By Sue Mead, Motor Matters

Ford spices up its 2014 Explorer with a few fresh features, including new comfort and convenience offerings and upgrades to performance.

Spanning the midsize and full-size segments of the SUV/crossover market, the Explorer is a heralded nameplate. Since 1990 the Explorer has helped shepherd the populace-pleasing sport utility segment. Originally a body-on-frame SUV, its mission was to ferry families and traverse the lands beyond pavement with prowess. And while it still has dirt-road competence, its charge has changed.

Today's Explorer is a unibody crossover SUV -- and comes with three rows of seating, can carry up to seven passengers, and is available in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (4WD) versions.

New for 2014 are standard auto headlamps, as well as second-row heated seats and adaptive cruise control, which are available or standard depending on the model.

Of note are the available second-row inflatable seatbelts that add comfort and bring increased protection, by reducing head, neck and chest injuries for second-row riders that are often children and elderly, who can be more vulnerable to these specific injuries. Ford's inflatable seatbelts are an award-winning safety technology innovation. A power-fold third row seat is also available.

Available in four models, the base Explorer starts at $29,600. Other models are the XLT, Limited and the top-level Explorer Sport.

Performance-oriented upgrades include a solid-mounted, electric power-assisted steering rack with improved feel that is also more responsive both on-road and off-road, and larger brakes that provide shorter stopping distances and better performance when towing. For 2014, trailer sway control is standard; this system uses selective braking and engine management to mitigate unwanted trailer movements. The Explorer's maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.

Key features on the 2014 Explorer include Ford's latest-generation SYNC system by Microsoft with MyFordTouch that bundles Wi-Fi capability, text-to-voice, HD Radio with Apple iTunes Tagging, SIRIUS Travel Link, voice-activated/in-dash advanced navigation, plus integrated USB ports for accessing music. Bluetooth hands-free connectivity is standard, as is a rearview camera.

Under the Explorer's hood is the standard engine -- a 3.5-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque with an EP of 17/24 mpg. The EcoBoost turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 270 lb.-ft of torque and 240 horsepower and an EPA of 20/28 mpg.

A six-speed automatic transmission is mated with both engines. An optional Terrain Management System adjusts the engine, transmission and brakes to give improved traction on different surfaces on- or off-road surfaces, and includes settings that range from Normal to Mud and Ruts, Sand, and Snow modes.

We've driven this current-generation Ford Explorer on a number of occasions. It's easy to get in and out of and has good room in the first two rows for adults, with a third row that is also easy to access for smaller riders. There is decent space at the back end for stowage with all seats up and flexibility for cargo carrying with the rear rows folded (the third row can flip and fold into the floor); with the third rows seats stowed, the rear load space holds to 81 cubic feet of cargo.

We think Explorer's appealing exterior styling shares some of the looks of the high-end Range Rover models, while the interior is bright and airy and has premium materials that vary with the trim package. Overall, its driving characteristics are good, with high-command view seating for the driver. The crossover benefits from independent suspension, steering that carves well and ample power that varies in its quickness, depending on the engine selected.

The Explorer Sport is quick and nimble and is gifted by special treatment injected at the hands of Ford's performance engineers; with 350 horses, a SelectShift auto transmission that will hold the gears and paddle shifters, technologically advanced all-wheel drive, bigger brakes, 20-inch wheels and tires, and a stiffer body structure, the Sport is a fun package to drive and is also a true family-hauler.



VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 6/7-passenger FWD midsize CUV

BASE PRICE___________________ $29,600 (as tested: $30,495)

MOTOR TYPE__________________24-valve V-6 w/SMPFI


HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 290 at 6500 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)________________ 255 at 4000 rpm

TRANSMISSION_________________ 6-speed automatic

OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 197.1 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb)___ 39.2 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________ 4,432 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY________________ 18.6 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway