Delayed SUV Review: 2023 Ford Explorer XLT – What Columbus, Magellan, and Dora Have In Common

(Author’s Note:  You are about to read the longest gestation article of mine to be found at CC.  It was started last October and has been repeatedly updated; you shall soon understand why.  JES)

It sometimes seems that being an unapologetic opportunist is viewed negatively by some.  That’s too bad; opportunism allowed a four-wheel drive 2023 Ford Explorer XLT to be injected into my professional life last summer.

Last June I was sitting in this colorful Mexican restaurant in Cuba, Missouri, when an email arrived from the fleet manager.  He presented an irresistible offer.

The offer was to exchange the 2018 Chevrolet Impala (with 74,000 miles) I had since new for a 2023 Explorer XLT.  The Explorer would go to me and the Impala would go to the motor pool.  He asked if I was good with this trade.

Well, yeah.

I took possession of said Explorer in late August and have put just over 5,000 6,500 8,200 miles on it.  This is my take on it so far…

Ford sold 207,000 Explorers of all varieties for 2022, according to this.  In 2018, the most recent year for such information, roughly 15% of the year’s Explorer production went to law enforcement. I mention this because the last Explorer I drove was a retired law enforcement unit at some specialized driver’s training I took in 2022.

This ties into another curiosity, but we shall come back to that.

This particular silver Explorer, in the next to bottom rung XLT trim, has zero options to accompany the standard equipment.  That’s not a slam; the standard XLT package is terrific as it contains second row captain’s chairs, heated front seats, and all the electronic gimmickry one will actually use.  Many seem to agree with this assessment as the XLT was the most popular Explorer trim for 2022.

Most interesting is the powertrain.  Thrumming away under the hood of this Explorer is a turbocharged, 2.3 liter four-cylinder.  This engine powers five of the eight trim levels for 2024.

I still get the fantods upon hearing “Ford 2.3”. 80,000 tortuous miles in a 1989 Mustang possessing that glacial nosebleed will facilitate such things.  That miserable 2.3 is the engine that incited me to actively avoid four-cylinder engines for a quarter-century.  Yes, I know it is not the same engine, as this current one is Mazda derived.  Regardless, bad experiences linger.

Had that old 2.3 possessed a mere scintilla of the wherewithal of this 2.3, my personal automotive life may have had a significantly different trajectory.  At 300 horsepower and 310 ft-lbs of torque, this newer 2.3 is certainly doing its part in making four-cylinder engines enjoyable for us torque loving, impatient types.  Even the engine sound is oddly intriguing as it puts one in mind of a combination of a Ford 8N tractor and a Husqvarna chainsaw.

Turbo lag is a real thing with this Explorer but only from a standing start.  Floor the accelerator, creep forward while saying “One Mississippi; two Mississi..”, then POW!  It’s off like the proverbial scalded dog.  On hilly and curvy terrain the throttle requires more modulation than any vehicle I’ve driven.

Yet there is more to the drivetrain than just the engine…

Sometime last summer, prior to receiving the Explorer, I shared a Friday afternoon at work with a new 3.3 liter V6 powered F-150.  We spent 120 miles together on all types of roadways, doubling its odometer reading.

This F-150 provided my first taste of Ford’s ten-speed automatic, similar to what this Explorer has.  In both the Explorer and that F-150, consistent low speeds, such as navigating parking lots, are accompanied by a lot of jerkiness.  It is almost as if the thing can’t decide upon a gear and keeps taste-testing the various options.  These two seem to spend more time shifting than actually being in gear.  It’s not an endearing trait in either.

Admittedly the transmission is less indecisive at highway speeds.  But both still have a propensity for excessive shifting.

Several times since being assigned the Explorer, I have stayed at a hotel due to work functions.

Each time, multiple other current generation Explorers were parked nearby.  All were obviously law enforcement units.

Is the Explorer reputation working itself toward that of the Crown Victoria?  Likely not, but I could not escape the connection.

Accessibility is great.  I just turned 51 and my body is giving me occasional reminders of such.  Not having to drop into a seat is nice.  I understand why people prefer the taller driving position of an SUV.

Another perk is passenger room.  I have three others in my immediate orbit at work and we periodically travel together for meetings and such.  While the four of us fit into that Impala without issue, the interior accommodations of the Explorer are better for four adult males.

Since the widespread adoption of SUVs, I have repeatedly heard about all their storage room.  When learning of the Explorer heading my direction, I boxed up all the paraphernalia I had in the Impala, leaving the box in the trunk.  It was obviously taking up room but did not overwhelm the available floor space.

Upon receiving the Explorer, said box went into the cargo hold.  With the third row seat folded down, this box consumes an inordinate amount of floor space.  Items cannot go into the cargo area as thoughtlessly as they did the Impala.

I will freely concede there is room in the back of an SUV, but it is vertical room.  Horizontal room is often more pertinent and the horizontal room in most SUVs, from my admittedly limited experience, ain’t all that.

However, this Explorer was purchased for being a work vehicle, intended to ferry me and others in all manner of weather without consuming copious amounts of fuel.  According to the trip computer (as of 4,464.1 miles of usage), fuel economy was 26.7 mpg over the prior 4,004.3 miles.  Reality is undoubtedly somewhat less, but still admirable for what this rig is.  The EPA rates it at 27 mpg highway, 20 mpg in town, and 23 mpg combined.

The Explorer has some irrefutable attributes, such as a terrific seating position, ample power, and surprising fuel economy.

For my work purposes, this Explorer and its 4wd ability nicely fills the need.  If I could change anything, it would be having fewer gears in the transmission.  Oh, and I’d also change that black interior…it just makes the thing overly hot in warm weather.

UPDATE 1 (October 2023):  Writing an article over the course of two many months does have advantages.  As I update this, that Explorer is sitting at the dealer.  Why?  At 2,600 miles the mild thumping noise heard from the front suspension at low speeds became quite loud.

A strut had gone bad.  Already.  Further, I rode in the twin to this Explorer the other day.  With half the mileage, that same thump could be heard.  Ford, you really test a person’s patience at times.

UPDATE 2:  Getting the Explorer back from the dealer, the thump is still present but much quieter.  Perhaps the dealer only replaced one strut?

Further, with the weather having changed, I am periodically running the defroster along with heat.  Instead of having air outlet choice located with the rest of the HVAC controls as any rational person would do, Ford opted to make the mix setting accessible only via the touchscreen, necessitating one to take their eyes off the road if making adjustments while traveling.

The proliferation of touchscreens is utter asininity, but maybe that’s my obstinance speaking.  I suppose Ford hasn’t heard about distracted driving having garnered top honors for being the leading cause of crashes in many areas.  Then again, distracted driving may be good for business.

UPDATE 3 (April 2024):  Yes, the dealer did only replace one strut.  At 6,500 miles, there was noise again and it’s back at the dealer.  Further, the suspension was not aligned after the first, singular strut replacement, thus the tires are all chewed up.  How ridiculous.

Regardless, getting this Explorer was an unanticipated perk.  My career, at my current employer at least, is winding down.  The Impala appeared to be the ride that would carry me through.  This Explorer is a nice accompaniment until such time as I do transition my career.