In both vehicles, it’s a penalty box that will only fit pre-adolescent kids. In the Explorer, accessing to the third row can really only happen through the split in the captain’s chairs, and the seats themselves are unforgivingly firm. Trying to hurdle the second-row seats from the Explorer’s doorway requires the size and talents of a yogi. At least the Toyota has adequate access over the folded second-row seats if you’re willing to topple yourself into place. Verdict: Toyota.
With seats up, both SUVs have about the depth of a good-sized golf bag, although the Toyota’s hatch opening appears wider. Despite being a rear-drive platform, which should mean sacrificing rear cargo area, the Ford dominates in cubic footage with seats up or down—18.2/47.9/87.8 cubic feet for the Ford, 16.1/40.6/73.3 for the Toyota. Underneath the Explorer’s carpeted cargo-area cover, there’s a decently sized wet-stuff storage bin that could fit a wetsuit and swim fins. The Highlander, despite growing its wheelbase by 2.4 inches, offers less cargo room than before—and although it also offers a wet-stuff storage area, it shares space with the tire-change gear. Both third-rows fold flat, if you slide the second-row seats forward. Verdict: Ford—by a lot.
Both vehicles offer a version of multiple terrain software for different surfaces underfoot. Off-road competency needs to be determined by driving these vehicles. Verdict: Draw
Ford’s base-model 2.3-liter turbo-four generates 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. The top-end Explorer Platinum trim gets a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6, good for 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. The Highlander has one non-hybrid engine choice: a 295-hp, 263-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 that carries over with the eight-speed automatic transmission. It should get22 mpg combined city/highway. Verdict: Ford.
The Hybrid Option
The Explorer’s 3.3-liter hybrid makes 318 hp and 336 lb-ft but gets an underwhelming 24 mpg. The Highlander Hybrid offers a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, making it a less expensive alternative for those in the sunshine states. It’s also based on a 2.5-liter I-4 paired to an electric motor (with old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries) for a combined 240 hp but a stunning 34 mpg in the combined EPA cycle. Verdict: You’re buying a hybrid for the green reasons, right? Toyota.
The base Explorer can tow 5,000 pounds, as can the hybrid (wow!). The optional 3.0-liter EcoBoost raises that to 5,600 pounds. The Highlander V-6 also tows 5,000 pounds. Toyota did not give a tow rating for the Highlander Hybrid, but with a carryover powertrain, expect it to be similar to the old model’s 3,500 pounds. Verdict: Ford
If you want the base Explorer, it will now run you $33,860 including destination. Upgrade to the Explorer XLT, and it’s $37,750. The Explorer Limited runs $49,225, tacking on $4,150 for the Hybrid option. The Platinum trim rings up at $59,345. Toyota has not announced pricing. Verdict: Undecided.
The Explorer wins in many categories, but its plasticky, dated interior really lets it down. You’re living in this vehicle every day, and the Toyota rewards you with its lush interior and smart design. If you’re schlepping kids every day, especially in the third row, the Toyota is the better pick (especially if you make long-haul runs where the Highlander Hybrid’s fuel economy really pays off). But if you go to the lake frequently with your boat, or make frequent Home Depot or Costco runs for a renovation or a big family, the Explorer may be the better option.
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