ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The Ford Explorer is a vehicle ideally suited for family touring, which is a key reason why this large utility vehicle has been the best-selling SUV in America for 25 years. So the company’s public relations folks thought it would be appropriate to use an “adventure tour” to show off to the media the features of the 2016 Explorer, in particular the latest addition to the lineup – the premium Platinum edition. It was a good decision.
The six-leg tour started in Vancouver and spanned 25 days, terminating in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the event, 187 drivers from Canada, the U.S. and Asia covered more than 4,400 kilometres. My shift started in Durango, Colorado and wound east, then south about 400 or so kilometres through spectacular New Mexico scenery to Albuquerque.
The tour organizers gave each of us a debit card to cover expenses, a booklet suggesting sights to see along the way – and the keys to a new Explorer Platinum. Unlike typical media drives, there was no prescribed drive route, simply a see-you-in-Albuquerque sendoff, with the suggestion to try to be there in time for dinner.
Features and space galore
Ford has introduced this new premium trim level after discovering about 90% of recent Explorer buyers opted for loaded versions of the Sport and Limited models. The Platinum combines the performance characteristics of the Sport with the comfort and convenience features of the Limited, then adds some unique trimmings of its own to make it the most well-appointed Ford SUV ever offered.
The first feature my driving partner and I encountered in our Explorer was the foot-activated liftgate opener, a segment-first innovation that has migrated from the new Escape. Simply sweep your foot under the rear fascia and the power liftgate opens – no hands needed.
Inside, there’s a massive amount of cargo space – with the third row folded flat, there’s 1,243 litres of useable space. Unlike in some competitive three-row SUVs, there’s still decent space for stuff even when the back row is in use – 595 litres – thanks to a deep well behind the seats. For the ultimate in convenience, the third-row seats flip and fold with power assist at the touch of a button.
To help occupants stay connected, smart-charging USB ports have been installed in the front and rear of the vehicle and they’re engineered to recharge devices twice as fast as conventional ports.
Refined look and feel
The refined look and feel of the Platinum’s cabin is impressive. The materials used are truly upscale, with brushed aluminum accents combining with real ash wood appliqués on the instrument panel and flowing around to the doors as well.
The seats are all wrapped in supple Nirvana leather and the front sport seats have multiple adjustments, as well as heating and cooling plus a massage feature. On our drive, I just melted into the seat and felt I could have stayed there for days.
In case you become too comfortable and start wandering in your lane, the Explorer’s lane-keeping technology urges you back in place – and if you repeat the lane drifting too often, a message shows up on the driver information screen suggesting it’s time for a coffee break.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel, with polished wood upper section, has a unique feature. The familiar Ford blue oval logo has been replaced by a brushed aluminum crest that matches the trim on the instrument panel.
It’s the first time a Ford production vehicle has deviated from the use of the iconic blue badge. The change, suggested by Ford boss Mark Fields, is intended to suggest the Platinum edition is something special – ol’ Henry must be rolling in his grave. I may be old school, but I prefer the original.
Our daylong journey was barely underway when we spotted plumes of smoke rising above the trees along the highway. Turned out it was the early morning run by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. This railway has been running continuously since 1881, when Durango was a western railroad town.
The community has changed into a booming mountain town, with visitors attracted year-round by its nearby ski slopes, hiking trails and biking paths. Unchanged, however, is the historic railroad, which offers an opportunity to step into the past and ride the rails behind an authentic steam engine and enjoy the scenic 73-kilometre run along the Animas River to Silverton.
If you don’t have time for the train ride, a walking tour of Durango, with its vintage shops, pubs and hotels, can be truly enjoyable. It’s like you’ve stepped into a page of western U.S. history. If you’re a train buff, you can spend hours wandering through the railway museum and the rail yard.
We both revved up memories checking out the past in the museum, while a chap named Dennis filled us in on the railway’s history and the rolling stock parked in the yard, including “Doodlebug” self-propelled rail car, which is operational, an active turntable and a roundhouse with several of the line’s seven active steam engines undergoing routine maintenance.
We could have stayed in Durango all day, but there was more to explore. We were given a choice of routes when departing town – one went directly southwest; the other east to Pagosa Springs, then south, eventually ending in Albuquerque.
The first option included such landmarks as the Mesa Verde National Park, with its awesome cliff dwellings, and the Four Corners National Monument, where you could stand in four states at the same time. We opted, however, for the alternative route after “private consultation” with Ford PR rep William Mattiace. Turns out he’s from New Mexico and helped us narrow down several of the prime sites to include in our adventure tour.
The first stop after leaving Durango was Chimney Rock National Monument. The twin rock mesa peaks were a celestial observatory and seasonal calendar for the Ancestral Puebloans more than 1,000 years ago.
Quiet and powerful
The hour-long drive to this distinctive landmark was over a mainly two-lane asphalt road and it provided our first opportunity to experience the cruising capabilities of the Explorer. The first thing we noticed was how quiet this, large, six-passenger SUV (or seven-person if the second row is fitted with a bench instead of twin captain’s chairs) is on the road. There’s very little noise intruding into the spacious cabin, even at speed.
Also impressive is the power on tap from the Platinum’s standard 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6 engine. With twin turbochargers and direct fuel injection, this engine generates 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, delivered smoothly through a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission.
The engine responded crisply when urged to bump its output for passing and merging – there was no evidence of turbo lag, just smooth, quick acceleration. The only issue was that the smooth delivery of that power, combined with the serene quietness in the cabin, made it deceptively easy to let the road speed climb well past legal limits. Several times I found myself going fast without even feeling the speed.
To say the Explorer remains stable and smooth, even in sweeping curves, is an understatement. The sensible solution is to simply engage the adaptive cruise control and let the Explorer handle the speed management.
Across the Continental Divide
The road to the site’s information centre wasn’t paved, but it was so well-groomed we didn’t need to engage the Explorer’s Terrain Management System. It’s a feature of the intelligent all-wheel drive system, standard on the Platinum, that can be shifted on the fly between four modes – snow, mud, sand and normal (the default setting.) It manages the engine, transmission, brakes and all-wheel drive system to deliver optimum traction and control to suit the conditions. We stayed with the normal setting which allows the AWD system to shift torque seamlessly between the front and rear wheels as needed.
After leaving Chimney Rock, we passed the Fred Harman Art Museum in Pagosa Springs, where the artist’s portrayal of the American West is displayed, including paintings and the Red Ryder and Little Beaver comic strips. Harman’s town also features hot springs touted as the largest and hottest mineral outflow in the world. We didn’t test that claim.
The suggested lunch stop was in Chama, New Mexico, a charming town of about 15,000. The BoxCar Café was recommended as an ideal spot to savour an authentic New Mexican lunch – and it didn’t disappoint. While enjoying the fare, we heard a steam train whistle – turns out Chama has its own historic train line. Another photo op, for sure.
Heading south from Chama, we passed the Continental Divide and landscapes that changed dramatically every few kilometres. We passed Ghost Ranch, near Abiqulu, where the stunning views provided inspiration for artist Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. A movie (a remake of The Magnificent Seven) was being shot at the ranch this day, eliminating tours, so we kept driving toward our destination.
Concert hall audio
This part of the drive was an ideal time to check out Sony’s new 500-watt premium audio system being unveiled in the Explorer Platinum. This system produces extraordinary sound through its high-powered amplifier and 12 strategically-placed speakers.
It features two audio technologies borrowed from Sony’s home theatre systems – Clear Phase and Live Acoustics. The first technology eliminates sound dispersion and turns the front of the cabin into a soundstage, with every note reproduced in crystal clear sound. If you prefer to be enveloped by the music, engage the Live Acoustics technology. It turns the cabin into a concert hall, with sounds surrounding the space.
Again the clarity is amazing. Later, in a demonstration with Sony expert Tony Cheslick, he played an orchestral track that was so realistic I felt I was sitting right in the pit with the musicians. This feature alone is worth the step up to the new Platinum model.
Of course, there are other technologies and features that Explorer owners will appreciate, including front and rear cameras with wide-angle lenses to help make parking and pulling out into traffic safer. Both cameras have lens washers, a segment-first feature that will be appreciated when the weather turns nasty.
Drivers will also appreciate the enhanced active parking assist technology, which is standard on the Platinum. It helps with both parallel and perpendicular parking maneuvers – he driver looks after selecting the appropriate gear (forward or reverse), as well as the braking and acceleration, while the system makes the necessary steering moves.
A large, dual-panel sunroof is also standard with this premium model and it was put to good use as we soaked up the scenic beauty and cloudless blue skies of New Mexico.
Great locale, great ride
Perhaps the highlight of our adventure was the Echo Amphitheatre, also near Abiquiu. Legends claim the echoing rebounding off this massive natural amphitheatre and its red cliffs are the voices of the dead.
I won’t dispute local lore, but I can say the size of this natural wonder is amazing. It’s like a huge bandshell, carved by nature out of the side of a cliff. Approaching it, one could hear the traffic from the highway a kilometre or so away, rebounding like it was a parabolic mike. The echoes from one’s voice were amazingly distinct. It was an unforgettable experience.
Albuquerque is rooted in history and lore, with numerous attractions to draw visitors. With dinner waiting, we only had time to take in a few of its highlights, such as the San Felipe de Neri Church, located in the historic Old Town, with its tree-shaded plaza and 10 blocks of adobe buildings. The church, built in 1793, has been the spiritual hub of Albuquerque for more than 300 years.
With the setting sun turning the surrounding hillsides a gorgeous pink, our Explorer Platinum Adventure Tour ended as we rolled into the hotel parking lot. Despite the daylong drive, I climbed out of the comfy seat with nary an ache or pain – this big SUV had proven it truly is an ideal vehicle for family touring. Its styling is attractive, its performance is impressive and its cabin is so quiet and comfortable you feel you could drive on for days. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.
Model: 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum
Pricing: Base V-6 FWD, $32,999; Platinum V-6 AWD, $58,599
Engines: 3.5L Ti-VCT V-6, 290 horsepower, 255 lb-ft torque; 2.3L EcoBoost four-cylinder, 280 hp, 310 lb-ft torque; 3.5L EcoBoost V-6, 365 hp, 350 lb-ft torque
Transmission: Six-speed, SelectShift automatic
Length: 5,037 mm
Width: 2,004 mm
Wheelbase: 2,865 mm
Fuel consumption (city/highway):
Base 3.5L V-6 AWD: city, 14.4 L/100 km; highway, 10.4 L/100 km;
2.3L EcoBoost four-cylinder FWD: 12.68.5 L/100 km;
3.5L V-6 EcoBoost AWD: 14.9 L/10.7 L/100 km.
Competitors: Acura MDX, Buick Enclave; Chevrolet Traverse; Dodge Durango; GMC Acadia; Honda Pilot; Hyundai Santa Fe XL; Jeep Grand Cherokee; Kia Sorento; Toyota Highlander