Test Drive: 2018 Ford Explorer Platinum

Reviewing crossover SUVs can be tricky business. There are many of them, and they’re all a little bit different, but mostly, they’re all sort of the same. They’ve all got V6 power. They’ve all got four-wheel drive. They’ve all got up to three rows of seating. The latest in connectivity. The most high-tech safety systems on offer until, one day, we’re all zipping around in flying discs.

The Explorer Platinum packs one of the ritziest mainstream cabins you’ll likely encounter at this price range.

And they’re all pretty good, too.

Reader emails come weekly, wondering which crossover SUV is the best. That’s not a question with an answer: some machines are better than others at certain things, but ultimately, you won’t go severely wrong with just about anything on the market today.

Another crossover test drive has come and gone. This time around, it was the 2018 Ford Explorer Platinum: Ford’s top-dog Explorer with the big engine, an ultra-ritzy cabin, and an easy shopping experience, since it comes highly loaded and with minimal options. Those looking to spend into the sixties on a full-jam mainstream SUV will likely find the Explorer Platinum a convincing choice – especially where power, interior design, and feature content is concerned.

A few touches and features and provisions and attributes help the Explorer Platinum stand out, and we’ll focus on these for the remainder of this review.

It starts with the cabin, which easily wows from a glance. There’s an upscale materials palette, numerous textures and colours and accents playing off of one another, and an abundance of embossing, stitching, and accenting designed to add further richness. Recently, I was in a nearly $80,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit, which included a few thousand dollars’ worth of interior appearance upgrades. The (less expensive) Explorer Platinum tester’s materials and trimmings pull off a similarly lavish atmosphere, and the overall look is more modern too, thanks to more current interfaces and control consoles. All said, Explorer Platinum packs one of the ritziest mainstream cabins you’ll likely encounter at this price range.

Then, there are little touches that surprise and delight by going an extra step.

Like all competitors, Explorer has four-wheel drive, though it also offers a relatively rare drive-mode selector. Twist the dial to tell Explorer what sort of driving is incoming, and various system calibrations are optimized to deliver extra traction and confidence. In snow mode, it’s harder to spin Explorer’s wheels, and the 4WD system more evenly splits power between the axles from lower speeds, generating more instantaneous bite under throttle. The drive modes are vastly different, and drivers will feel the Explorer’s personality change as they’re toggled. Use them whenever you can, especially the Snow mode. The modes work well.

Or, the central command system, which is excellent. It’s bright, vivid, instantly responsive, and highly logical. In moments, you’ll be flicking and swiping and manipulating the controls with Mark Saltzman-level prowess. The Bluetooth pairs in seconds, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay upscale your smartphone into the central screen, and the system is liquid smooth and responsive. Unlike former versions of Ford Sync, this new setup doesn’t choke like a Commodore 64 trying to compute the volume of a collapsed star, even if you work the heck out of it. In the Explorer Platinum, one of the best central command interfaces on the scene is at your service.

The instrument cluster is another delightful touch. It’s part analog, part digital, and fully customizable to show you exactly what you want to see, and little that you don’t. Modern and high-tech, the displays are framed nicely into the gauge cluster for a clean, finished look.

Or the back-up camera. Explorer goes a step further than average here, with a rare washer spray system that blasts the lens clean with a jet of washer fluid when requested, for a consistently clean image.

The Explorer is full of little touches like these, and you’re well covered if you like power, too.

Explorer’s 3.5L Ecoboost V6 is twin-turbocharged for 365 horsepower and a mighty 350 pound-feet of torque, available from low revs. The big boosted V6 works best in gentle driving – where it helps drivers use less fuel, more of the time. There’s huge thrust available from a light throttle squeeze, and most driving is tackled with the engine hardly working, and barely making a peep.

When called upon for passing and merging and towing, there’s a tidal-wave of torque on perpetual standby. Opened up, the engine is neither as smooth or pleasing to listen to as some will wish, and remains most impressive for how well it operates during very light-footed driving. It’s an ideal powerplant for those after decent mileage alongside a boatload of pulling power in reserve. Just note that this big engine is fed by a 70L fuel tank, so refueling may be required more frequently than you think.

When it comes to long-haul cruising, the Explorer is a gentle giant with a few strengths, and a few weaknesses. The good? Drivers can expect a commanding forward view, but without feeling like they’re absolutely towering above the road. Most will be able to see to the edge of the Explorer’s hood, which helps with positioning. Further, the Explorer rides the way it looks like it rides: big and heavy and solid. On the highway, it’s more floaty than athletic – comfort-first by a landslide – and even nasty surfaces do little to break the composure. Mostly, you hear bumps via a nicely muted rumble, more than you feel them.

The bad? Your writer left the Explorer wishing for an improved highway steering feel. Simply, at speed, the steering feels like it’s made of wet shoelaces: too light and lazy and vague to really lock the Explorer into its lane. Drivers may have to issue a stream of small steering corrections to keep the machine centred between the lines. In many competitors, there’s far less need to adjust the steering as you cruise.

Another gripe centred around the driver’s footwell area. The deep, thick rocker panel tightens and complicates entry for driver feet, more so when you’re rocking a heavy set of winter boots. Further, the footwell is curiously small by big crossover standards: try to hang your left foot out for a stretch, and you’ll wind up whacking it on the interior instead.

No complaints about storage though – within reach of the driver are numerous handy and clever bins to keep smaller items organized and secure. Several charging ports make it easy to keep mobile devices juiced on the move, too.

The Explorer’s second-row seats are very adult-friendly. Two captain’s chairs can be reclined and slid into position with ease, there’s a good gap between the seats, and they get their own climate control zone and heated leather. Entry and exit to the second-row seats is a cinch, and the seats fold and tumble in seconds to provide easier access to the third row.

Said third row is best left for the kids. At 5'10", your writer had room for neither his head nor feet back here, and my winter boots wound up jammed awkwardly between a weird floor lump, and the underside of the seat ahead of me.

In back, the cargo hold is generous – tall and wide – with the third-row seats folded. These erect at the touch of a button when you’re got (smaller) passengers on board. Notably, when the rear seats are upright, a deep bin behind them expands the usable cargo space. The Explorer will make a great family hauler for some, though your writer found it most impressive as weekend grown-up cottage express. With two couples, one canine, and a few days’ worth of camping supplies on board, there was room to spare.

Ultimately, a few niggles dull the Explorer’s appeal slightly – but shoppers accepting of a sludgy steering feel, a possibly cramped footwell and a smallish fuel tank will find it adds up nicely as a great pick for a significant power advantage, plenty of delightfully techy and clever touches, and one of the most nicely trimmed interiors in the game. Be sure to cross-shop the Explorer Platinum against your writer’s other segment favourites, including the Mazda CX-9, Toyota Highlander, and especially, the Buick Enclave.

2018 Ford Explorer Platinum
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 365 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Fuel Economy: 14.8/10.7/13.0 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 595 / 1,243 / 2,314 L behind third / second / first row
2018 Ford Explorer Platinum
Base Price $60,599
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,790
Price as Tested $65,619
Optional Equipment $3,130 – Floor Liners $150; Second-Row Captain’s Chairs $500; Roof Rack Crossbar $210; Dual DVD Headrests $2,100; Cargo Cover $115; Cargo Mat $55
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.9
8 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
9 Practicality
8 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
8 Features
8 Value