2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost: First Drive

Can a four-cylinder get the job done in Ford's largest crossover?

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost: First Drive
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You can’t question the popularity of the new Ford Explorer. Even though the big seven-seater now shares a car-based platform with its corporate siblings rather than the truckish body-on-frame construction of its predecessors, customers are gobbling up the big crossover in droves. Its sleek appearance, powerful V6 engine and optional tech-toys galore mean Ford is seeing sales numbers that now fall closer to the Explorer’s ‘90s hey-day.

FAST FACTS

1. Ford’s Ecoboost 4-cylinde also available on the Edge, puts out 247 horsepower and 270 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm.

2. Fuel economy is 20 mpg city and 28 mpg around town, substantial improvements over the V6 models.

3. The Ecoboost carries a $995 premium over the V6, but is only available with front-wheel drive.

4. Ford buyers expect those who need towing capacity to opt for the Expedition.

Ford did take a chance by not offering an upgraded engine in addition to the regular 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, figuring that those who needed heavy-duty towing capabilities would be better served with the traditional Expedition SUV. There’s still a possibility that the 355-horsepower EcoBoost V6 found in the Flex and Taurus SHO could fit under the hood, but Ford is already selling enough regular Explorers as it is.

However, looking to leverage its EcoBoost brand through as many nameplates as possible, Ford will offer a turbocharged direct-injection gasoline engine in the 2012 Explorer: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder version that will eventually end up in the hot Focus ST. That’s truly ambitious, though. It’s generally only European manufacturers who sell small-displacement turbos in their largest vehicles, and even then those models don’t usually make it to North America.

The EcoBoost option will still make 240-horsepower, but more importantly, 270 lb-ft of torque, which is 15 more than the V6. They share the standard six-speed automatic transmission, but the four-banger gets more aggressive ratios.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost

Surprisingly, EcoBoost is only available with front-wheel drive, leaving the matter of controlling traction to a computer rather than driven rear wheels. Surprisingly, the 4,503-lb four-cylinder only saves 50 lb over the big V6; the turbocharger, intercooler and extra plumbing make up the difference.

All in, the EcoBoost-equipped Explorer returns 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, handily beating the base V6 (17/25) in the process. Ford is also proud that the breathed-on four-cylinder beats such class heavyweights as the Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander in highway ratings too.

To call any Explorer fast would be fibbing, so it’s hard to say how the comparative loss of 50 horsepower affects its acceleration. Our short preview at and around Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds offered a mixed variety of driving – including fairly serious hills, highways and more sedate country roads –  but not nearly enough time behind the wheel. Winding out the EcoBoost engine isn’t thrilling – it’s too muted for that. The steering wheel tugs around a little thanks to the abundant torque during passing manoeuvres, but we’d guess the front-wheel-drive V6 model would react similarly.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost

Thankfully, once up to speed the Explorer delivers the same comfortable ride, although without any real hint of sportiness in the helm. Ford prioritized enthusiastic handling on its new cars (Fiesta, Focus and Fusion) but that hasn’t translated to the Explorer. Perhaps we’ll see a Sport trim a la Edge with giant wheels and a tighter chassis, but don’t count on it coming soon.

As a transporter of people and their gear, the Explorer works very well – the front seats are comfortable, the second row spacious, and the folding third row more than just liveable. There’s over 80 cu. ft. of cargo space with the seats folded flat. The main gripe comes from the proprietary MyFordTouch system that scatter-shots controls and screens all over the dash, console and gauge cluster. There are three ways of doing any one thing – pushing the appropriate button directly, digging through the sub-menus on twin screens that flank the speedometer using the redundant steering wheel controls, or use voice commands. It’s a steep learning curve that makes Mt. Washington look like a dance floor.

Just getting an Explorer EcoBoost in your driveway will start at $29,165. The better equipped XLT ($32,975) and Limited ($38,735) add luxury and technology, including a reverse parking system, dual-zone climate control, an eight-speaker audio system and more. Ford also offers a number of standard and optional safety systems, including blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, and seatbelt-mounted airbags for the third row.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost

The price premium for ordering the EcoBoost engine is just under $1,000, far less than other manufacturers charge for their hybrid or diesel variants. But figure the four-cylinder taking four years at 15,000 miles apiece before you’d make back the money in fuel savings.

Kudos to Ford for taking a chance in this segment while trying to get the customer mix right, but we’d suspect the EcoBoost will be a small percentage of vehicles sold, but a large part of the marketing message. It’s more important that Ford offers this technology – how many actually find customers is a secondary concern.

LOVE IT
  • Abundant torque
  • Space for seven
  • Reasonable $1K premium over V6
LEAVE IT
  • No all-wheel drive
  • Remote steering, chassis
  • Confusing MyFordTouchD

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