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Backcountry roaming in a 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum

Posted in Features on February 29, 2016
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We were standing next to our ’16 Ford Explorer Platinum test vehicle in the middle of nowhere taking in the smell of pine while looking out over a picturesque valley bordered by tree-laden hills. We had just battled some of the nastiest snow we had seen in a while, and we were strategizing the best way to attack a long, steep, twisty uphill climb. Our location was somewhere in northern Illinois on an unplowed one-lane “road.” The day before the Explorer was delivered to us, the area received about 5 inches of heavy, wet snow, along with sleet and rain. Under the snow, the terrain wasn’t frozen, so it was slipperier than snot. The combination was almost a worst-case winter scenario for vehicles: resistance to all movement and very little traction. Nevertheless, we were in the middle of nowhere on purpose. You see, for the 2016 model year, Ford unveiled the Platinum package for the Explorer, which injects the vehicle with a host of super-luxo upgrades and tech. The Platinum package intrigued us, but we were more interested in the Explorer’s tweaked-for-2016 Terrain Management System. Our goal was to combine a backcountry adventure with a test of the new Explorer in a variety of on- and off-road situations including several adventure trips into the snowy backcountry. We wanted to know: Would the Explorer rise to the occasion or flounder?

Quick History

The Explorer nameplate has been a part of the 4WD landscape since it debuted as a 1991 model. Back then it had a full frame and two-speed transfer case. Changes came to the Explorer through the years, and beginning with the fifth-generation 2011 models, the Explorer began using a unibody setup and Intelligent 4WD with Terrain Management System. For the 2011 models, the Explorer also began using a power transfer unit (PTU)/rear drive unit (RDU) setup, and that arrangement is used on the current sixth-gen ’16 Explorer.

How It’s Equipped

The Platinum package Explorer is fit with a twin-turbo, direct-injected 3.5L V-6 EcoBoost engine that produces 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. The east-west-configuration engine is mated to a six-speed transaxle with SelectShift. Exterior highlights include a dual-pane sunroof, signature lighting around the LED headlamps, and a dual-outlet exhaust that’s designed to reduce soot collection at the rear of the vehicle. Inside, the Platinum’s features include a wood and leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, a slew of Nirvana leather-wrapped surfaces, an instrument cluster with a 10-inch digital display supported by analog gauges (a first for a Ford-brand vehicle), and a 500-watt Sony audio system. Additionally, the Platinum includes features like front-facing camera; rear-view camera; voice-activated navigation; heated, cooled, and massaging front seats; heated second-row seats; powerfold third-row seating; and much more.

Intelligent Four-Wheel Drive

Explorer’s intelligent four-wheel drive with Terrain Management System (TMS) monitors wheel speed, throttle position, and steering wheel angle to determine vehicle conditions and driver intent to prevent slip from occurring. TMS is controlled by a knob on the center console and has four settings: normal, mud/ruts, sand, and snow/grass/gravel. Each setting has a different effect on engine throttle progression, transmission shift scheduling, 4WD system torque transfer, and the amount of wheelspin allowed by the stability control system.

Ford notes that the hardware for these systems can be fairly generic, but the controls are where the differences are seen. “Ford has been doing on-demand 4WD controls longer than just about anyone in the industry, and we’ve got about twenty patents on such systems, so these are highly optimized,” the company says. For the 2016 Explorer, TMS includes adjustments to improve traction under launch conditions, create smoother torque transitions when cornering, and adjustments when a trailer is detected. There’s also a new brake control module that helps put torque to the grounded wheels when a tire is lifted from the ground.

On-Road

The Explorer Platinum is a fantastic on-road vehicle. At speed, the cabin is very quiet, and with the healthy dose of the latest and greatest technology, piloting the vehicle is a pleasant experience. The electric power-assisted steering is crisp, the four-wheel disc brakes are outstanding, and power from the 3.5L V-6 is smooth and very well matched to the almost 5,000-pound vehicle. All of the switchgear is well thought-out and wisely placed. We were surprised at the lack of learning curve needed to operate all the electronic features like the HVAC system and navigation. Interior materials, both visually and to the touch, are top drawer and worthy of the Platinum designation. The vehicles handling is very good, as is the overall ride. On icy and snowy roads, the Explorer, with the TMS in normal mode, was stable and surefooted. With the TMS in snow mode, throttle response is reduced and tighter controls are initiated earlier in the stability control system to reduce slippage. In English, this means that the system tries to eliminate all wheel slippage to keep the tires glued to the ground. We found that snow mode is the go-to setting for general commuting on snowy and icy roads where ultimate traction is desired. Finally, we have to give a big thumbs up to the LED headlamps. They offer strong, white light with outstanding visibility to the sides of the road.

Off-Road

We figured that snow/grass/gravel mode had worked so well on-road that we’d give it a whirl on the steep, uphill climb on the unplowed one-lane road we mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the setting’s wheelspin-eliminating snow-mode programming, combined with the lack of traction, conspired to stop us cold less than a third of the way up the hill. The snow/grass/gravel mode was doing exactly what worked well on-road, but we needed momentum and wheelspin to beat the conditions. As we backed down the twisty hill, we got a bit too close to the edge of the road, slid off, and got stuck. It was total driver error, but it brings up two important points about the Explorer. First, the vehicle needs easily accessible front towhooks, and second, the beltline of the vehicle is so high it’s hard to hang one’s head out the window to see tire placement. Fortunately, the Platinum has a receiver hitch so we were able to use that as a tow point (many thanks to our relative in a Super Duty who trudged out on a cold day to give us a tug).

Getting stuck did have its perks, though. We had more time to enjoy the backcountry and we had time to reread about the various TMS settings in detail. Sand mode, with its optimized torque, seemed like the right choice for the hill, and it was. The Explorer easily clawed its way up the long, steep, snowy hill with no problem. As a matter of fact, sand mode became our go-to TMS setting for all of our trips into the backcountry for the remainder of the test. With the TMS in sand mode, we were able to bust through snow at will and even power the Explorer through snowdrifts without too much intrusion from the electronics. This is exactly what is needed in deep sand, and it worked well in deep snow too. We thought for sure we would destroy the low-hanging front air dam on the Explorer during our many off-road forays, but it’s clear that engineers planned for this, and the air dam proved to be quite durable and was undamaged even after augering it into snowdrifts at speed.

Bottom Line

The Explorer Platinum carried us to places in the backcountry we didn’t think it would go, and it got us out of those places too. The TMS is dialed and works well for those looking for a smart, easy-to-drive everyday 4WD vehicle. Oh, and the Platinum’s luxury and tech is on par with those snobby, more expensive nameplates.

QUICK SPECS (as tested)
Vehicle/model: 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum 4x4
Base price: $52,970
As tested: $54,760
Engine: 3.5L EcoBoost V-6
Rated hp/torque (lb-ft): 365 @ 5,500/350 @ 3,500
Transaxle: 6F55 6-spd automatic
Transfer case: N/A
4WD system: Normal, mud/ruts, sand, and snow/grass/gravel
Low-range ratio: N/A
Frame type: Unibody
Suspension, f/r: MacPherson strut w/isolated subframe, 32mm stabilizer bar/SR1 independent multilink, gas-pressurized twin-tube shocks, 22mm stabilizer bar
Axles, f/r: Transaxle w/Linamar PTU, 5.2-in ring gear/Dana RDU, 6.3-in ring gear
Axle ratio: 3.16:1
Max crawl ratio: N/A
Steering: Electric power-assisted, rack-and-pinion
Brakes, f/r: 13.85x1.25-in vented disc/13.50x0.75-in vented disc
Wheels (in): 20x8.5
Tires: P255/50R20
Wheelbase (in): 112.8
Length (in): 198.3
Height (in): 71.0
Width (in): 78.9
Base curb weight (lb): 4,890
Approach/departure angles (deg): 15.6/20.9
Minimum ground clearance (in): 7.8
Payload (lb): N/A
Max towing capacity (lb): 5,000
Fuel capacity (gal): 18.6
Fuel economy (mpg): 16/22

What’s Hot
Power, interior space, luxury, three-row seating
What’s Not
Low approach angle, low ground clearance, no low range, high beltline
Our Take
Refined, very capable in inclement weather, would like to see it offered with an off-road package

Our mid-winter adventure in the Explorer took us down a variety of unmaintained roads and deep into rolling Illinois pastures.

The Explorer Platinum is fit with the 365hp/350 lb-ft 3.5L EcoBoost V-6 engine mated to a six-speed transaxle. Power delivery is outstanding and well matched to the almost 5,000-pound vehicle. Our best test tank mpg was 17.2 and the lowest was 15.9.

The Explorer’s suspension is an IFS/IRS combination, and the ride is good but not exceptional. The Explorer is a fairly large vehicle with a length of almost 200 inches and a wheelbase of almost 113 inches, yet the well-tuned suspension and crisp steering contributed to very good handling.

The Explorer Platinum has a low approach angle of 15.6 degrees, but on the bright side, we found that after repeated off-road bashings the air dam showed no signs of damage. The lower portions on the outer edges are a soft rubber-type material, while the main air dam was made of a durable, harder material.

Platinum comes equipped with P255/50R20 Hankook Ventus S1 Noble 2 tires on 8.5-inch-wide wheels. The tires are street centric but worked surprisingly well in granular, dry snow.

There are things you expect in a $54k vehicle, and the Platinum doesn’t disappoint. There’s high-grade leather, real wood, and the latest-and-greatest technology. Fact: The Explorer Platinum is on par with luxury vehicles that cost thousands more.

A standard feature of the Platinum is front- and rear-facing cameras with washers. This is the front camera at its standard setting (it also has a wide-angle setting). Note how it offers a look at areas hidden from the driver seat, which is handy when wheeling or parking.

The instrument cluster has a 10-inch digital display that’s supported by analog gauges. When a mode in the Terrain Management System is selected the cluster has a feature that briefly displays the setting selected. We found it takes approximately four seconds for each mode to engage.

The modes of the Terrain Management System are engaged via a rotary knob on the center console. It’s positioned well and easily controlled. The knob also contains the button for the Hill Descent Control, a feature we didn’t have the opportunity to test due to the snowy conditions.

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