If you’re shopping for a new mid-size SUV for 2021, Ford is hoping that its Explorer will make its way to your driveway. It offers three rows of seats and plentiful room for hauling cargo, and it comes equipped with much of the connectivity and safety features that are on most buyers wish lists. The base and XLT models come standard with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is optional. Optional is a hybrid powertrain, and the top-spec Platinum and sporty ST models come with a twin-turbo V-6. Overall, the Explorer is a decent choice, but rivals such as the Kia Telluride, the Hyundai Palisade, and the Mazda CX-9 offer more polish.
What’s New for 2021?
Ford has made a few tweaks to its mid-size crossover for 2021, such as making heated seats standard on the XLT, offering a heated steering wheel as an optional feature on that model, and including an eight-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat on the Limited, ST, and Platinum models. A Sport Appearance package is now available on the XLT trim, and it includes 20-inch aluminum wheels that are coated in Carbonized Gray paint. In addition to the upgraded wheels, the package also brings a mesh grille with Carbonized Gray accents as well as unique lower-body cladding, dual exhaust outlets, Light Slate–colored interior upholstery, faux skid plates, and more. A new cargo organizer is optional on XLT, Limited, and ST models; the Platinum trim receives this feature as standard. A high-end King Ranch trim joins the lineup and features unique mahogany-colored leather upholstery; a sporty Enthusiast ST trim is also new for 2021 and provides the performance of the more expensive ST trim with less features and a lower price. Off-road enthusiasts may find the new Timberline trim interesting; it features a lifted suspension, all-terrain tires, and more rugged exterior styling cues. The hybrid powertrain is now available on the Platinum trim and, speaking of Platinum, buyers can now order a rear-wheel drive version of the Explorer’s top trim.
Pricing and Which One to Buy
We think the mid-level Limited model is the best Explorer for the money. While the hybrid makes sense for people who can take advantage of its lofty EPA-rated city mpg, we found the standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine to be sufficiently potent and more efficient on the highway. It can tow a sizeable 5300 pounds when equipped with the towing package. We’d also add all-wheel drive for $1920. Apart from that, we think the Limited trim’s desirable standard features should suffice. These include a 12-speaker B&O audio system, 20-inch wheels, a heated and power-adjustable steering wheel, leather upholstery, a power-folding third row, and upgraded driver assists such as adaptive cruise control.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
Base, XLT, and Limited trims come with a 300-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, and it motivates the Explorer with authority. The lead-foot drivers among us will prefer either the Platinum model, with its 365-hp twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6, or the sporty Explorer ST, which uses a 400-hp version of the same engine. A hybrid joined the Explorer lineup for 2020. It pairs a 3.3-liter V-6 engine with an electric motor for a combined output of 318 horsepower. When properly equipped, the Explorer can tow up to 5600 pounds. The Explorer rides on an all-new rear-wheel-drive platform, but all-wheel drive is still optional. A 10-speed automatic transmission is standard across the board. Ride and handling are agreeable and composed but far from entertaining; the Explorer ST is far more athletic, and its extra power and stiffer suspension make it a real performance SUV.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
Due to its myriad powertrain and drivetrain combinations, the 2021 Explorer has varying EPA fuel-economy ratings. The rear-drive hybrid model is rated as the thriftiest overall, with estimates of up to 27 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Adding all-wheel drive reduces the hybrid’s ratings by 3 and 4 mpg, respectively. We tested one on our 200-mile highway route, where it managed only 24 mpg. Comparatively, the 400-hp Explorer ST earned 25 mpg in our testing, which beat its EPA rating by 1. We also tested the four-cylinder Explorer with all-wheel drive. The government estimates that version will earn 20 mpg city and 27 highway; we saw 28 mpg.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
While the interior design may border on uninspired, the Explorer’s cabin is functional and comfortable—at least for those in the first two rows. Getting into the standard third row is now easier thanks to a new mechanism that moves the second-row seat out of the way at the touch of a button. Once back there, however, older kids and adults will find that the seat is too close to the floor to be comfortable. Rivals such as the Chevy Traverse and the Volkswagen Atlas provide more comfort in the third row. We managed to fit four carry-on suitcases behind the Ford’s third row, and we fit a total of 31 bags with both back rows folded flat.
Infotainment and Connectivity
An 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment is standard and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability and a Wi-Fi hotspot. The system is both attractive and responsive but not as intuitive as we’d like. A rotatory controller would help in that regard. To get the optional 10.1-inch vertically oriented screen, you’ll need to upgrade to either the Platinum or ST. Still, every model is available with voice-activated navigation as well as a rear-seat entertainment system. Apart from the base Explorer, a 12-speaker B&O audio system comes standard.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
The 2021 Explorer received a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) but missed out on a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) due to a merely Acceptable score in the small-overlap front crash test. Ford outfits every Explorer with a host of standard driver-assistance technology and offers upgrades such as self-parking assist. Key safety features include:
- Standard forward-collision warning and automated emergency braking
- Standard blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross-traffic alert
- Standard lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist
Warranty and Maintenance Coverage
Ford provides wholly average limited and powertrain warranties that align with most competitors’ plans. However, the company doesn’t provide the complimentary maintenance that Toyota and Chevy do.
- Limited warranty covers three years or 36,000 miles
- Powertrain warranty covers five years or 60,000 miles
- No complimentary scheduled maintenance
More Features and Specs