2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost
EngineTurbo 2.0L I4
Power240 HP / 270 LB-FT
Curb Weight4,503 LBS
Cargo21 / 43.8 / 80.7 CU-FT
MPG20 City / 28 HWY
Ford is no stranger to convincing buyers to embrace smaller displacement, forced-induction engines over their larger, naturally-aspirated counterparts. A little less than a year ago, skeptics wondered whether typically change-averse full-size truck consumers would be willing to swap their tried-and-true V8 for the turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine now available in the F-150. According to Ford, that question has been answered – fully 41 percent of its half-ton pickups are rolling out the door with a forced-induction six-cylinder under the hood.
There's no great mystery behind the trend. As fuel prices have inched their way upward, vehicle shoppers have begun to count efficiency among the biggest factors that influence their final decision. According to Ford, a whopping 35 percent of Explorer buyers count the vehicle's fuel efficiency as the biggest reason behind their purchase.
Now the Dearborn-based automaker is hoping to repeat the success of the F-150 with the Explorer, and its smaller stablemate, the Edge, by welcoming a new, smaller engine to the EcoBoost family: a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injected inline four-cylinder. This engine boasts more torque and greater fuel efficiency than the standard 3.5-liter V6, but gives up a few horses and will cost shoppers an additional $995 when it hits dealers.
Externally, it takes a sharp eye to pick out the Explorer EcoBoost from its V6 brethren. Newly designed side mirrors and subtle badge work on the rear hatch are the only real indicators that set the model apart from the rest of the flock, though extensive aerodynamic work has been hidden behind the front fascia to increase the vehicle's efficiency. That includes active aero shutters behind the front grille that automatically close at a certain speeds to reduce drag. Ford doesn't recommend using the EcoBoost-equipped Explorer for any serious towing. Max capacity is rated at 2,000 pounds, which means spotters aren't likely to see a hitch dangling from the rear of the vehicle, either.
The story is much the same indoors. There is no differentiation between the cabins of EcoBoost and naturally-aspirated models. Ford even averted the easy trap of splaying the dash, floor mats and steering wheel with the EcoBoost logo. It's all clean and very familiar, right down to the MyFord Touch system. If you weren't a fan of the tech integration before, odds are you won't find anything to smile about in its presence here, though Ford is quick to remind its detractors that the system enjoys a staggering 90 percent take rate on the Explorer. We have a sneaking suspicion that fact may have as much to do with how the vehicle's option packages are arranged than any real affinity for the color-coded touch screen interface, however.
Whereas the vehicle's exterior and interior have remained untouched, the engine bay has received a substantial overhaul. Ford has managed to pull an impressive 240 horsepower from the turbocharged inline four-cylinder at 5,500 rpm and an even headier 270 pound-feet of torque at a substantially lower 3,000 rpm. Those figures fall 50 ponies shy of the standard 3.5-liter V6, but eclipse the larger displacement six-cylinder's torque figures by 15 lb-ft. Both engines are coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, but Ford says that the 2.0-liter EcoBoost can return an EPA-rated 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, an improvement of three miles per gallon in both city and highway driving over the base vehicle.
Part of that increase in fuel efficiency is due to a slight reduction in weight. With two fewer cylinders aboard, the 2.0-liter EcoBoost weighs around 80 pounds lighter than the standard 3.5-liter V6. Additionally, Ford isn't offering the EcoBoost SUV with all-wheel drive. All that power from the 2.0-liter gets dumped to the pavement via the front wheels only, which makes the machine more comfortable fielding fair-weather mall duty than snowy winter mountain passes, and it also lightens the load by a whole drive axle.
And that's just fine. Ford has brought all of its engineering muscle to bear on this all-aluminum EcoBoost four-cylinder, and as a result, the engine packs twin independently variable cams for greater efficiency over the entire rev range as well as polished bucket tappets, sodium-filled exhaust valves for greater durability and an exhaust manifold integrated into the aluminum cylinder head to save weight. That last bit also decreases the time it takes for the engine to reach optimum operating temperature, which reduces wear on the turbo and increases longevity at the same time.
Despite an abundance of power available from fairly low in the rev band, Ford has managed to keep torque steer under control. While we were able to induce a good bit of wheelspin off the line, the Explorer didn't seem interested in wrestling the wheel from our hands. Due to the use of a lightweight, low-inertia turbo design, power delivery is linear and smooth without much in the way of lag. Pound the throttle from a stop and the four-cylinder lights up with glee, pulling to 60 mph in a little over eight seconds according to one engineer. Though power seems to fall off slightly higher in the rev range, the six-speed automatic transmission keeps the engine from winding itself out. Instead, the gearbox happily holds its cogs to fully make use of the 270 lb-ft of torque available. With shift logic that isn't quick to drop down, the engine feels more like a traditional V6 than a shrieking four cylinder. The end result is acceleration that feels more than adequate for a vehicle that tips the scales at 4,503 lbs.
Despite its many positives, at the end of the day, we would have a hard time justifying the additional $995 for the EcoBoost option. A jump of 3 mpg in both city and highway driving is nothing to dismiss, but a lack of available all-wheel drive and significant cut in towing capacity are sacrifices that are tough to justify in our book – especially considering Ford is asking its buyers to pay for the reduced functionality. Unfortunately, we suspect the success of the Explorer EcoBoost will probably depend largely on fuel prices in the future.
Interestingly enough, the exact opposite is true for the Edge EcoBoost. At nearly 400 pounds lighter than the Explorer, the Edge feels like it hasn't given up any driving performance in the switch to four-cylinder power. With its readily-accessible torque and even higher 30 mpg, paying an extra $995 for the Edge EcoBoost is a comparative no-brainer. While Ford is reluctant to stick actual figures to either vehicle's performance, one engineer told us that the Edge is a full second quicker to 60 mph than the Explorer, and as a result, the smaller crossover is significantly more engaging. It simply feels fast and capable, whereas the Explorer merely provides adequate power.
Our Explorer tester came laden with Limited trim and Ford's Rapid Spec 301A equipment package, which included niceties like a power liftgate, power folding third-row seating and voice-activated navigation. As a result, our sticker price hovered just under $42,000 including an $825 destination fee. Buyers will be able to get into a base Explorer EcoBoost for significantly less coin, however. Buyers can spec out a model with the turbocharged four-cylinder engine for $29,165 plus the same destination charges, or just just under the $30,000 mark.
While we can absolutely see a good reason for buyers to pony up a little extra coin for the EcoBoost 2.0-liter in the Edge, the engine makes more sense to us as a no-cost option in the Explorer. Ford has already employed a similar tactic with the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, allowing buyers to choose between greater fuel efficiency or greater power in the V6 model without asking them to dig any deeper into their bank accounts. Though the Explorer EcoBoost is a solid driver, we simply don't think the optional engine's benefits offset its taller price tag and reduced capability.
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