[TEST DRIVE] The Explorer no longer Ford’s easy SUV win

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[TEST DRIVE] The Explorer no longer Ford’s easy SUV win


The Limited model of the sixth-generation Explorer SUV launched in Korea last month. The large-size SUV, priced at 59.9 million won ($52,000), is rated at 304 horsepower and 42.9 kilogram-meters (310 pound-feet). [FORD KOREA]

The Ford Explorer changed the Korean car market.

When the monster SUV lumbered into town in 1996, it created an entirely new class of vehicles, for those seeking a big ride and a more masculine mode of transportation.

Ford has sold a total of 8 million units globally since the vehicle was first introduced in 1990. The Explorer was the No. 1 selling imported SUV in Korea in 2017 and 2018.

The popularity of the Explorer convinced other automakers to offer similar models locally. Hyundai Motor came in with its Palisade, while Kia Motors answered with the Mohave. GM Korea started importing the Chevrolet Traverse since earlier this year.


Early last month, the sixth-generation Explorer was released, with a new look and upgraded performance and safety features to satisfy picky local buyers. The first full redesign since 2011 was revealed to the world at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

Ford says Korea is an important market for its cars, but the Dearborn, Michigan-based multinational company doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort. While it offers four versions of the SUV in the United States, only one - the Limited - is available in Korea. Ford Korea said during the launch event that the Explorer sold here comes with a reverse brake assist system, but apparently that wasn’t the case.

Overall, it’s a good vehicle and still maintains its distinct identity. But its main strength may be its biggest weakness. The SUV is stereotypically American: big, brash and masculine. That’s what attracted customers to it in the first place, and those qualities remain a draw. But it sticks to the cliche perhaps a bit too much, and it is somewhat unrefined and perhaps a bit too simple for the local market, where the details count.

Ford’s Explorer has certainly evolved. The seven-seater SUV, coming in 10 millimeters (0.39 inches) longer and 10 millimeters wider than its predecessor, has definitely made a big step away from tradition. Designers ditched the rectangular radiator grille and headlamps, and now the car is less Dallas and more Chicago. The extended length and the added width make the beast look sportier.

While people may be divided on whether they like the new exterior design, I am almost certain that nobody will vote for the interior design of the new Explorer over those of competitor models. The vibe is bargain basement or discount airline, not at all right for a 59.9 million won ($51,580) product.

Koreans prefer leather, and there was no cow in sight in the model I drove. Premium is the wrong word for the interior.

Dull plastic and ugly air vents made me wonder if I was inside a used car from the 1990s.

The seats, albeit ventilated and heated, were too big and a bit hard. A passenger along for the test drive noted that the seats in the back were similarly uncomfortable.

I certainly saw more and enjoyed more when riding the Explorer’s competitors - the Mohave the Master, the Traverse and the Palisade - and in terms of comfort, they are working at a whole different level.

Disappointment dissipated somewhat as I started the drive.

The large-size SUV, rated at 304 horsepower and 42.9 kilogram-meters (310 pound-feet) in torque, was smooth yet powerful on the road with its the new rear wheel drive system and 10-speed automatic transmission. The Explorer was responsive and held the road well when tested on turns on a wet surface. Adaptive cruise control worked nicely, as it adjusted the speed to the cars in front of me.

Seven driving modes are available on the terrain management system to adjust for relatively more safety or performance. Sports mode definitely delivers the power I expect to see from such a large-size SUV, and eco mode contrastingly offers silence and peace to those inside.

Parking was extremely easy. Ford’s Co-Pilot 360 Plus delivers drivers an aerial 360-degree view of all angles via cameras throughout the car. I didn’t have to look anywhere but the 8-inch touchscreen to land the Explorer square into a parking spot.

But that 8-inch display can’t do much more than that.

It definitely has a navigation system, radio and car setting menus, but persevering through that first-generation iPhone-level system was a pain. At least the navigation system was great - the best I have ever experienced in a foreign vehicle. The Atlan software is the same one used in some Hyundai Motor cars.

While Ford has made some bold changes in releasing the new Explorer, it may be overtaken by a market that wants more than just big. The afterthought interior won’t cut it in a market where space age is standard.

The Explorer may remain popular in some markets, but in Korea, the competition is just too in tune with customers, and the American SUV is simply not offering the features that are in demand.

BY KO JUN-TAE [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]
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