Look At How Much Nicer China’s Ford Explorer Is

China Ford Explorer Topshot

The Ford Explorer has been an American icon for decades. From its infamous rollover scandal to its current status as a popular family hauler, it really defined the family SUV. However, while the American Ford Explorer is tailored for hockey bags and the general vehicular abuse of parenthood, Ford wanted the Chinese version of the Explorer to look like a luxury yacht. Yes, really.

To be honest, I can’t blame the Chinese market for wanting a nicer Explorer. Frankly, I don’t even think the Explorer we get is nice enough for the North American market. General fit-and-finish on my last test car wasn’t spectacular, some interior plastics felt quite cheap, and the hybrid powertrain had a weird clunk when transitioning out of regenerative braking while coming to a standstill. I’m not a huge fan of how the Explorer looks on the outside, and I feel like the interior’s quite far from the interiors of segment leaders. Unless you want to tow or desire awesome snow traction, you can do better when shopping for a three-row family hauler. [Editor’s Note: I think the interior is just fine, but I’m not a stickler for interior plastics. The front end does look kinda weird, but I dig the rear. -DT].

U.S. interior
Photo credit: Ford

So, in the spirit of doing better, Ford’s China Design Center has been hard at work optimizing the Explorer for the Chinese market. For starters, the Chinese-market Explorer seems to scrap the entire North American dashboard and replace it with something new. Dominating the interior is a ludicrous 27-inch touchscreen that we’re unlikely to ever get in North America. Why? Well, Chinese Sync+ infotainment systems are powered by Baidu and Ford’s rest-of-world Sync 4 infotainment OS isn’t yet compatible with a 27-inch screen.

Really, it’s a bit of a shame that this particular screen format seems China-specific (for now). We North American scum have to put up with a thick-bezeled portrait-oriented screen unceremoniously plastered to the dashboards of our top-trim Explorers. It looks like someone dropped a cheap tablet on the interior model and just left it there hoping nobody would notice. This new widescreen display just works so much better with the Explorer’s wide dashboard, and the Lincoln-like trim treatment on the Chinese model certainly adds to that.

Explorer Interior China
Photo credit: Ford

Beneath the infotainment screen runs a lovely band of stitched material, outlining a few understated air vents and a small control panel. It’s a little bit sparse for my liking from a functionality standpoint, but it’s certainly visually-attractive. Plus, at least it’s not entirely a capacitive-touch panel. While the center console appears to echo the band of stitched dashboard material nicely, things get a bit weird when you look closely at Ford’s official press picture.

Yes, Ford’s infamous fake wood makes an appearance on the center console of some trim levels. It’s a bit disappointing seeing such an obviously cheap material in this vastly-improved cabin, an unappealing mark on a shiny new bit of design. Speaking of unappealing, I’m not entirely sold on the dual-tone steering wheel. It may look brilliant now, but imagine how grungy the red will look after 50,000 miles of fingerprints. Look, I know I sound a bit picky here, but details really matter. The average new vehicle is so unbelievably nice that it really is a case of step up or ship out. Thankfully, Ford’s Chinese design studio seems to have mostly stepped up.

Front End Labeled
Photo credit: Ford

Honestly, if you think that the new Chinese Explorer’s interior looks better, you should see the subtle revisions to the exterior. It usually doesn’t cost more money to make a handsome car than it does to make a gopping one, and the American Explorer is the sort of slightly messy design that pushes certain customers away. Sure, the side profile is perfectly alright, but have you seen the front end? I thought we did away with third grilles after we realized that the F25 BMW X3 looked like an unfortunate breeding incident between a pug and an F31 3-Series Touring. Also, just look at how awkward the lines are where the upper grille meets each headlight. Come on Ford, you can do better.

China Ford Explorer
Photo credit: Ford

Well, Ford’s designers in China certainly seem to have done better by styling a much cleaner front fascia. Shapelier headlights flow nicely into a large upper grille that deletes the American-market Explorer’s weird middle grille entirely. Big grilles are very much en vogue in the Chinese market, although implementations seem to be of varying success. The current BMW 4-Series hasn’t grown any easier to look at since it launched, but I feel like the big grille on this Explorer works alright. It could possibly use a stronger border, but it’s still an improvement over the American model’s grille. Interestingly enough, the outgoing Chinese Explorer used a similar grille treatment, so we’re really looking at a case of incremental change.

Speaking of grilles, the fake grilles on the outer corners of the front bumper are now vertically-oriented and relatively thin, while the lower fascia treatment hasn’t just been cleaned up, it’s been pressure-washed then steamed taut. Is this new front fascia a touch generic overall? Sure, but I’d take generic over ugly any day of the week.

China Ford Explorer Rear
Photo credit: Ford

Around the back, the new Chinese-market Explorer features equally dramatic changes. We’re talking about a heckblende-style full-width rear lamp treatment and a significantly more contoured liftgate that combine to make the rear end look far more interesting than that of the American-market model. Plus, the Chinese model flips the emblems so the Ford emblem is nicely integrated into the tailgate trim while the Explorer wordmark now sits proudly above the liftgate trim. To complete the re-working, the rear valence has been cleaned up with better reflector integration and actual styling, and the whole vehicle is topped off with a black roof. Job well done, I reckon.

Honestly, I can somewhat understand why Ford hasn’t gone quite so premium with the U.S.-market Explorer. It only takes a few thousand dollars to go from a very well-equipped Explorer to a Lincoln Aviator, so some level of walk-up needs to be built in to entice consumers with a luxury vehicle. However, the standard American-market Explorer’s interior just isn’t competitive with class leaders like the Kia Telluride, not to mention that our Explorer’s styling is just a bit messy. While I strongly doubt we’ll see a standardized worldwide Explorer design any time soon, it would be nice for at least some bits from this new Chinese-market Explorer to make their way around the world so we can have nicer rental cars.

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38 Responses

  1. The interior of the US version feels like it was designed without an infotainment screen at all, then right at the end they realised where are we going to put the screen, then just tacked it on. The new Ford Ranger has a similar sized screen but it is integrated so much better into the dash

    1. That’s one of the main reasons the Timberline variant looks so much nicer in the US. They cleaned up those little growths on the grill, and added some sculpting around the square foglights. They also gave the thing a butt lift to improve departure angle. Of all the current US trims of the Explorer, it’s the nicest looking on the outside. I’m fond of the interior, but it’s got a color scheme that’s going to scream early 2020’s in about 6 years.

      I agree with a lot of the reviews that it’s not a true offroading trim, but it adds the right amount of features for a reasonable logging road / two-track softroader.

  2. Back end looks nicer, but I prefer a smaller grille that doesn’t cover the bumper in my cars. The CDM Explorer looks overdone with the front end. The interior does look much better. Stuck-on iPad look does have its place in cars where the screen does not physically dominate the center stack, but the USDM Explorer screwed that up completely.

    I think, since there really isn’t a Lincoln division in China, that the Explorer moved upscale with new front and back ends and interior, so it could take advantage of the semi-luxury space instead of the people-mover reputation the Explorer has in the US.

  3. I’m going to have to disagree, the US one may be awkward but I dispise huge unnecessary grilles like on the Chinese version. It just makes cars look like they couldn’t hire a good designer so they filled up the front with grille and called it good. Even the interior of the Chinese model removed some physical controls in the interior which is just a step in the wrong direction, as much as I don’t like tables glued to the dash I would rather have the option of not using a screen in the first place and keep my eyes on the road.

  4. The long infotainment looks a lot better, but it doesn’t seem like it would be that useful. But, yeah, that interior looks like it could be in a luxury car. Huge improvement.

    1. Not being obviously idiotic is useful in itself.

      I am convinced that some higher-up that constantly screws up whether they should print in portrait or landscape told everyone how to install the infotainment screen and now everyone is too afraid to lose their jobs to question it. It can’t focus group well, can it?

      Meanwhile, the Chinese designers were just like “well, obviously that’s wrong” and clicked the rotate button.

      1. They clicked the rotate, then they extended it beyond what was practical. But at least it looks intentional, rather than the slapped-together look. I have not been in an Explorer for a bit, so I had not seen that infotainment system and cheap interior. And I am happy not to have any friends with Explorers I need to hold my tongue about.

  5. Let’s hope that our Chinese friends also replaced that super annoying doo-dah-doo chime that us Yanks get in our Fords. I rented a fusion hybrid a few years back that made me want to stab an icepick into my earholes every time i heard that damn chime.

  6. In addition to the stronger presence of the Chinese model, the real question is: Why does Ford have / need 2 different vehicles? MB, BMW, VW, Toyota, Honda, & others cater to different markets without such huge model-to-similar-model disparity.

  7. The Explorer’s front end is simply part of the Ford familial styling in North America at the time it was designed – they didn’t need to do that for the Chinese model – but now that most of the cars that shared that look are canceled there’s no real reason to keep that styling. I don’t know where it is in it’s life cycle but I wouldn’t be surprised of some of those features in the Chinese model show up in a mid-cycle refresh.

  8. The people designing the CDM Explorer looked at the Land Rover and thought “if we could redesign the front and rear fascias to look like that, we’ll get more sales.”
    I think it looks better even on the outside though.

  9. Regarding interior and tech, we’re dealing with people that increase screen size by 200% then design the UI so that the song titles and artists are still truncated after 16 characters.

  10. The design of the American and European (same design) Explorer looks so random. Is it trying to be aggressive (the front) or soft and friendly (the sides)? I was stuck in a que behind a Explorer and a NIO ES8 the other day, and what struck me, is just how much nicer and more resolved the rear of the NIO is. Every line and surfacing is just a lot a better, and especially looking how the solved the rear plate integration. It’s basically done the same way on both cars, but NIO has solved the task so much better. The Chinese model does in no way improve this, it merely moves the attention to a lot of chrome and the ubiquitous lettering which has been kerned too much (just like all manufactures are now doing.)

    1. First, I had to look up the NIO, as I’d never even heard of it – thanks for putting it on my radar!

      Second, related to your kerning point, what’s up with Ford’s random use of hood/bonnet letters these days? It always strikes me as a little weird with the Explorer, but downright strange on vehicles such as the Flex (it was hardly an iconic model). And then there’s the F150 Raptor with the giganto F O R D on the grill.

      What I’d really like is if Ford went with a standard stamped F o r d on the leading edge, as a nod to its ’60s styling.

  11. I guess if I had to choose between US or Chinese spec grille, big and clean would win over small and busy, although I still find it to be unattractive.

    When looking at 3-row family haulers recently, I dismissed the Explorer pretty quickly because they seemed to be *a lot* more expensive than things like the Atlas or Telluride or whatever, and I couldn’t figure out what you were getting for the cost premium. I haven’t looked at a recent example in person, but there’s no excuse for materials cheapness or poor fit and finish on a 50k+ vehicle.

  12. I must be the only person who hate bigger touch screens in cars. I also hate huge by large grills and faux brake vents front and back too, so I must be just getting too old. At any rate I do like that they left a bumper bar across the grill opening.

  13. The Chinese version grille is too squared off, it doesn’t fit with the shape of the rest of the car. The top where it meets the headlights is better though.
    Also, looks like you used the US Platinum trim grille, which is the ugliest one.

  14. I DD an Explorer as a company car. I’m somewhat jealous of that Chinese interior (though a screen half that length would actually be preferable), but the exterior is meh. The front is better, but the rear is overstyled to my eyes. It’s a big family hauler, the interior is much more important anyway.

    I can say that after living with it for a year and a half I’ve definitely noticed a few things –
    – The interior is cheap. Little things like a grab handle over the driver are missing, and there’s plenty of cheap feeling stuff everywhere. Ford’s cost cutting team went bonanza on this one, though at least the switchgear is decent feeling
    -The huge bezels on the screen are terrible. I just have the smaller 8 in screen, and the bezels are so bad I actually looked in the settings when I first got it to see if there was something messing with the aspect ratio. Nope, just massive bezels
    -It’s also a fantastic road trip car. Roomy, comfortable, and the adaptive cruise/lane centering works pretty well, making long drives much less tiresome.

  15. As a guy who doesn’t pay any attention to the latest front end Ford’s put on their Explorer, I tried to guess which one looks “much nicer” from the top pick and immediately chose the one on the left. It’s cleaner, less fussy, more unified, less random. The Chinese front end looks like a room full of executives looked at it and said “hmmmm, is there any way we can fit more DESIGN into this?”

  16. Does some of this come from the Chinese culture towards autos? For example rear legroom is more important that front? The number of gadgets is more important that usable ones?

    With that said, I can see this coming in a Ranger Rover or Jeep Wagoneer competitor. Fits just below the Tahoe with the luxury features.

    1. Also, I believe Chinese consumers tend to assign higher prestige to “foreign” brands, so there’s some incentive for automakers to push their products a bit more upscale and grab some fatter margins.

      It holds true for other foreign brands, too, Pizza Hut is actually a decent restaurant in China, and Howard Johnson hotels have marble lobbies and room service

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