Perhaps one of the most recognizable three-row SUVs on the road, the Ford Explorer is an originator among family-focused crossovers. It’s been in continuous production for over 30 years, becoming a best-seller in Ford’s lineup. Some kids who grew up riding in the back of an Explorer are now ready for the driver’s seat, with their own youngsters sitting behind.
Yet in its current form, introduced for the 2020 model year, the Explorer isn’t great. It feels cheap, poorly packaged, and outdated already. Despite a price cut for 2021, it’s still more expensive than some higher-rated competitors.
Nevertheless, the 2021 Explorer range is diverse, ranging from no-frills to sporty to near-luxurious. Here are the differences and what to expect from the 2021 Ford Explorer trim levels.
2021 Ford Explorer Pros and Cons
The entry-level Explorer (simply badged “Explorer”) is powered by a 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 engine. Like all 2021 Explorers, it uses a 10-speed automatic transmission. RWD is standard, and AWD is optional. EPA-rated fuel economy for Explorer models with this engine is 21/28 mpg city/highway with RWD and 20/27 mpg for AWD models.
On the base Explorer, exterior details include LED headlights and taillights, 18-inch silver-painted wheels (a different trim is shown here), and a power-operated liftgate. All the windows behind the B-pillars have a privacy tint. A few details give away that this is the cost-saving model. It’s only offered in white, black, silver, or gray, and all have plain black plastic door handles and side mirror caps.
Inside, the Explorer is configured in a seven-seat setup: two seats up front, a three-across bench in the middle, and two seats in the far back. The front two are power adjustable, and all are covered in cloth upholstery. Three-zone automatic climate control is standard, and overhead reading lights are provided in each row. Up front, there’s an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen and 6.5-inch gauge cluster display, with USB ports between the seats. Ford’s Co-Pilot360 driver-assist suite includes automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beams, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Starting at about $34,000, the 2021 Explorer is priced slightly higher than some other three-row SUV competitors. But its rear-drive underpinnings give it a different—that is, more fun—feeling from behind the wheel. Still, features and appointments remain basic in this trim.
2021 Ford Explorer XLT Pros and Cons
Moving up to the XLT trim adds styling details, conveniences, and niceties. Outside, the wheels remain 18-inchers, but they have a different design and a bright-painted finish. The headlights get distinctive LED accents, and chrome trim snazzes up the grille and lower doors. Blue and brown are among the additional available paint colors. The door handles are body colored, and although the side mirror caps remain black plastic, they gain defrosters and puddle lights. Black roof rails are added.
Inside the Explorer XLT, second-row captain’s chairs are fitted for a six-passenger configuration; a three-across bench is available. In either case, two USB ports are added to the second row. Although cloth upholstery remains, the front seats are heated. Hands-free keyless entry with push-button start makes getting going easier.
At just over $36,000 to start, the 2021 Explorer XLT adds everyday conveniences that help justify the price increase over the base trim. Its exterior styling upgrades make the Explorer look that much better.
2021 Ford Explorer Limited Pros and Cons
In comparison to the trims above, the Explorer Limited seems luxurious. The higher trim’s exterior gains a fully chrome-finished grille, with LED foglights below. Additional chrome detailing is added to the door handles and dual exhaust tips. The side mirrors gain turn signal repeaters and power-folding functionality. Wheel size increases to 20 inches for more street presence. The acoustically laminated front door windows help keep things quiet.
There are more changes inside the Explorer Limited. The six-passenger seating is covered in perforated leather upholstery. For easier access to the third row, the second-row captain’s chairs get a one-touch fold function—they’re heated, too. Up front, the driver gets to grip a heated steering wheel, and both front seats gain ventilation. Other touches include interior ambient lighting, second-row window shades, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
Technology is upgraded in the Limited trim. A 12-speaker premium audio system is fitted, and the infotainment suite is loaded with built-in navigation. The Ford Co-Pilot360+ system adds adaptive cruise control and front parking sensors, supplemented by a 360-degree parking camera. There’s a wireless charging pad between the front seats.
With prices starting at about $46,000, the Limited trim marks a significant price hike. It’s also the least-expensive Explorer trim that’s offered with a hybrid powertrain, which joins a 3.3-liter V-6 to an electric motor for improved fuel efficiency and driving range—27/28 mpg and over 500 miles of combined city/highway driving with RWD, and 23/26 mpg and over 460 miles with AWD. The Explorer Hybrid feels strong and offers good integration between the gasoline and electric power sources. The hybrid costs nearly $5,000 more than the regular 2021 Explorer Limited. Either way, it’s a lot for an Explorer, but some may justify it because of the trim’s extensive list of upgrades.
2021 Ford Explorer ST Pros and Cons
Ford has long used ST to denote its sportiest vehicles, and that’s no different with the Explorer. The 2021 Explorer ST packs a twin-turbo V-6 engine, which spins the 20-inch wheels. Although the standard ST is AWD, the new Enthusiast ST variant added this year is RWD only, yet no less powerful. Exterior details are blacked out, like the headlights and taillights, door handle inserts, and grille. On the hood, “Explorer” is spelled out in big black letters. Quad exhaust outlets signal the performance intent. Motion activation for the power tailgate adds cargo convenience, and the driver’s-side mirror is auto-dimming.
Inside the Explorer ST, features are similar to the Limited trim. Key differences include power-folding third-row seats and leather upholstery with ST-specific stitching and embossing. The semi-autonomous parking system could reduce the likelihood of curbing those sporty wheels. A big, tablet-like 10.1-inch infotainment touchscreen becomes optionally available on the ST trim and above. It’s part of the Premium Technology package, which also adds a 14-speaker audio setup and massaging front seats.
The Explorer ST drives pretty well and essentially has only one competitor in the three-row SUV segment: the V-8 powered and more fun-to-drive 2021 Dodge Durango SRT. But the ST’s performance increase comes at a price. Starting at just under $50,000 in Enthusiast ST spec and slightly below $55,000 for the full-on ST, it’s priced above some luxury three-row SUVs. It outperforms some of those, too, but it’s still a Ford Explorer.
2021 Ford Explorer King Ranch Pros and Cons
New for 2021 is the Explorer King Ranch, which has appointments similar to the leather-lined luxury pickup trucks bearing the same designation. The new Explorer trim’s exterior gets some unique details, like its grille finish, 20-inch wheels, and a few King Ranch logos.
The King Ranch trim is really all about its interior. Leather is finished in an attractive two-tone brown scheme with special perforation and stitching patterns. Open-pore wood trim lends a natural ambiance. Other features and niceties are borrowed from the Explorer Limited trim.
The twin-turbo V-6 is under the hood, with rear-wheel drive standard and AWD optional. Prices start at under $54,000, representing a surprisingly luxurious interior experience within a commonplace SUV.
2021 Ford Explorer Platinum Pros and Cons
At the top of the 2021 Explorer range is the Platinum trim, which has several unique details to convey its upscale status. It rolls on 21-inch wheels and has satin silver finishing on the grille, doors, door handles, roof rails, and tailgate. The headlights gain curve-adaptive functionality.
Illuminated door sills provide an upscale welcome to the front row. Past those, the cabin of the Explorer Platinum is dressed up with unique two-tone perforated leather upholstery, wood trim, and a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster display. Under the hood is the twin-turbo V-6; RWD is newly standard for 2021 while AWD becomes an option. In the ST model, this powertrain makes the Explorer downright quick, but the Platinum trim avoids the ST’s available high-performance brakes, which feel more like an on/off switch. Also new for 2021 is the availability of the plug-in hybrid powertrain on the Platinum trim. Prices begin at about $53,000 for RWD, or $57,000 for AWD with the twin-turbo V-6. The new Explorer Platinum hybrid model starts at just over $53,000. Regardless, the Explorer Platinum is nice but not enough to be worth the extra expense.
Which 2021 Ford Explorer Trim Level Is the Best?
The Ford Explorer has earned its best-selling reputation on being a practical, three-row family SUV. Yet in its current form, the SUV is outclassed by segment competitors. Choosing a higher-end trim level adds upscale appointments, but at that point there are options worth exploring in the luxury three-row SUV segment—like the mechanically related and similarly priced Lincoln Aviator. That’s why we suggest the 2021 Explorer XLT trim. It provides core three-row SUV functionality, along with more everyday conveniences than the base-trim Explorer. At the same time its under-$40,000 starting price makes it relatively attainable. If you’re set on a 2021 Explorer, the XLT trim strikes a good balance between practicality and price.
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