The Ford Explorer helped establish the sport utility paradigm when it debuted nearly two decades ago, and was America's best-selling SUV between 1991 and 2006 (finally getting unseated by the Honda CR-V in 2007). It's a sign of the times when big, thirsty SUVs lose market share to smaller, more fuel-efficient models.
Though Explorers start at $26,010, our well-equipped test vehicle wore a sticker price of $42,945. The 2008 Ford Explorer comes with a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty, and 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain coverage. EPA estimates are 13 city, 19 highway.
First, allow me to admit to a bit of Ford Explorer bias. In my twenties, I drove a hand-me-down 1993 Eddie Bauer Edition, and it offered rock solid reliability until I sold it with 190,000 miles on the clock. An Explorer recently re-entered my life when my wife purchased a 1994 Limited Edition model from a friend for the low, low price of $1,150. The thing looks like it's been through a war and the interior has a faint doggy odor, but we've already become attached to its rugged durability. It's a no-nonsense workhorse that does what it does better than it ought to considering its 182,000 miles of life.
So, it's hard not to approach the 2008 Ford Explorer with a bit of prejudice. Our test car stickered at $42,945, offering a bit of sticker shock for the guy whose wife picked up a car for the price of a used laptop. But for the sake of fairness, let's compare apples to apples and evaluate the '08 Explorer in a contemporary context.
Unashamed of its extravagant heft, our Explorer boasts a power-folding third row seat ($1,370) that's actually spacious enough for (an admittedly small) adult. A navigation system adds $2,505 to the bottom line, as does the Eddie Bauer $1,290 luxury package (with home link, heated mirrors, dual A/C, and adjustable pedals.) Power operated running boards come at a $695 premium, 18" chrome wheels add flash for another $695. Interior extras include Sirius satellite radio and a moonroof ($560), rear seat DVD entertainment ($1,295), and auxiliary climate control ($695).
In the Driver's Seat
Though it felt big in the early 90s, the venerable Explorer has become dwarfed by behemoths like the Cadillac Escalade and the Infiniti QX56, not to mention stable mates which include the extra large Expedition, and the super duper-sized Excursion. Nonetheless, the Explorer is still a large vehicle whose bulk becomes apparent when compared to trendier (and now better-selling) crossovers.
Stepping up the power-operated running boards reveals a two-tone interior that -- at least for this beerophile -- inspires a craving for a Black and Tan. The seats are comfy. Their 10-way adjustability can be configured in conjunction with power-operated pedals. Somehow, though, the pedal mobility doesn't fully make up for the non-telescoping steering wheel; I found a bit of arm extension necessary.
Chromed rings accent the easy-to-read instruments, and faux wood offers a reasonable facsimile of the real thing, adding a bit of lushness to the otherwise simple interior. Door panels include a fair amount of plastic, but it's well disguised with a tolerable finish. Door handles take a bit of getting used to; you've got to "paw" your hand into the chromed, curved half-circle shape, but after a few days of use it starts to feel more natural.
The shifter feels authoritative, but there's no indicator on the dash that reflects which gear you're in; it's easy to yank it into "3," not "Drive" if you're not paying attention. Ergonomic quibbles aside, the Explorer's interior is comfortable and substantial feeling, offering a fitting complement to its beefy exterior.
On the Road
It's hard to be shy when you're rolling Explorer style. You sit high and mighty on the road, and commandeering a large vessel from the throne of your leather seats imparts a feeling of power. Our Explorer was equipped with Microsoft Sync, which uses voice recognition to control everything from Bluetooth-activated cell phone dialing to MP3 music selection. Sync turns any MP3-loaded USB memory sticks into a virtual iPod, and the voice-activation feature helps keep your eyes and hands on the road, where they belong -- too bad the navigation system won't allow destination input while the vehicle is in motion, even if it's a passenger doing the fiddling.
Powered by a 4.6 liter V8 that produces 292 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, the Explorer accelerates with enough grunt to satisfy most leadfoots. A V6 is also available. The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, almost imperceptibly. If there is a fault to the Explorer's drivetrain, tough it's two numbers on the spec sheet: 13 and 19, the EPA numbers that are victims of the demands of propelling 4,706 lbs of car with reasonable rapidity; something's gotta give in this SUV equation, and unfortunately it's fuel economy.
The Explorer's 4-wheel independent suspension remains generally composed over most smooth surfaces, though there's a certain busy quality that quickly sets in when surface conditions go south. You'd expect such a big vehicle to have a more buttery ride, but alas the Explorer isn't exactly Barcalounger-on-wheels. Nonetheless, it's a solid performer overall.
I promised to keep this road test in a contemporary context, and that I'll do. Though it occupied a unique niche when it was introduced in 1990, the Explorer now has a wide array of competitors that range from the Acura MDX to Toyota 4Runner. Expensive fuel and a new concern for space efficiency may have helped the Honda CR-V dethrone the Explorer from the top sales spot, but that shouldn't detract from its attributes: for a relatively large SUV that seats seven comfortably, the Explorer is a civilized, smooth running sport utility vehicle that works well as an urban commuter or a long distance road tripper.
The Explorer is not without its faults, among them less than stellar fuel economy and a rather high sticker price, but loaded with an almost $43,000 price tag it offers lots of creature comforts, among them the Microsoft Sync system, a rear DVD screen, and the optional third row of seats that aren't a Lollipop Guild-only zone. If I may briefly reference my wife's beloved 1994 Ford Explorer, perhaps the best compliment I can pay the 2008 version is that it has retained much of the same spirit that embodies much earlier versions of the car. The Explorer is an honest, straightforward SUV that doesn't pull any punches or pretend to be something it's not. It may be bigger and heavier than its former self, but if you have the need for a seven passenger workhorse that's easy to live every day, the Explorer delivers in spades.