AUTO REVIEW: Hitching a Sailboat to the Ford Explorer SUV

By Henry Payne

Its 250-mile journey complete, the 2022 Ford Explorer Timberline arrives at Lake Charlevoix with its boat cargo intact. (Henry Payne/The Detroit News/TNS)

CHARLEVOIX, Michigan (The Detroit News/TNS) — Pickups get all the headlines as vehicle workhorses. With ladder frames and rear beds, they can tow 10,000 pounds while hauling 2,500 pounds of payload and four workers the size of football players. But what if you don’t need all that utility all the time? What if you just need a part-time workhorse? What if you could get by with a simple SUV?

It’s remarkable what your good ol’ Ford Explorer SUV can do.

When my young sons started racing go-karts in the early 2000s, we didn’t need a pickup to haul our wares. Racing on a budget, I would rent a U-Haul trailer on summer weekends, load it with our 100cc Birrel racing kart and spares — then hook it up to our midsize, three-row 2005 Chrysler Pacifica SUV (the original Pacifica was an SUV before being reborn as a minivan in in 2017). With a 3,500-pound towing capacity, brawny V-6 engine, roomy hatchback and second-row captain’s chairs, Pacifica was plenty of workhorse for our needs.

On weekdays, it was my wife’s daily driver; on weekends it was the Payne Racing rig. Though we sold it when our kiddies flew the coop for college, the Chrysler was the best family car we owned — handsome, smooth, with enough muscle for the occasional U-Haul.

So when a Charlevoix friend asked this fall if I would tow his sailboat from Ann Arbor, I jumped at the chance. Not because I wanted to test the latest macho pickup, but — with memories of my ol’ Pacifica — because I wanted to see what a modern SUV could do.

The 2022 Ford Explorer Timberline’s console features Ford’s familiar rotary shifter and easy-to-use SYNC 5 infotainment system. (Henry Payne/The Detroit News/TNS)

My tester, the latest 2022 Timberline trim of Ford’s popular midsize, three-row Explorer, is a state-of-the-art version of our old Pacifica: handsome, smooth ride, utilitarian, muscular. It’s even a shade of blue like my Pacifica.

Even as government nannies have forced automakers to abandon V-6s for turbo-4s, Ford engineers have managed to make a brawnier 4-banger. Tipping the scales at 4,565 pounds, the Explorer Timberline puts 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque to its four wheels compared to the 4,720-pound Pacifica’s 250 horses and 250 torque. The current-gen Explorer was also engineered to be rear-wheel-drive based, adding to its towing prowess.

The result is increased efficiency and performance of 21 mpg and 5,300-pound towing capability versus Pacifica’s 20 mpg and 3,500 pounds.

And the new Explorer is every bit the looker of the old Pacifica. Its rear-driver proportions, long hood and sculpted shoulders still turn heads three years after its Detroit auto show introduction. You can see them coming a mile away with their signature horizonal LED eyebrows.

Dressed in blue, my Timberline swaggered into Ann Arbor on a Saturday morning to pick up my cargo: an 18-foot fixed-keel Precision 185 sailboat strapped to a custom-made trailer to accommodate the boat’s 3.5-foot draft. Total weight? About 1,500 pounds.

I hooked up the trailer (the boat was already secured with straps and the mast neatly laid stem-to-stern so that it did not interfere with the Explorer’s hatch), crossed the chains, connected the lights and locked away the third wheel. Then I tackled the hard part: arranging luggage, a tennis bag, a Craftsman toolbox and multiple boat accessories (including an awkward spare wooden seat) in the rear cargo bay so that two people could still ride comfortably in the second row if necessary.

I needed to lay down the “40” seat in the 60-40 split in order to accommodate the long center bulkhead, but otherwise the Explorer hatch swallowed boat accessories, luggage and all. I recommend having someone familiar with boats (I’m a motorhead landlubber) — like my friend’s neighbor — check over things like strap tension and tires before departure.

I selected TOW/HAUL on the Explorer and eased out of Ann Arbor’s neighborhood streets. The Explorer towed the boat with ease. No swaying. No bouncing.

Timberline is fully armed with the latest safety assistance features like blindspot assist and adaptive cruise control. Ford calls its system CoPilot 360 Assist with lane-keep assist that mimics self-driving. When fully engaged, a green steering wheel appears on the dash. Entering U.S. 23 headed north, I turned on 360 Assist and used it for most of the four-hour trip at highway speeds of 75-80 mph. The SUV maintained its lane and kept its distance from vehicles.

That consistency allowed me time to explore the SYNC5 infotainment system. It’s one of the industry’s best (an electronic light year from the Pacifica) and I easily found my preferred SIRIUS XM stations. SYNC5 also features wireless smartphone technology (Pacifica existed B.S. — Before Smartphones) and I was able to make calls and check in with Mrs. Payne on my long drive north.

Towing a tall 1,500-pound rig was surprisingly easy, but the load did take its toll on fuel economy.

Rated at 21 mpg, my steed drank gas at a rate of 9.9 mpg on my trip — getting only 45% of predicted range. Ouch. Range anxiety just like an electric vehicle. Except, there are gas stations everywhere.

With the 60/40 seat down to accommodate rear gargo, the 2022 Ford Explorer Timberline still has seating for two in the middle seats. (Henry Payne/The Detroit News/TNS)

As it turned out, my two-stop fueling strategy was similar to what I used with EVs that I have driven north to Charlevoix — only much shorter. I filled up in Bay City and again in Gaylord with regular gas at $3.69 a gallon. Marathon fueling stations cater to truckers and trailers with big lots and lots of pump room, and I looked for them on my journey.

The Explorer took just three minutes to fill to 200 miles of range. Equivalent mileage requires half an hour in an EV.

The Explorer was smart. When I fired the Ford back up in TOW/HAUL mode, a screen message told me the trailer was connected, followed by another message that Blind-spot Assist and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert were deactivated due to the trailer.

By my second fueling stop in Gaylord, Ford’s computer had adapted to its hauling duties and predicted I would get just 167 miles on a tank of fuel as opposed to the usual 483 highway miles. Good to know. I arrived in Charlevoix four hours and 25 minutes after my departure with my package intact. After unloading the boat, I shoved the Explorer into SPORT mode and had some fun through the M-32 twisties on my way back home.

When relieved of its towing duties, a mid-size SUV can feel pretty sporty. And it’s lot easier to park around town than a pickup.

2022 Ford Explorer Timberline

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive six-passenger SUV

Price: $47,540, including $1,295 destination fee ($48,035 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 300 horsepower, 310 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 5,300 pounds

Weight: 5,827 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 19 city/22 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Smooth towing; useful highway and infotainment tech for long hauls

Lows: Bland interior compared to some rivals; miss the ol’ V-6 roar

Overall: 4 stars

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