While the tide of bigger-is-better SUVs has been in recession since, well, the recession, fullsize utes are still very much with us. Conservative creatures that have been loathe to evolve, fullsize SUVs nonetheless remain enduringly popular among large families, livery customers, and anyone with lots of friends, relatives, and toys to tug around. With respect to Toyota and Nissan, the only players that really matter in the segment are the new-for-2015 Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, the GMC Yukon/Yukon XL, and this truck: the Ford Expedition, the latest evolution of which we just drove for the first time at a press preview in West Virginia.
Unlike the General Motors utilities, the standard Expedition and the long-wheelbase Expedition EL are not all-new, but rather are heavily refreshed versions of the same basic truck Ford started selling way back in 2007. The front fascia is where most of the exterior update happens for 2015, with a new three-bar grille design, halogen projector headlamps, and new bumper design with available LED foglamps. Despite all the new bits, the facelift breaks exactly zero ground in terms of design; in fact, it already looks dated, and will only look older once the macho 2015 F-150 bows later this year. Even less has changed out back, where the tailgate gets a wide chrome band spanning the taillamps and a new chrome exhaust tip. Other exterior changes are generally limited to colors and an all-new wheel lineup that includes a gleaming set of six-spoke 22-inch polished wheels on high-end models.
Speaking of high-end models, a new Platinum trim is positioned above the cowboy-spec King Ranch model for 2015. Both the Platinum and King Ranch get their own color combos and exterior trim finishes (satin metal for the Platinum, chrome everywhere and ginormous badges for the King Ranch) and posh, leather-lined interiors with their own aesthetic. The Expedition family also now includes a price-leading XL model, as well as XLT and Limited grades.
That's nice and all, but we didn't fly to Appalachia to ogle new headlights and caress leather seats. The real draw was to see how the Expedition fares after making the switch from its outgoing V8 to turbocharged V6 power, the only way it will come henceforth. The change makes sense on paper, given that the turbo six – the same engine found in the F-150 EcoBoost – simply trounces the old V8 with 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, compared to the outgoing 5.4's 310 hp and meager 365 lb-ft of torque. Notably, the EcoBoost V6 also outmuscles the 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque produced by the 5.3-liter base V8 in GM's portfolio, though it comes up shy of their forceful – and thirsty – optional 420-hp, 460 lb-ft 6.2-liter V8.
Our test drive took place at the wheel of loaded EL model that, by Ford's estimation, weighed in at over 6,000 pounds before three passengers climbed aboard, so we were quite pleased with how effortlessly the EcoBoost mill could get the Expo's considerable mass moving. As it is in the F-150, the turbo six is utterly silent when cruising and heroically smooth and quiet even under full throttle. It's brisk and never runs out of breath, and it will even leave a few yards of rubber patches in the asphalt during throttle-brake standing starts if you indulge your inner child. While it doesn't have the 5.4's quiet V8 burble, its buckets of effortless passing power, which we used rather often to dispense of more leisurely traffic on the twisty West Virginia two-laners, more than make up for it.
The standard six-speed automatic transmission flatters the engine with smooth shifts, a tow/haul mode, and a manual mode that is selectable via a rocker switch on the console-mounted shifter. The only time the powertrain seemed to get tripped up happened during some twisty uphill runs, when we would come off the gas and receive an upshift, then get back on it, prompting a downshift followed by some turbo lag before unleashing a torrent of power. This problem was quickly solved simply by shifting to manual mode and changing gears on our own schedule.
Ford's chassis engineers have also been busy recalibrating the suspensions on all 2015 Expedition models and installing a new electric power steering system that, when combined with the newly optional continuously controlled damping (CCD) system, tailors assistance levels and ride compliance along Comfort, Normal and Sport settings. Ford promised a considerable dynamic range between the three settings, but from the driver's seat, the differences seem subtle at best: Sport mode adds a bit of weight but no more feel to the steering and allows a few more bumps into the cabin, while Comfort quiets and smoothens out the ride a bit, but frankly, neither setting deviates too far from Normal. In all settings, handling is tidy, hardly scintillating, and perfectly acceptable for the big people-hauler it is. We did not get a chance to drive the SUV with the standard suspension, but we hope to rectify that soon.
Between the downsized engine, electric power steering, and smaller efficiency gains, Ford is confident that the new Expedition will see a 15-percent improvement in fuel economy. By our math, that would bring it to about 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for the two-wheel-drive model and 15/20 or 15/21 for the four-wheel driver – hardly earth-shattering (let alone earth-saving) but certainly not bad for a 5,500-plus-pound body-on-frame SUV that can tow up to 9,200 pounds (9,000 in this EL trim). And for what it's worth, those numbers would land the Expedition right where the GM twins' fuel economy numbers currently stand with the 5.3-liter V8.
Some attention has been paid to the interior, too, starting with a new instrument cluster and steering wheel, as well as a center stack borrowed from the current F-150 in order to accommodate Ford's latest Sync and MyFord Touch technologies. And there are loads of available niceties, from a tilt/telescope steering wheel to keyless access and engine starting, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera, selectable ambient lighting colors, a 700-watt Sony sound system, and Ford's "truck apps" to make various towing and off-road driving tasks easier.
Dated as it can look even in Platinum grade, the Expedition's cabin is nonetheless a nice place to spend time. The Platinum's front seats are simply fabulous, as are the glove-soft King Ranch chairs. Second-row seats, however, are pan-flat both on the cushion and the setback – such is the price you pay for fold-flat versatility. Ditto the third row, though the headroom and legroom for both rows is pretty commendable on EL models. And while the third row is technically seats three adults, the seat is none too wide if those three are actually adults.
As plank-like as they are, however, the rear seats are able to fold completely flat, unlike those in the GM utes. Combined with the Expedition's compact independent rear suspension components, its load floor is completely flat and low. If we have a bone to pick, it's with the rife hard plastic on the dashtop and door panels, even on the King Ranch and Platinum grades. On the other hand, Ford can't make the Expedition too nice, lest there be even less of a reason for big spenders to splurge on the Lincoln Navigator, a model that alas, has a padded dashtop. And stitching, too.
The 2015 Expedition arrives in Ford dealerships this fall – likely in September – and while formal pricing and trim level equipment has yet to be announced, we're told they will start around $40,000 for the base XL 2WD and rise to about $63,000 and change for a loaded Platinum 4X4. Those prices come in comfortably below those of the Tahoe and Yukon when comparably equipped.
After spending a day behind the wheel of Ford's largest available 'ute, we came away with the impression that it's new-but-well-known turbocharged V6 engine is a hearty performer, even in this heavyweight application. Even if it's not entirely new, the latest Ford Expedition is still very much in the hunt.