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First Drive: 2016 Ford Explorer

Ford\'s popular Explorer gets better for 2016.

When you claim to build the best selling full-sized SUV since the genre became a, uh, genre, what do you do for an encore? In the case of Ford, we're about to find out with the first drive of the 2016 Ford Explorer. A bread and butter vehicle for the brand, the Blue Oval has sold more than 7-million units since its introduction 25 years ago. That converts to another copy selling once every two minutes. With a sales record like that, one thing is certain: Don't screw with the recipe. Did Ford follow that sage advice or did they muck things up in the kitchen?

New! New! New!Well, sort of. Renewed from the A-Pillars forward, the 2016 Explorer takes advantage of its "good bones” (as Ford officials describe them) and builds out a newer front end with standard LED low beam headlamps, LED Fog lamps and new grille options that vary according to trim levels.

The rear fascia also gets a refresh that is joined by the hands-free liftgate that first appeared with the Ford Escape. Below the bumper, the exhaust tips peer through cutouts for a more tailored look than previously offered. The overall effect is one that doesn't disturb the faithful but hopefully attracts new customers to the fold as well.

In the engine room, the Explorer benefits from the addition of the new 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine that is similar but not identical to the mill offered in the 2015 Mustang and other Ford vehicles. Built to different tolerances for an increased workload, it provides 280-horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Now available with both FWD or 4WD options, the EPA says it's capable of 19 city/28 highway or 18 city/26 highway, respectively.

Back for another go-round are the base 290 horsepower 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6 with choice of FWD or 4WD, and the 365 horsepower 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged Ecoboost V6 with its exclusive 4WD drivetrain.

All engines are mated to a six-speed Selectshift automatic transmission with paddle shift levers. The MacPherson strut front suspension with isolated subframe and stabilizer bar and a multi-link rear kit return for the Explorer's car-like ride.

The new Explorer will be available in five trim levels including base, XLT, Limited, Sport and new for 2016, the all-in Platinum edition that has all the option boxes ticked for those who believe enough never really is. It's standard with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost and intelligent 4WD drivetrain with the Terrain Management System.

Buyers would likely cross shop the Explorer against such segment stars as the Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Traverse, or the Toyota Highlander, among others.

Newer techThe exterior was not the only place that received a good seeing to. Inside and out, the 2016 Explorer receives the aforementioned optional Intelligent 4WD with Terrain Management, inflatable rear safety belts, a Blind Spot information system, PowerFold 3rd row seats, adaptive cruise control, cross-traffic alert and lane-keeping assist.

Sync replaces Sync with MyFordTouch on the base and XLT models, while at the top end of the food chain, the Platinum edition receives a new high-end Sony sound system. Enhanced Active Park Assist with parallel parking, park out assist, reverse perpendicular parking and forward and side sensing systems are available on the Limited model and are included as part of the new Platinum range model.

Speaking of sound systems, Sony offers a standard audio system in the Explorer Limited package and a Sony Premium Audio System with Clear Phase and Live Acoustics. We sampled the Premium system in one of the Platinum models and were impressed from the first note of classical music, as tuned by Sony Philharmonic violinist Goro Shiraishi, who with his team of audio engineers, sought to replicate the acoustic qualities of some of the world's finest music halls. And for the record, Ford product engineers have no problem referring to their vehicle as the best rolling speaker cabinets ever devised. Using the Surround Sound functions of the system rivaled actual live performances in music venues we have been known to frequent. We could actually imagine using the Explorer as a listening room in the front driveway, regardless of what the neighbors may think.

In addition to the hands-free liftgate, the new Explorer features an industry-first 180-degree front and rear cameras complete with high-pressure washers, and inside, smart-charging (and high-speed) USB ports which operate up to twice the speed of standard USB car ports.

By the numbers, there is 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row of seats, followed by 43.9 behind the second row, and 81.7-cubic feet behind the front row of seats.

Does it go?Driving along stretches of highway and mountain roads in the San Diego, California, area displayed the new refinements found in the Ford Explorer for 2016. Heavy doors with seemingly improved seals helped to isolate road noise for improved, and more comfortable drives.Power from the new 2.3-liter Ecoboost four-cylinder engine showed a sense of brawn that makes it clear that this little four-banger doesn't realize it's not a V6. We never felt underpowered along the routes, whether climbing mountain grades or accelerating to high-speed on the expressways. The six-speed automatic with Selectshift made for fun driving excursions while paddling the steering wheel-mounted flippers up and down as needed.

The standard offering 3.5-liter Ti-VCT V6 offered plenty of around-town power not to mention adequate acceleration for on-expressway maneuvers.

The 3.5-liter Ecoboost twin-turbo V6 offered more power, and ultra quick acceleration when needed, and is perfectly placed in both the Explorer Sport, and the Platinum edition. It is the optimal combination for towing (up to 5,000-pounds) and other heavy-duty needs. The EPA says it's good for 16 city/ 22 highway mpg.

Leftlane's bottom lineFord continues to improve the breed with an updated 2016 Ford Explorer. Five years into its lifecycle, improvements ranging from minor to major are afoot that will hopefully keep this best-seller at or near the top of the sales charts. The other manufacturers are not resting; the Blue Oval cannot afford to either.

2016 Ford Explorer Base FWD base price, $30,7002016 Ford Explorer XLT FWD base price, $33,4002016 Ford Explorer Limited FWD base price, $41,3002016 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD base price, $43,3002016 Ford Explorer Sport 4WD base price, $43,3002016 Ford Explorer Sport 4WD base price, $52,600

Photos by Mark Elias.

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