The current generation Ford Explorer has not had an easy birth. It was plagued when it was introduced for 2020 by production & quality issues. I previously test drove an XLT trim with the base 2.3L EcoBoost engine & 10-speed automatic but it didn’t feel refined enough. This particular 2021 Ford Explorer is different because it’s a hybrid. So has it improved?
Engine – The hybrid variant of the Ford Explorer is powered by a 3.3L naturally aspirated V6 with an electric motor for some assist. It’s not a plug-in but it can drive on electricity alone for brief periods. However, getting it to drive on electricity alone is a bit like playing a game with the throttle pedal. If the 1.5 kWh battery is fully charged, the Explorer Hybrid can accelerate from a stop to approximately 70 km/h using only electricity at a moderate pace. But if the battery is only partially charged, the acceleration rate – under electricity alone – is about as fast as a tortoise. Push harder than 3-5% of the throttle pedal and the gas engine kicks in. When cruising and the battery is fully charged, the computer automatically switches to battery power. But when partially charged, you have to let off the throttle while on a cruise for a couple of seconds before the engine shuts off and the SUV runs on electricity alone.
On some days, I enjoyed playing this game to maximize electric only driving. On others, it was an exhausting mental exercise. The farthest the Explorer Hybrid can drive on electricity alone when the battery is fully charged is about 4 or 5 km (2.5 – 3 miles) with a bit of help from gravity. But if you’re careful with your right foot, this 2,254 kg (4,969 lbs) SUV will reward you with pretty decent fuel economy numbers. Officially it is rated for 9.0 L/100km (26.1 MPG) on a highway and 10.1 L/100km (23.3 MPG) in a city. However, on one trip that involved city & highway driving, I averaged 8.0 L/100km (29.4 MPG). During my entire time with the 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid, I drove 250-ish km (155 miles) with 90 km (56 miles) of that being all electric.
At the other end of things, the 44 hp (33 kW) electric motor aids the gasoline engine when you need the burst of acceleration. The total system output is 318 hp & 322 lb-ft of torque (237 kW & 437 Nm). Thanks to the instant torque of the electric motor, this V6 engine feels strong when you put your foot down. Furthermore, it is rated to tow 5,000 lbs which is 1,500 lbs more than the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. In fact, Ford themselves say that this hybrid V6 was designed primarily for towing capability.
Transmission – This 3.3L V6 is mated to the same 10-speed automatic that is in many other Ford & Lincoln models. In the Explorer XLT, for some reason it felt rough and dimwitted. But with this Hybrid V6 engine, the 10-speed transmission is smooth and performs much better. Once the Explorer Hybrid gets up to speed, the shifts are imperceivable. The transmission is also quick to react to a sudden stab of the throttle pedal. It shifts down to the correct gear and you’re away.
Braking – The 1.5 kWh battery gets recharged in two ways. One is from the engine. The other is from the brakes. When initially applying the brake pedal, the 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid is slowed down by regenerative braking. Push the brake pedal further, and the disc brakes take over braking duties. The great thing is that you don’t feel the transition between regen braking and physical friction braking. However, the brake pedal is very sensitive. The first time I applied the brakes, I thought someone hit me from behind. It does take some time to get used to the sensitive brake pedal but for some, it may be a bit too sensitive still.
Handling – The biggest improvement for this generation of Ford Explorer is the new chassis and handling dynamics. It is a rear-wheel-drive biased powertrain which in turn makes the handling responsive and a joy to drive around mountain roads. It feels composed with a direct steering response. To use an oxymoron, the Explorer feels pretty light on its wheels around a twisty mountain road even though it weighs 2 tonnes.
Ride Comfort – The new chassis also provides excellent ride comfort. The new Explorer is not available with air suspension or adaptive dampers but the tuning of the standard shocks is well done. Bumps and road imperfections are well absorbed and do not translate into the cabin.
The seats are also very good at providing a sufficient amount of comfort whether on long family trips or daily commutes into a city. They are plush and the leather feels nice to the touch in this Limited trim.
Interior Space – The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid is one of the larger 3-row SUVs on the market. As per usual, front occupants have the most amount of leg and head room and can adjust their seats to their liking. Even with the front seats in their lowest position, you still sit quite high giving you good visibility around the Explorer. It feels like an “old school” body on frame SUV.
Second row occupants also have good amounts of space with standard captain’s chairs or optional bench seats. However, other 3-row SUVs in this class have more 2nd row legroom than the Ford Explorer. As for the third row, it’s a bit bigger than other 3-row SUVs in this class. Granted, it’s not a place for tall adults like myself at 6’4” but adults and kids under 5’10”-ish should be reasonably comfortable for journeys.
The Explorer has 516 L (18.2 cu-ft) of cargo with the 3rd row seats up. Fold them down and cargo capacity increases to 1,357 L (47.9 cu-ft). Fold the 2nd row and maximum cargo capacity is 2,487 L (87.8 cu-ft). The great thing is that the battery pack does not take up any space inside the Explorer. These cargo specifications are identical to those of a non-hybrid version of the Ford Explorer.
Noise, Vibration, & Harshness – One of my biggest complaints about the base 2.3L engine in the Explorer XLT was the amount of noise it produced. Things are different in the Hybrid version; for the better. The V6 engine doesn’t sound particularly interesting but it is quite a bit quieter than the 2.3L. As well, the only audible noises in the cabin when the SUV is being driven on the electric motor is a bit of road noise from the tires. Other than that, this V6 Hybrid powertrain is a big improvement over the base 2.3L EcoBoost powertrain.
Odds and Ends
Gadgets – The Hybrid powertrain is only available on the Limited trim of the 2021 Ford Explorer. It is a $3,000 CAD option on top of the $50,799 CAD ($45,005 USD) starting price for the Limited trim. However, while it’s only available on this trim level, the Explorer is still very well equipped. It has a lot of advanced safety & driver aids such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with lane centering, blind spot sensors, intelligent adaptive cruise control which can adjust the set speed depending on the prevailing speed signs without any driver intervention. It can also be equipped with evasive steering assist when it thinks a collision is imminent.
There are also quite a few convenience features such as a power liftgate, panoramic sunroof, wireless phone charging (however, my Samsung Galaxy S20+ with a relatively thin case could not fit on the charge pad, just something to be aware of), heated & ventilated front seats, heated 2nd row seats, Apple CarPlay & Android Auto connectivity, power folding & raising 3rd row seats, and heated steering wheel to name a few.
Interior Design – Ford’s engineers put quite a bit of thought into the redesigned interior. The dashboard and controls are very well laid out and are where you’d expect them to be. Climate controls have their own dedicated buttons as does the radio with volume and tuning knobs. There are also quite a few storage bins and places to put your phone. Granted, certain regions have laws that prohibit having a phone within easy reach but in regions that don’t have those types of laws, the Explorer’s interior is very accommodating for small items & phones. There are also a few clever design touches like the square cup holders in the rear seats. Why square? Because kids usually drink out of juice boxes which are square. Front occupants have round cup holders for their morning cup of Joe.
It also appears that Ford has addressed some of the build issues that plagued early production models of the Explorer. The panel gaps are tighter and more consistent throughout the interior in this Hybrid Limited Ford Explorer as compared to the XLT trim I test drove last year.
Exterior Design – The new 2021 Explorer is easily recognizable as an American SUV. It has bold looks with a fairly large grille although not quite as massive as the one found on the Hyundai Palisade. It also comes standard with LED headlights but they are not quite as bright at night as one would expect from LED headlamps. Around back, the 2021 Explorer receives new taillights and the V6 Hybrid has real dual outlet exhaust pipes. The lower trim with the 2.3L engine has hidden exhaust pipes. Thankfully the design of the rear is similar to the last generation so you can still spot an undercover police Explorer from quite a distance.
Warranty – The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid comes with a 3 year / 60,000 km new vehicle warranty, a 5 year / 100,000 km powertrain warranty and an 8 year / 160,000 km hybrid & electric component warranty. The same time periods and distances apply for the U.S. market but at 36,000, 60,000, & 100,000 miles respectively.
Overall, the Ford Explorer Hybrid 2021 is a much better 3-row American SUV that can compete against the Japanese & Korean counterparts. At the moment, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the only direct competitor with the Kia Sorento Hybrid due to arrive a bit later in 2021. The Toyota Highlander is the safe bet but it’s much less powerful, has less interior space, and can tow less than the Ford Explorer. However, the new Ford Explorer Hybrid should definitely be on your shopping list of hybrid 3-row SUVs. It may not be as fuel efficient as the Highlander but it’s more capable when the going gets tough and more spacious. Things that every nuclear family with 2 or more children needs from a big 3-row SUV.
Thank you to Ford Canada for providing the vehicle. www.Ford.ca