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Faceoff: Ford Explorer vs. Toyota Highlander

FACEOFF

Ford Explorer vs. Toyota Highlander

2017 Toyota Highlander and 2017 Ford Explorer.

Can the revamped Highlander compete with the top-selling Explorer?

Compact CUVs are making all the news of late, having displaced compact cars as the biggest-selling vehicle species in Canada. But their midsize brethren are also taking sales away from traditional sedans. Among three-row midsizers, the Ford Explorer is the top-selling nameplate, but the recently refreshed Toyota Highlander is snapping at its heels. Let's find out why.

2017 FORD EXPLORER LIMITED

TECH SPECS

  • Prices: $48,899 base (Limited), $56,814 as tested
  • Engine: 2.3-litre turbo four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: 6-speed automatic, AWD
  • Fuel economy (city/hwy litres/100 km): 13.1/9.2.
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe XL, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, VW Atlas LOOKS

To our eyes, the Explorer is neither eye-catchingly appealing nor offensive – it's one of those shapes that "just is." It's also bigger than it looks –15 cm longer than the Toyota and 8 cm wider, according to the specs. New for 2017 (though not on the Limited test sample) is a sport appearance package for the XLT that includes 20-inch wheels.

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Performance: Explorer's standard 3.5-litre V-6 is a little down on power (290 hp) and torque (255 lb.-ft.) vs the Highlander, while the $1,000 optional 2.3-litre turbo four-cylinder on the test truck rates 280 hp and 310 lb.-ft. (for a lot more money the Sport and Platinum tout 365 hp and 350 lb.-ft. from their EcoBoost V6). The four-cylinder is impressively refined, but, perhaps disadvantaged by its two-gear transmission deficit, didn't feel as quick (0-60 mph in 8.2 sec according to Motor Trend) as the Highlander, and its tow rating is only 3,000 lb, compared to 5,000 for its V6 siblingsand the Highlander. Typically, the EcoBoost engine didn't deliver the promised fuel economy: we saw 13.6 L/100 km overall. We liked the Explorer's light-and-lively steering feel, less so its rather brittle ride quality.

Adjusting the pedals and steering column to fit your body type can be a challenge in the Explorer.

Interior: Perversely, even with power-adjustable pedals and power steering-column adjustment on the test truck, our body type was challenged to find the right combo of seat height and thigh support; you feel buried down low and front-left sight-lines are compromised by thick A-posts. The menu-based mostly digital gauge cluster enables lots of display possibilities, but you'll have to work to find them. According to official numbers, the Explorer has more passenger volume than Highlander, though combined second- and third-row legroom seemed the same in both: an adult might fit, but wouldn't be comfortable for long. Oddly, only the smaller side of Explorer's 60/40-split second-row bench is fore-aft adjustable, which limits legroom on the "60" side (the optional captain's chairs do both slide fore/aft).

Technology: Significant automated safety features that are standard on the Highlander are extra-cost options on Explorer, and available only on the higher-priced trims. On the other hand, only the Ford has standard front and rear parking sensors. Blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert is a $500 option on XLT and Limited, standard on higher trims. Also on the top trims, automated parking is an option not available on any Highlander. On the communitainment side, SYNC3 on an 8-inch screen is standard on XLT and up, with a WiFi Hotspot; voice-activated navigation is optional on XLT, standard on Limited and up.

The Explorer has a laundry list of options, but some safety features are only available on top trims.

Cargo: What the Explorer loses in seat count, it makes up in cargo room. Its 50/50-split third-row seats fold away like a minivan's, so when they're up, there is a deep well behind them. The resulting 21-cu.-ft of cargo space behind the third row is well above average for the segment and a whopping 52 per cent more than the Highlander. But that space disappears when the third row is stowed; then, the specs credit the Explorer with a little more volume than the Highlander behind the second row, a little less when all seats are flattened. Power-folding third- and/or second-row seats, and a hands-free power tailgate, are Explorer options not available on the Highlander.

VERDICT

With three engine choices, five trim grades (including a 365-hp Sport model worthy of the name) and a laundry list of options (many not available at all on Highlander), the Explorer offers loads of choice, and its generous all-seats-up cargo room is no small asset. But overall, this design is in its seventh model year, and starting to feel its age.



2017 TOYOTA HIGHLANDER XLE

TECH SPECS

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  • Prices: $43,995 base (XLE), $45,590 as tested
  • Engine: 3.5-litre DI V6, 295 hp
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic, AWD
  • Fuel economy (city/hwy litres/100 km): 12.0/8.9
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe XL, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, VW Atlas

Looks: Refreshed for 2017, the Highlander is a handsome beast – all the more so with the test vehicle's SE package that includes black 19-inch wheels (18s are standard) and matching black accents. It has a presence on the road that belies the fact that it's one of the smallest CUVs in its midsize peer group.

The Highlander has an exceptionally subtle engine stop/start system.

Performance: All grades of Highlander share the same new-for-2017 powertrain, a direct-injection 3.5-L V6 rated at 295 hp and 263 lb.-ft., hitched to an 8-speed automatic. Although we experienced an odd hesitation when flooring it off the line, Motor Trend numbers make the Highlander a full second faster to 60 mph (7.2 sec) than the Explorer. It would be even quicker if the eight-speed wasn't geared so tall: the payoffs are a super-relaxed highway stride (1,760 rpm at 120 km/h) and excellent fuel economy (9.9 litres/100 km over our full test, 11.2 for our back-to-back drive with the Explorer). Credit also the exceptionally subtle engine stop/start system. The SE package on the XLE test vehicle firms up the steering and suspension enough to save expressive drivers from terminal boredom, but not enough to truly inspire them.

Interior: Despite claiming less passenger cubic-footage, the Highlander has two key advantages over the Explorer: its wider third-row bench is a three-seater to the Explorer's two; and all versions of the second-row bench adjust fore-aft, providing much more maximum legroom (though second-row riders can't use it all if somebody is sitting behind them). Up front, the Highlander makes it easier to achieve a tall-in-the-saddle posture at the wheel. Its conventional analogue gauges are straightforward, and the high-and-centre touchscreen and HVAC controls are easy to access (though the command structure of the touchscreen itself is somewhat quirky).

While the Highlander may not be as tech-loaded as the Explorer, it makes up for it in efficiency.

Technology: Like most 2017 Toyotas, the Highlander comes standard in all trims with the Toyota Safety Sense-P bundle of automatic alert-and-assist safety tech, including adaptive cruise, lane-departure alert and assist, and automatic braking with pedestrian detection; on XLE and up, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are included, too. The XLE trim also includes voice-activated navigation on an 8-inch touch-screen, SiriusXM and SMS/E-mail-to-speech capability.

Cargo: The conventional flip-down backrest of the Highlander's third-row seat means there's no well behind it (though there is a briefcase-size compartment below the floor). Power folding is not an option. On the other hand, the seat's 60/40 split does permit an extra measure of flexibility. Cargo volume is marginally less than in the Ford with the third-row seat stowed and a little more when all seats are down. At its narrowest point the Highlander's cargo deck is almost 12 cm wider.

VERDICT

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What the Highlander may lack in ultimate performance or gizmology in its top trims, it more than makes up in sheer efficiency: faster yet also much more frugal than the mainstream Explorer models and containing more useable passenger space within a more compact exterior. Not to mention an impressive array of standard safety features.

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