the freeway to continue the trip home. Turning left off of Garden Grove Boulevard onto southbound Beach Boulevard on the green arrow, we stayed right and zoomed up the on-ramp for the westbound Garden Grove Freeway. The collision warning system went ballistic as we rounded the on-ramp and gathered speed. There were no cars in front of us, nothing except reflectorized markers to help people get around the bend in the on-ramp. This was not the only time the system assumed that reflectorized markers were an obstacle.
Later, on a narrow country road that winds down the hill between Thousand Oaks and Moorpark, the system went ballistic when a big cab-over cube truck came around a corner ahead, resplendent in graffiti as it headed up the hill in the opposite direction. There was no actual danger in this situation, at least until the warning lights and audible alarms totally freaked me out.
Last I heard, we’re heading into a future of autonomous vehicles that do the driving for us. Clearly, the technology is going to need to get better before I will ever turn the driving over to lines of software code.
2014 Ford Explorer Crash-Test Ratings:
If nothing else, rest assured that the 2014 Explorer is safe. It gets a 5-star overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and in 2013 earned a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). As this review was written, the IIHS had not subjected the Explorer to its new small overlap frontal-impact crash test.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy
- Improved steering feel
- Upgraded braking system
Explorer buyers can choose between three different engines. The base, XLT, and Limited models come standard with a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 290 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 255 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. A 6-speed automatic delivers power to the front wheels, a 4-wheel-drive system is optional, and this engine can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine is optional for base, XLT, and Limited models with front-wheel drive. It makes 240 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 270 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,000 rpm, and gets 23 mpg in combined driving, a 3-mpg improvement compared to the standard V-6.
The Explorer Sport is exclusively fitted with a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 from the Taurus SHO. Paddle shifters and 4WD come standard with this engine, which makes 365 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 350 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,500 rpm. It gets 18 mpg in combined driving, 1 mpg lower than the standard V-6.
My Explorer Limited test vehicle had the 3.5-liter V-6, the optional 4WD, and was EPA-rated to return 17 mpg in the city, 23 mpg on the highway, and 19 mpg in combined driving. I averaged 18.1 mpg.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Driving Impressions
The Explorer’s standard 3.5-liter V-6 engine makes good power, and the SUV never felt winded at or near sea level. I would expect, however, that residents living at higher elevations might want either the optional EcoBoost 4-cylinder or the Explorer Sport’s EcoBoost V-6, because turbocharged powerplants do better in the thinner air. In particular, the Explorer Sport must prove itself something of a muscle car in a place like Denver.
I also have no complaints about the 6-speed automatic, which shifted as expected and in an unobtrusive fashion. Unfortunately, I did not have occasion to test the 4WD system’s mettle, but it includes a Terrain Management dial on the center console that lets the driver calibrate the drivetrain to specific conditions. Ground clearance measures 7.6 inches, and the 4WD system includes Hill Descent Control as standard equipment.
Ford says it has improved the Explorer’s electric steering for 2014, and all I can say is that the automaker does an outstanding job of masking the fact that this SUV’s steering is electric. It feels completely natural throughout the range of motion, with appropriate weighting combined with remarkable accuracy.
Ford also says it has improved the Explorer’s brakes for 2014. I tested the SUV on a warm day, descending from about 1,500 feet of elevation to sea level over the course of about 10 miles of twisty mountain roads. Toward the end, the brakes had heated to the point that they were rumbling upon application, but to their credit they did not fade and the brake pedal never began vibrating.
Suspension tuning is also impressive, delivering a combination of ride comfort and handling prowess that mimics a good European sedan. Of course, 20-inch wheels with P255/50R20 tires help the hefty Ford to stick in turns, but the Explorer’s ability to round a corner carrying a surprising amount of velocity goes beyond the standard Hankook Optimo all-season tires. Body roll is relatively non-existent, and the Explorer’s accurate steering and sensitive brakes allow an enthusiastic driver to really toss the Explorer around. No wonder I’m seeing more and more Explorers in California Highway Patrol livery these days.
As for the ride, those 50-series tires produce occasionally unexpected harshness, but for the most part the Explorer does a good job of soaking up bumps and cracks without wallowing about over dips. Plus, it is really quiet inside, even at highway speeds on a windy day.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts
As is true of any vehicle, there’s room for improvement with the 2014 Ford Explorer. Still, as this crossover SUV enters its fourth year – middle age for most vehicles – it remains a compelling choice in one of the most diverse and competitive vehicle segments. In fact, I’d choose it over a number of other models, though its not quite my favorite in the class.
2014 Ford Explorer Family Crossover SUV Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons
- Accomplished driving dynamics
- Appealing design, inside and out
- Useful safety and infotainment technologies
- Roomy and practical for carrying cargo
- Price tag easily rises into luxury territory
- MyFord Touch remains a work in progress
- Needs more legroom for the rear passengers
- Forward collision warning system issues false alarms
Ford supplied the 2014 Explorer Limited for this review
2014 Ford Explorer photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company