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car review

2012 Ford Explorer

I don't agree with Consumer Reports on this one. Last year, the magazine initially ranked the revamped 2012 Ford Explorer SUV 17th in a field of 19 similar vehicles tested and that was harsh.

The car-based Explorer (using the basic platform of the Ford Taurus) is polished and technologically advanced, not some unsophisticated rattletrap. Period.

With the EcoBoost four-cylinder, turbocharged engine (a $1,000 option), the Explorer's fuel economy is rated at 10.4 litres/100 km in the city and 7.0 on the highway. The V-6 Explorer gets 12.5 city/8.8 highway, while the four-banger edges the V-6 on torque (270 lb-ft to 255 lb-ft.). Okay, the V-6's horsepower number at 290 bests the EcoBoost at 240, but in a rig like this it is torque – twisting force at the wheel – that you feel when you goose the throttle.

The Explorer's cabin? Roomy and practical, as noted by CR, and the third-row seat is surprisingly functional in a vehicle with seating for seven. There is generous cargo space in back, the brakes are good, and the ride is among the best in its class – comfortable not mushy, and decently nimble for a big rig (2,043 kg).

In a nutshell, the Explorer is a big SUV that drives like a midsize sedan. At highway speeds, it's quiet as a roomful of texting teenagers, too.

CR says the V-6 engine is a little noisy, but I didn't think that the case for the four-cylinder EcoBoost powerplant. Moreover, horsepower and torque numbers tell only part of the story here.

EcoBoost is Ford's buzzword for direct fuel injection combined with intercooled turbocharging. The long and short of it: if you stay away from lead-footing about, you'll save fuel. Punch about the Explorer and you'll get the responses of a strong V-6 and the fuel bill to match.

As for driving position, I was first inclined to agree with CR that in the Explorer it's "flawed." But after playing around with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel and the seating position – voila! Comfort and good visibility.

Which brings us to MyFord Touch, the infotainment, navigation and general systems control interface at the centre of Ford's efforts to simplify in-car gizmos. CR has aimed plenty of stinging barbs at MyFord/MyLincoln Touch; the system has hurt Ford in quality surveys from CR to J.D. Power and Associates, too.

But MyFord Touch is not complicated and distracting at all, though you simply must take half an hour to learn the voice controls and touch-screen mechanics. If you don't, it's difficult and irritating.

The bigger issue with MyFord Touch should concern Canadians who of course wear winter gloves: the touch-sensitive controls look grand, but lack tactile feedback. Given that everything from radio presets to changing the in-car temperature is operated through the touchscreen, this is not good. Ford is based in Dearborn, Mich., where winters are long and cold. How did the engineers overlook the gloved reality of winter climes?

Of course, the easy solution here is to use the voice-command function. Ford has been refining Sync since its launch in 2007 and it's come a long way. For instance, with the push of a button you can now use some 10,000 voice commands to "find an address" or set a "destination street address." The original Sync gave you a choice of 100 voice commands. Trust me, spend 30 minutes mastering the thing and you'll be talking to your Explorer regularly and easily.

The rest? Well, the six-speed automatic has decent shift quality, though I agree with CR about the downshifts – they could and should come more quickly. What seems particularly odd is CR's dismissive comment about the Terrain Management system.

Okay, the EcoBoost rig is a front-wheel-drive-only SUV, but Terrain Management is so good you may move away from the station wagon version of the Explorer. At least you should know what Terrain Management is about.

As CR notes, this version of "the all-wheel-drive system lets you dial in various terrain types such as snow and sand, and it alters throttle, brake and torque split between front and rear wheels accordingly." What CR might want to emphasize is that Land Rover sells a similar system on vehicles that cost twice as much or more.

True, if you're clamoring for an Explorer designed to conquer the Rubicon Trail, you'll be disappointed and you'd never consider the EcoBoost Explorer. You'll shop elsewhere and not an Explorer because no matter what you pay, this Ford does not have a locking rear differential and it's not a tough-as-nails rock crawler. The most affordable SUV with four doors for this sort of excursion is the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

The Explorer is not a monster tow vehicle, either. The basic tow rating of the EcoBoost is 907 kg, but the V-6 can do up to 2,268 kg. The Dodge Durango is similarly priced and will tow a much larger, much heavier trailer.

Not many people have a need to drag about a 2,268-kg trailer, but everyone wants a good-looking ride. The Explorer hits a sweet spot here, with crisp lines, a strong nose, and sheetmetal that is tight and toned.

I found plenty to like about the 2012 Explorer, including the general quality of its materials and safety features from the intelligent all-wheel-drive system to "curve control," roll stability control and more. My view: regardless of what CR says, you won't find 15 superior SUVs of similar size and function.

2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost XLT

Type: Intermediate SUV

Price: $36,899 (freight $1,500)

Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 240 hp/270 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.4 city/7.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Dodge Durango, Hyundai Santa Fe/Veracruz, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander