2021 Ford Explorer Review

It's big and brawny, ready to take on all comers in the battle of midsize crossover SUVs.

2 months ago
Warren Clarke
  • Choice of two muscular powerplants
  • Expansive cargo capacity
  • Generous tow rating
  • RWD or AWD
  • Just average fuel economy
  • Low seat height in third row

The 2021 Ford Explorer is a midsize crossover SUV with three rows of seating for up to seven passengers. First launched as a 1991 model, the Explorer is currently in its sixth generation, which was introduced with the 2020 model. Powered by a choice of turbocharged engines (inline-4 or V6), the Explorer is a rear-wheel drive/all-wheel drive vehicle with a 10-speed automatic transmission. Pricing for the 2021 Ford Explorer starts around $32,000.

Explorer Exterior

The Explorer has notable muscle under the hood, and its sheet metal communicates this potency. Its profile showcases a blunt nose, deeply sculpted side panels and a sloping roofline. A big grille dominates the front fascia. Though it’s a crossover with a car-based platform, the Explorer’s brawny, broad-shouldered design gives it the look of a rough-and-tumble truck-based SUV. 

Base models come with meaty 18-inch wheels, along with rear privacy glass and automatic LED headlights. Power-adjustable side mirrors and a power liftgate are also standard. 

Explorer Interior

The Explorer’s cabin looks sleek and modern. Front passengers are greeted with a portrait-style touchscreen that rises from the center stack, and this design cue gives the cabin a contemporary look. The center stack itself boasts a clean, somewhat minimalist layout, with no clutter. The quality of the materials used within the cabin is decent, though not exceptional. (Rival models feature more soft-touch surfaces and fewer hard plastics.) 

Explorer passengers enjoy roomy accommodations. The second row provides a respectable 39 inches of legroom; that’s more than you’ll get with many rivals. The third-row seats are big enough to fit adults. However, they’re mounted low to the ground, so some taller people will likely find them uncomfortable on long trips. 

When it comes to cargo space, the Explorer provides 18.2 cubic feet behind the third row, 47.9 cubic feet behind the second, and 87.8 cubic feet behind the first. This Ford offers more room for your belongings than most midsize crossovers. 

If towing is on the itinerary, the Explorer is up for the challenge. It’s capable of pulling up to 5,600 pounds. 

2021 Ford Explorer

Explorer Powertrain

With the Explorer, buyers can choose from two engines. Base models are equipped with a turbocharged 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine (300 hp/310 lb-ft of torque). A turbocharged 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 (400 hp/415 lb-ft of torque ) is also offered. Gears are shifted by a 10-speed automatic transmission.  Rear-wheel drive (RWD) is standard with the I-4 and all-wheel drive (AWD) is available. AWD is standard with the V6. 

The Ford Explorer uses regular gasoline, so you won’t incur the added cost that comes with premium gas. In terms of fuel economy, the Explorer gets up to 24 mpg combined with RWD and up to 23 mpg with AWD. The Explorer’s gas mileage is about average for its class. 

Explorer Driving Experience

The Explorer is a sizable vehicle, but its handling is nimbler than its dimensions suggest. It feels responsive and willing in everyday driving, and this makes it a pleasant companion on commutes. Steering is sharper than you might expect from a vehicle this large. The Explorer is quick to respond to steering inputs, and this trait helps elevate the overall driving experience.  

Ford’s Explorer crossover has a curb weight that comes in at between 4,345 and 4,727 pounds, depending on which trim level you choose. That’s a lot of metal to move, but the Explorer’s engines are up for the task. 

You can’t go wrong when it comes to engine selection; both powerplants offer enough juice to hustle this vehicle’s heft with gusto. The Explorer has one of the most impressive base engines in its class. And the optional V6 has the goods to move this crossover out of the gate with the kind of speed that makes driving a pleasure.  

Ride quality is another of the Explorer’s strengths. Its suspension is tuned for comfort, allowing this crossover to travel over rough road surfaces without transmitting undue harshness to the cabin. 

2021 Ford Explorer

2021 Ford Explorer Trim Levels and Pricing

Ford sells the 2021 Explorer in six trim levels. 

  • Base (starts at about $32,000 RWD/$34,000 AWD) – Comes nicely equipped with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost I-4 engine, tri-zone automatic climate control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and more. 
  • XLT (starts at around $34,000 RWD/$36,000 AWD) – Adds roof rails, keyless entry and ignition, and heated front seats. 
  • Limited (starts at around $45,500 RWD/$47,500 AWD) – Brings in leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel, wireless device charging, and more.
  • ST (starts at around $52,500) – Upgrades to the 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 engine and a sport-tuned suspension. AWD is standard.  
  • Platinum (starts at around $54,500) – The fancy one brings in lux upgrades, and also comes with the 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 and standard AWD.
  • King Ranch (starts at $52,350 RWD/$54,350 AWD) – Newly added for 2021, uses the 3.0-liter EcoBoost for power, and adds special Mesa Del Rio leather, real wood, and the King Ranch Running W logo throughout the cabin and on badges on the exterior. The first time the King Ranch trim level has been applied to the Explorer.

Note that a hybrid gasoline-electric version of the Explorer is also available. It starts at around $50,000 and is only available in the Limited trim level. This model will be reviewed separately.

If you are looking for a more accurate idea of pricing, you can build and price an Explorer on Ford’s official web site. 

2021 Ford Explorer

Explorer Best Features

One of the most appealing aspects of the 2021 Ford Explorer is its generous cargo space. Many people who purchase midsize crossovers use them for family duty. Its roomy cargo area ensures that the Explorer is able to easily accommodate luggage and various carry-on items on family road trips. 

Another strength lies with this model’s engine selection. Both its powerplants are strong and capable. The base engine is great, but the optional turbocharged V6 delivers added excitement that will be appreciated by those who value an engaging driving experience. 

2021 Ford Explorer

What is Our Favorite Version of the Explorer?

It comes in trims that range from basic to plush; you can keep your Explorer simple and relatively affordable, or you can dress it up for luxury with all the bells and whistles. If you want an Explorer that delivers maximum driving thrills, we’d recommend the ST. This trim comes with the optional V6 and standard AWD. The extra power helps add fun and excitement to your time behind the wheel, while the AWD adds stability, capability, and enhanced cornering ability. The ST is equipped with a sport-tuned suspension, making this Explorer the most athletic choice of all the trims. Additionally, the Explorer ST comes with paddle shifters and sport front seats. 

2021 Ford Explorer

Explorer Notable Safety Features

The base-model Explorer comes with an impressive range of safety features. All models are equipped with frontal collision mitigation. This system will automatically hit the brakes if its sensors detect that a collision is imminent.  Additionally, base models come with blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping assist. Parking sensors are optional, as well as a surround-view camera system. 

In IIHS crash tests, the Explorer was named a Top Safety Pick+. The 2021 Explorer got a perfect five out five stars for overall crash protection in NHTSA tests.

Who Should Buy a 2021 Ford Explorer?

With its potent engines and cavernous cargo capacity, the 2021 Explorer has what it takes to serve as a capable family hauler. Its three rows of seating make it a comfortable fit for families of all sizes. It’s also a good choice for anyone who wants a vehicle that can tow sizable loads.

Active couples and empty nesters will also appreciate the Explorer for its carrying capacity and available AWD, as there’s room for bicycles, sporting equipment, and other gear inside, on top of, and towed behind, the Explorer.

2021 Ford Explorer

CarExpert’s Take on the 2021 Ford Explorer 

Positioned between the Edge and Expedition in Ford’s SUV lineup, the Explorer stands out thanks to its muscular powerplants and expansive cargo capacity. This model’s trim selection is diverse enough meet the needs of a fairly broad range of buyers. It offers crossover drivers who want reasonably sporty performance an excellent option in the ST trim. And for heightened luxury, the Limited and Platinum trims have what it takes to coddle and pamper.  Overall, the Explorer is a well-rounded crossover that’s big enough and brawny enough to satisfy buyers in this class. 

2021 Ford Explorer

Explorer Competitors to Consider

  • Buick Enclave
  • Chevrolet Traverse
  • GMC Acadia
  • Honda Pilot
  • Hyundai Palisade
  • Kia Telluride
  • Mazda CX-9
  • Subaru Ascent
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Volkswagen Atlas


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Show Breakdown
Cost of Ownership 8.5
Ride Comfort 8.3
Safety 8.5
Fit for Purpose 8.4
Handling Dynamics 8.3
Interior Practicality and Space 8.6
Fuel Efficiency 8
Value for Money 8.2
Performance 8.3
Technology Infotainment 8.6