2012 Ford Explorer Review and Prices

Last Updated: Aug 26, 2011

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2012 Ford Explorer Buying Advice

The 2012 Ford Explorer is the best midsize crossover SUV for you if you want three-row seating and are turned on by the notion of V-6 power with four-cylinder fuel economy.

The 2012 Ford Explorer adds Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder engine that rivals the SUV’s V-6 for performance but gets 3 mpg more, for a combined 23 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Ford bills the 2012 Explorer with the EcoBoost four as America’s most fuel-efficient seven-passenger midsize SUV, though this engine costs $995 more than the V-6 and isn’t available in combination with all-wheel drive. The 2012 Ford Explorer is otherwise unchanged -- save for an expanded exterior color palette -- after its model-year 2011 transformation into a contemporary midsize crossover SUV. Unlike all previous truck-based Explorers, today’s model is has car-type unibody construction. It remains quite off-road capable, however, and continues with a blocky, old-school SUV design that gives it a purposeful look.

Should you buy the 2012 Ford Explorer or wait for the 2013 Ford Explorer? Buy the 2012 Ford Explorer. There’s little to gain by waiting. The 2013 Explorer isn’t likely to change in any substantive way, aside from perhaps more new color choices or a minor realignment of features or options packages. Buying the 2012 Explorer gets you into what will still be an entirely current design and lets you cheat prices almost certain to rise for model-year 2013.

2012 Ford Explorer Changes back to top

Styling: Cruising nicely after its total redesign for model-year 2011, the only cosmetic changes to the 2012 Ford Explorer are the addition of four new exterior color choices: Ginger Ale Metallic, Dark Blue Pearl Metallic, Cinnamon Metallic, and Black. In contrast to the more urban-flavored shape of the slightly smaller Ford Edge crossover SUV, the 2012 Explorer features a rather upright design that suggests slightly tougher, old-school-SUV demeanor and hints of its ability to go off-road.

The 2012 Explorer comes capped by a bold rendition of Ford’s trademark three-bar grille flanked by headlamps that wrap into the front fenders. The nose of the 2012 Explorer features an aggressive-looking lower fascia finished in flat black with integrated fog lamps and a wide air dam. This remains the most interesting view of a crossover that’s otherwise quite generic looking.

Size-wise the 2012 Explorer is about mid-pack among three-row midsize SUVs. It’s a bit longer overall than the Honda Pilot, for example, but shorter than the Chevrolet Traverse. Wheelbase -- – the distance between the front and rear axles and key to a vehicle’s interior volume -- is notably briefer than the Traverse’s, but both models feature similar passenger room. The longer Chevy, however, handily beats Explorer for maximum cargo volume with both rear seating rows folded, 116.4 cubic feet to 80.7.

The 2012 Ford Explorer’s interior features a sweeping dashboard with a prominent center stack of controls capped by a LCD video display. The dashboard, center console, and steering wheel are tastefully trimmed in faux aluminum, with side air vents that flow visually outward and burly looking metal speaker grills mounted near the bottoms of the front doors.

The original Explorer was introduced for model-year 1991 and helped ignite America’s love affair with the SUV. Like that original, every subsequent Explorer generation utilized stout, truck-like body-on-frame construction that maximized towing ability but made it ride and handle like, well, a truck. That changed with the 2011 redesign, in which Ford dumped the body-on-frame design and put Explorer on a modified version of the Ford Taurus sedan’s unibody platform.

Unibody is the car-type construction in which the body and underlying frame are integrated as a single unit. This generally promotes a smoother ride with easier and more-predictable handling than is possible with a truck-based design and unibody SUVs are called crossovers because they combine SUV attributes with car-like construction.  

The 2012 Explorer lineup returns three models: entry-level Base, volume-selling XLT, and top-of-the line Limited.

Mechanical: In addition to the standard V-6 engine, the 2012 Ford Explorer is newly available with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder from Ford’s family of turbocharged and direct fuel-injected EcoBoost engines. This four generates a respectable 237 horsepower with a strong 250 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, Explorer’s V-6 has 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. It’s torque that supplies most of the power to accelerate, so the EcoBoost four should hold its own with the V-6 in daily driving, if not for outright speed.  

If you want a 2012 Explorer with all-wheel drive, however, you’ll have to stick with the V-6; the EcoBoost four-cylinder is available only with front-wheel drive. Moreover, Ford says the EcoBoost will run just fine on 87-octane gas but the automaker recommends 91-octane premium for full power and optimal fuel economy. So realizing the full benefits of the EcoBoost will cost more at purchase time and potentially more at each fill-up while sacrificing the bad-weather and slippery-surface versatility of all-wheel drive.

While the EcoBoost is available in all three 2012 Ford Explorer models the standard engine in all three remains a 3.5-liter V-6. With this engine, Explorer can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds versus a maximum of 2,000 pounds with the four-cylinder. A six-speed automatic is the 2012 Explorer’s only transmission. In XLT and Limited models, this transmission comes with a manual gear-select mode via a shifter-mounted toggle switch.

It’s unusual for an automaker to position a smaller, less-powerful engine as the “premium” alternative to a vehicle’s standard engine. For example, one of Explorer’s chief rivals is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Its standard engine is a 3.6-liter V-6 with some 290 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque, and a 5,000-pound tow rating. Grand Cherokee’s premium powerplant is a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with some 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Previous-generation Explorers, in fact, followed this blueprint, with a V-8 as the step-up choice to a V-6; the EcoBoost is the first four-cylinder engine ever offered in the Explorer, a nameplate that ignited the midsize-SUV boom in 1991.  

Also distinguishing today’s Explorer from every previous-generation model is its front-wheel-drive instead of rear-wheel-drive configuration and its reliance for added traction on all-wheel drive (AWD) instead of truck-type rear-wheel drive.

Absent a traditional four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing, the 2012 Ford Explorer isn’t intended as a hard-core off-road SUV. But V-6 AWD versions are more capable off-pavement than the typical crossover because they come equipped with Ford’s sophisticated Terrain Management system.

Developed while Ford owned the British brand, Land Rover (and used in current Land Rover SUVs), Terrain Management automatically coordinates powertrain, suspension, and braking-system performance to maximize traction. A dial on the center console enables a driver to tailor the system’s performance for four diverse traction situations: normal pavement, snow, sand, and mud/ruts. It also includes hill descent control that automatically shifts the transmission into a lower gear and engages the brakes when the Explorer is negotiating a steep downgrade.

Stability control is required by federal regulation on every 2012 vehicle and on the Ford Explorer it takes the form of Ford’s AdvanceTrac electronic stability control system. It includes Roll Stability Control to help prevent rollovers in sudden handling maneuvers, as well as Ford’s Curve Control technology that automatically cuts engine torque and applies four-wheel braking if the driver is taking a turn too quickly. Ford says this system can slow the vehicle by as much as 10 mph in about a second and can help maintain control when taking highway on- or off-ramps at excessive speeds. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes help ensure secure stopping abilities.

Features: All 2012 Ford Explorer models come with three rows of seats and can accommodate seven passengers when fitted with the second-row bench seat or six with the available dual second-row buckets. As is typical of three-row midsize crossover SUVs, the 2012 Explorer’s  third-row seat is best suited to folks under 5-foot 6. It splits and folds flat with the rear floor, and the second-row seats fold and tip to maximize cargo space.

Standard equipment on every 2012 Ford Explorer includes seat-mounted side airbags for the driver and front passenger and side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats to protect outboard occupants’ heads in side-impact crashes and rollovers. Ford’s innovative self-inflating rear-seat safety belts that can help reduce head, chest and neck injuries in a collision are optional. Also standard is Ford’s MyKey feature, which the company promotes as a way for parents of teen drivers to promote safe driving by limiting vehicle speed and tying audio volume to seatbelt use.

Standard on the 2012 Ford Explorer Limited and available on the XLT is the advanced MyFord Touch control and connectivity technology. Conceived in collaboration with Sony, the system makes extensive use of user-configurable LCD touch screens and displays to replace most dashboard buttons, knobs, and gauges. Ford is reaching out to younger and tech-savvy buyers with this system, though some motorists may find it befuddling to operate, let alone customize. Even when mastered, MyFord Touch can be distracting to perform what would otherwise be simple tasks.

Fortunately the Explorer includes Ford’s Sync multimedia system on the XLT and Limited and makes it available on the Base version for an affordable $295. Sync enables operation of the audio system, included Bluetooth mobile phone interface, and optional navigation system entirely by voice commands. Also again included with Sync is a pair of USB ports for connecting iPods and other portable devices to the system.

Noteworthy options on the 2012 Ford Explorer include a dual-panel moonroof and a power liftgate. The available adaptive cruise-control system maintains a set speed and distance from traffic ahead and sets off visual and audible alerts and primes the brakes to full force if sensors determine the Explorer is approaching a stopped or slowed car too quickly.

Also available is Ford’s Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert (BLIS) that warns of vehicles outside the driver’s field of vision when backing out of a parking space or garage. Ford’s Active Park Assist system is also offered to automatically steer the 2012 Explorer into a parallel parking space while the driver uses the brake pedal to control its speed.

2012 Ford Explorer Prices back to top

Base-price range for the 2012 Ford Explorer is $28,995-$40,565, representing a modest increase over the model-year 2011 range. (Base prices in this review include the manufacturer’s destination fee; Ford’s fee for the 2012 Explorer is $825.)

The 2012 Explorer Base version is priced from $28,995 with front-wheel drive and $30,995 with AWD. The 2012 Explorer Base model comes adequately equipped with a CD audio system, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, and 17-inch aluminum wheels and tires.

The 2012 Explorer XLT starts at $32,805 with front-wheel drive and $34,805 with AWD. The 2012 Ford Explorer XLT rides on 18-inch wheels and tires and adds such features as fog lamps, a reverse sensing system for easier parking, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the subscription-based Sirius satellite radio with six months of service included.

Base price for the 2012 Explorer Limited is $38,565 with front-wheel drive and $40,565 with AWD. This top-of-the-line 2012 Explorer includes 20-inch wheels and tires, adjustable brake/accelerator pedals, dual-zone climate control, a rearview camera, remote starter, 110-volt power outlet, power heated front seats, and leather upholstery. Most of these features are otherwise available as options on the 2012 Ford Explorer XLT.

As noted, the above base prices include the V-6 engine. It costs an extra $995 to equip a 2012 Ford Explorer with the EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. It’s available on all trim levels, but you forgo AWD to obtain it.

Among other key 2012 Explorer options, adding the voice-activated Sync control system to the Base model costs $295. An option package that bundles the MyFord Touch operating system, dual-zone air conditioning, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a rearview camera costs $1,800 on the XLT. Offered for both the XLT and Limited, a voice-activated navigation system is priced at $795, with a dual-panel moonroof going for $1,595.

For 2012 Explorer buyers who want it all, the top option package for the front-drive Limited model packs the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine, a power-folding third-row seat, heated/cooled front seats, the navigation system, Active Park Assist, the blind spot and collision warning systems, and other amenities, all for a stiff $6,305.

2012 Ford Explorer Fuel Economy back to top

With either engine, the 2012 Ford Explorer’s fuel-economy ratings are entirely competitive with and usually better than other crossovers of similar power. Ford says 36 percent of Explorer buyers consider fuel economy key to their purchase decision – that’s up from just 6 percent for buyers of the pre-2011 model. The better fuel economy of the EcoBoost should reinforce that appeal.

With the V-6 engine, fuel-economy ratings for the 2012 Ford Explorer are 17/25 mpg city/highway and 20 mpg combined city/highway with front drive and 17/23 city/highway, 19 mpg combined with AWD.

Official EPA fuel-economy ratings for the 2012 Explorer equipped with the EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder were unavailable in time for this report, but Ford estimates peg it at 20/28 mpg city/highway, 23 mpg combined.

To put the EcoBoost Explorer’s fuel economy in perspective, Ford’s estimated ratings are comparable to official EPA ratings earned by smaller five-passenger crossovers that have less powerful four-cylinder engines, including Ford’s own 171-horsepower 2012 Escape at 23/28/25 mpg. Note, however, that the Chevrolet Equinox midsize crossover, which is about the same size as the Explorer but offers only five-passenger seating, is rated 22/32/26 with front-wheel drive and its 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine.  

As noted, while the 2.0-liter EcoBoost is capable of running on 87-octane regular-grade gasoline without damage, Ford recommends premium-octane 91 or higher to realize this engine’s full power potential.

2012 Ford Explorer Release Date back to top

The 2012 Ford Explorer went on sale in late summer 2011.

What's next for the 2012 Ford Explorer back to top

With the next full redesign for the Ford Explorer likely around model-year 2015 or 2016, look for a midcycle facelift around model-year 2014. Such facelifts typically include minor style tweaks to nose and tail but no change in overall shape or dimensions.

As with today’s model, the next-generation Explorer should continue to share its basic platform and many powertrain components with the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS full-size sedans and with the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT midsize crossover SUVs.

A plug-in hybrid version that can travel, say, 10-20 miles on electric power alone may be in the Explorer’s future. Ford is committed to the “electrification” of its vehicles and the Explorer would seem to be a likely candidate for this fuel-saving technology, though probably not until the next-generation redesign. In the nearer-term, Ford could seek to satisfy tightening federal fuel-economy standards by making the four-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engine, or perhaps even a non-turbo four-cylinder, standard on the Explorer.

2012 Ford Explorer Competition back to top

Jeep Grand Cherokee: Like the Explorer, the Grand Cherokee was among the top-selling vehicles during the SUV boom but faded as crossovers flooded the market. A complete redesign for model-year 2011 gave the Grand Cherokee added overall sophistication and a nicely recast five-passenger interior. Grand Cherokee is built on a car-like unibody structure but heavily reinforced to retain Jeep-levels of off-road ruggedness. It comes in rear-wheel drive or with multiple four-wheel-drive systems, including Jeep’s Selec-Terrain, which is similar to Explorer’s Terrain Management system. New for 2012 is a sporty SRT8 version with a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 that produces 470 horsepower but is rated a sobering 12/18/14 mpg. A 3.6-liter V-6 remains the standard engine and should again be rated at 290-horsepower and 17/23/19 mpg. The available 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 will likely generate 360-horsepower and be rated at 13/20/15 mpg. Estimated 2012 base-prices range is $31,000-$44,000 for mainstream models with the SRT8 starting around $55,500.

Chevrolet Traverse: Bordering on full-size SUV territory, Chevy’s seven-passenger crossover shares parts and platforms with the burlier GMC Acadia and luxury-minded Buick Enclave. Traverse looks good inside and out and features a comfortable seven-passenger cabin. The only engine is a 288-horsepower V-6 that delivers good acceleration and is teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission. The vehicle’s ride and handling qualities are nicely balanced, with a very basic AWD system available as an alternative to front-wheel drive. Fuel-economy rate 17/24 mpg city/highway, 19 combined. Base prices range from $30,240-$41,615. Traverse has been a sales success and is expected to be heavily updated for model-year 2013 or 2014.

Honda Pilot: With its boxy appearance the Pilot won’t win any design awards, but it rewards buyers with good overall road manners and a roomy and comfortable interior that can seat up to eight passengers. A peppy V-6 should again deliver 250 horsepower with the ability to shut down select cylinders to maximize fuel economy. Front- and all-wheel-drive are available and the 2012 Honda Pilot should again be rated at 17/23/19 mpg. Base prices range from roughly $29,000-$41,000. A redesign is tentatively planned for model-year 2014.

2012 Ford Explorer Next Steps