Hybrid SUV with non-hybrid qualities
THE GOOD
  • Punchy hybrid powertrain
  • Spacious inside
  • Conventional towing capacity
THE BAD
  • Not especially efficient
  • Missing upmarket features
  • On the expensive side

Ford’s got something of a problem on its hands with the Explorer Hybrid it introduced last year.

Well, two problems, actually. For starters, it’s pretty pricey, adding $3,000 to the already expensive Limited trim – the only one available with the optional gas–electric powertrain. Then there’s the issue of its relative inefficiency. It’s one of only two SUVs of its kind on the market, yet compared to the gas–electric Toyota Highlander this three-row from Ford isn’t especially miserly. In fact, the 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid is barely better than average compared to purely gas-powered sport utilities its size.

It does, however, have an ace in the hole that makes obsolete one of the strongest arguments against hybrid SUVs over the years: it can haul with the best of them.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

But first, the bad news. While the Highlander Hybrid manages to sip fuel like a compact car, the Explorer Hybrid burns it like just about any other three-row SUV. That’s because unlike Toyota, which uses a four-cylinder gas engine and a few different electric motors in its big hybrid, Ford has gone in a different direction altogether.

With a 3.3L V6 under the hood and a 33-kW electric motor nestled between it and the transmission, the Explorer Hybrid burns only a little less gas than the base turbo four-cylinder this powertrain replaces for its $3,000 price premium. Its fuel consumption ratings of 10.1 L/100 km in the city, 9.0 on the highway, and 9.6 combined don’t exactly jump off the page, barely besting that base engine – not to mention most non-hybrid SUVs this size – though they weren’t especially difficult to match during testing.

An initial evaluation loop spanning a little more than 200 km – nearly 25 per cent of which were done purely under electric propulsion, according to the trip computer – saw the Explorer turn in a combined average consumption of 9.7 L/100 km. To put that into perspective, the V6-powered Honda Pilot returned an average of 10.9 L/100 km during fall testing, while the Highlander Hybrid burned just 6.4 L/100 km.

Power: 9/10

Instead, this hybrid’s strengths lie in its decidedly un-hybrid qualities. Take the combined system output of 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque that far exceeds its rival from Toyota. But more than that, it’s the way it performs that makes this version of the Explorer feel unlike what the hybrid moniker typically implies.

Get on the gas pedal, and the electric motor kicks in with enough immediate torque to make this SUV downright quick. No, it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as the 400-hp Explorer ST, but this is an impressively peppy people-mover in its own right.

While the 10-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the standard all-wheel drive system suffers from clunky and occasionally awkward operation, the gas–electric Explorer doesn’t perform like any hybrid this author has driven. Typically, it’s obvious when this type of powertrain is working away – yes, even the best of the bunch that switch between gas and electric operation all but seamlessly.

Here, however, it’s satisfying to listen to the naturally aspirated engine as it smoothly and sternly runs towards the 7,000 rpm redline, the 3.3L coming across with all kinds of confidence as the revs climb. In fact, much of the time behind the wheel is spent with very few reminders that this is a hybrid at all.

Driving Feel: 9/10

A colleague that drove the Explorer Hybrid prior to its launch complained of a lack of top-end torque, which could leave the 2,254-kg (4,969-lb) sport-utility feeling lethargic when passing or merging, though it appears any such issues have been addressed. While the transmission has a tendency to hesitate upon initial request for more momentum, there’s enough pure V6 power once it does respond to pile on some extra speed in a hurry.

Scrubbing that speed isn’t exactly perfect, the regenerative brakes offering uneven performance throughout the pedal’s travel, though it’s easy enough to learn the nuances of the system with some practice. While offering next to no initial bite or feel and not much progression through the pedal, the brakes suddenly – and somewhat surprisingly – bring the more than two-tonne family hauler to a halt.

Trending in the opposite direction is the Explorer’s weighty steering that’s suited perfectly to its size. Too many SUVs like this have feather-light steering systems that betray the mass being moved, but the feedback and resistance here is about as good as it gets. While straightforward and easy to operate, there’s the welcome addition of a proper sense of which way the front wheels are pointed that’s rare in this segment.

Comfort: 9/10

Ride quality is a touch springy and not quite as refined as others in the segment, including the GMC Acadia Denali and its optional adaptive dampers or the conventionally sprung Mazda CX-9 that seems to employ some sort of witchcraft, though it’s only a short step behind those non-hybrid entries. This version of the Ford Explorer also benefits from the boosted damping ratio that hybrids typically require to counter the extra weight they carry, leading to a planted feel over rolling pavement.

The Explorer Hybrid also nails the basics of occupant comfort, with outstanding seats in the first two rows and an excellent tri-zone automatic climate control system. Up front, driver and passenger get three-stage heated and ventilated seats that reach their desired settings quickly, while the second-row seats and steering wheel are also heated.

User Friendliness: 9/10

That the Explorer has grown so much over the years – 369 mm (14.5 in) has been added to its overall length since the first generation that launched 30 years ago, while it’s been widened 221 mm (8.7 in) – makes this one of the roomiest three-rows of its kind. While there’s another class of body-on-frame models like the Ford Expedition and GMC Yukon that are larger still, this crop of SUVs the Explorer helped to popularize is just a little more agreeable in everyday life while still offering generous accommodations.

In fact, user-friendliness is second to none in the segment with this sixth-gen version, which comes fitted with all kinds of thoughtful touches that should make living with it that much easier. While it boasts 209 mm (8.2 in) of ground clearance, entering and exiting the Explorer takes little effort, its low and wide entryways requiring little more than a sideways shuffle. The doors open almost a full 90 degrees, which is particularly helpful when loading little ones into car seats in the back, while the doors themselves extend to the bottoms of the rocker panels to keep road grime off of pant legs.

There’s other handy stuff, too, like wide steps inside the back doors that make accessing roof-mounted cargo a breeze (roof rails are standard), and, in this Limited-based hybrid model, power-folding third-row seats that aren’t just stowed at the push of a button, but can be brought upright again using their motorized mechanisms.

Switchgear in the front half of the cabin is well sorted and easy to identify at a glance; knobs for audio volume and tune sit above a bank of buttons for climate control, while the rotary gear selector – not your humble author’s favourite method of operating a transmission – is logically located on the centre console. Controls on the steering wheel are as simple as they get, while the touchscreen display mounted atop the dash is as responsive as they come.

Practicality: 9/10

Other praiseworthy areas of the cabin include all the places personal items can be stashed. The door pockets both front and back are generously sized, while the centre console features a deep covered bin in addition to more covered storage beneath the HVAC controls. Since that’s where devices are connected to the standard smartphone interfaces – both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are equipped, as are USB-A and USB-C ports – there’s a handy little cutout that allows cables to be run with the lid closed, and a convenient smartphone-sized slot that keeps devices out of the cupholders.

There’s more clever storage behind the powered tailgate, with a shallow underfloor compartment to stash stuff, though the lack of a tonneau cover is an odd omission (Ford doesn’t even offer one optionally). That’s something of a shame not just because such retractable covers are all but expected in order to keep prying eyes off of any cargo being carried, but also because of how well the Explorer does in that regard.

The 528 L with all rows of seats upright is among the best in the segment, and allows autoTRADER.ca’s cargo-testing pedal car to fit horizontally behind the third-row bench – a rare feat amongst SUVs this size. Stowing the furthest row in the floor results in 1,264 L, while folding the second row leaves 2,132 L. Both measures mean less outright space than segment leaders like the Honda Pilot or Volkswagen Atlas, though what’s provided is still quite generous.

Room for people is equally accommodating, with your 6-foot-3 author able to even fit fairly comfortably in the third row. Naturally, the second set of seats provides even more space to stretch out, with plenty of shoulder-, leg-, and headroom. The Explorer is also unique in the segment for its standard captain’s chairs in the second row; opting for a three-seat bench is a $500 upgrade here, though it’s generally the other way around.

But perhaps this SUV’s best feature when it’s time to move people and their stuff is its ability to tow. It’s here that describing the Ford Explorer Hybrid as average is actually a compliment, as it boasts the same 2,268-kg (5,000-lb) towing capacity of most gas-only sport utilities this size. While the Toyota Highlander Hybrid does a lot right, its biggest shortcoming is its inability to move anything meaningful. Its tow rating of 1,588 kg (3,500 lb) is respectable given all the extra weight of the hybrid components it carries, but it’s down significantly compared to the average three-row sport utility.

Since the Explorer Hybrid uses a V6 engine instead of a four-cylinder like the gas-electric Highlander, it boasts an impressive ability to tow – and not just because of what’s written on paper. With a car hauler hooked up to the back and a Mazda3 compact sedan strapped to it, this three-row was pushed pretty close to its maximum capacity and yet it had no trouble whatsoever. With linear torque delivery up its peak at 3,000 rpm and beyond, there’s plenty of pulling force to keep the convoy moving. When more momentum was requested during a steady hill climb at highway speed the 3.3L happily obliged, working with the transmission in tow/haul mode to pass a slower-moving truck without a problem.

Features: 8/10

The optional hybrid powertrain can only be added to the Explorer Limited trim, which comes fairly well featured – though it may leave some shoppers lusting after a more luxurious experience. The leather upholstery isn’t Lincoln-grade, though it seems durable enough to withstand family life. Families on the go should benefit from some other features, too, like the built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, the comfortable and supportive seats with their climate settings, and the various power connections throughout the cabin, including a grounded 150-watt household outlet.

Safety: 9/10

It’s not short on safety equipment, either, with the majority of the latest stuff from Ford along for the ride. A surround-view system (that’s in addition to the government-mandated back-up camera), front and rear parking sensors, LED lighting all around, automatic high-beams, and rain-sensing wipers all come standard, as does automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, and blind-spot monitoring that can be set to include the length of any trailer being towed. There’s also adaptive cruise control with steering assist, though it can also be used without the steering inputs (or even as basic cruise control), depending on users’ comfort levels.

Styling: 8/10

The design of the sixth-gen Explorer is an inoffensive one, and the Limited trim on which the hybrid is based sticks with subtle bits of brightwork to accent its understated lines. However, the popularity of this SUV with police departments throughout the country means there’s a special place in hell for anyone who orders their Explorer in black, white, or grey like the tester seen here (unfortunately, of the nine paint choices, seven of them fall within that greyscale). There are, however, slick shades of blue or red that do away with the unmarked cruiser look.

Value: 7/10

As it only comes as a single trim, the Explorer Hybrid’s pricing structure is fairly straightforward: take the $50,799 Limited model, add $3,000 for the gas–electric powertrain, and the pre-tax price rings in at $55,799 with freight charges. There aren’t many options available aside from a pair of $450 paint jobs, a $600 towing package, and a $1,750 sunroof. This tester came equipped with the latter two, pushing the price to $58,149 before the government’s share.

While that asking price isn’t exactly out of line with the Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited ($56,090 before tax) or the non-hybrid GMC Acadia Denali before options ($55,998 before tax), the Explorer Hybrid isn’t as efficient as the former nor as luxurious as the latter. It’s also not in keeping with the strategy Ford implemented with the smaller Escape Hybrid, which only comes as a single trim but undercuts a comparable Toyota RAV4 Hybrid by more than a few bucks.

The Verdict

But then the Highlander Hybrid can’t tow like the Explorer Hybrid – and neither can the Acadia, for that matter, which is rated to pull 1,814 kg (4,000 lb). And while the turbocharged four-cylinder this hybrid powertrain replaces is rated to tow slightly more, those with plans to move a trailer with any frequency would do well to move to something with a greater cylinder count. And since the Explorer’s available twin-turbo V6 is only offered in the more expensive ST and Platinum trims, this hybrid suddenly represents a sensible choice.

It might not be as miserly as what’s expected of most conventional hybrids, but this gas–electric Explorer is efficient by traditional three-row standards while featuring some of the finer qualities of both. Anyone intent on dipping their toes in the hybrid waters while keeping their feet firmly planted on the conventional ground of a V6-powered people-mover would do well to check out what the 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid has to offer.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.3L   Model Tested 2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid
Engine Cylinders Hybrid V6   Base Price $53,799
Peak Horsepower 318 hp @ 6,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 322 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,900
Fuel Economy 10.1 / 9.0 / 9.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $58,149
Cargo Space 528 / 1,264 / 2,132 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row  
Optional Equipment
$2,350 – Panoramic Sunroof, $1,750; Class III Tow Package, $600