Ford Expedition remains at top of dwindling truck-based SUV market
Compared with the latest crossovers, the Ford Expedition feels primitive, dated and in need of some love -- but compared with full-size SUV competitors, the Expedition remains top dog.
The response I received whenever I told someone I was reviewing a new 2013 Ford Expedition EL was always the same: "Ford still makes those?" Heard it at least a half-dozen times. And the answer is yes, Ford most definitely still makes the big Expedition -- and it remains one of the company's most profitable products. Admittedly, Ford doesn't put the same kind of attention into marketing and selling its behemoth SUV as it did in its heyday, and sales of these kinds of trucks -- both at Ford and throughout the industry -- are nothing like they were just a decade ago. Trucks like these have largely been replaced by large, car-based crossovers like the Ford Flex, but for someone who has big cargo or towing needs, nothing but a truck-based, full-sized, V-8-powered SUV will do.
There are just a handful of changes from the 2012 to the 2013.
Two Sizes: Big and Bigger
The Ford Expedition comes in two styles: a regular-length, full-size SUV and the longer EL version, which adds considerable length. Both have a third row in the form of a three-person split bench that folds down for extra cargo capacity. My tester was the extended EL version, which adds an extra foot to the wheelbase and a full 14.8 inches to the truck's overall length. All that extra space goes behind the second-row seats, keeping dimensions the same in the first two rows. It makes a considerable difference for third-row passengers, adding a full 15.2 inches of shoulder room by repositioning the seat. Legroom is unchanged, so it also adds a lot of room behind the third row, increasing cargo capacity from 18.6 cubic feet to 42.6 cubic feet. Both the second and the third rows fold flat to create a massive space suitable for hauling just about anything. While the regular Expedition can carry plenty of people and stuff, the EL is a clear winner in terms of truly massive cargo-carrying ability.
Still, its numbers are slightly smaller than the Expedition's main competitors, the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon/Yukon XL, which represent short/extended versions of GM's SUVs. Among shorter-wheelbase versions, the Expedition has the edge, with greater cargo room behind the third-row seat but roughly equal cargo capacity with both the second and third rows stowed. Among extended-length versions of both companies' trucks, GM gets the nod, with the Suburban and Yukon XL boasting 137.4 cubic feet of total cargo volume to the Expedition EL's 130.8. In addition to this space advantage, the GM trucks offer an optional front bench seat in some models, extending the passenger count to nine versus the Expedition's maximum of eight.
Big Truck + Big Engine = Big Thirst
With all this room for people and stuff, you need some serious grunt to get the rig up to speed. Ford provides just one engine for the Expedition, a 5.4-liter V-8 making 310 horsepower and 365 pounds-feet of torque. Ford's EcoBoost technology hasn't yet made it into a full-size SUV, so there's nothing turbocharged available -- no direct-injection technology, not even four valves per cylinder. Power is routed through a standard six-speed automatic transmission to either the rear wheels or to a mode-selectable all-wheel-drive system featuring automatic, high- and low-range modes.
The big V-8 provides adequate power -- if you're not in a hurry. Throttle response is relaxed, and at no point do you forget you're piloting three tons of old-style, body-on-frame truck. There's plenty of torque available for hauling a boat or trailer, but when compared with the upgraded engine options in the GM stable, the 5.4-liter feels weak. The standard engine for the Suburban/Yukon XL is a 5.3-liter Vortec V-8 making 320 hp and 335 pounds-feet of torque. Those numbers are comparable to the Expedition, but the GM trucks offer a bigger 352-hp, 6.0-liter motor with 382 pounds-feet of torque in their heavy-duty versions. And if that's still not enough power, you can upgrade to a Yukon XL Denali for a 6.2-liter monster motor making 403 hp and 417 pounds-feet of torque.
The brakes are more than up to the task of bringing the big truck to a stop, with standard antilock braking. Strong, progressive and firm, the brakes are among the Expedition's strengths. Handling is what one would expect in such a beast -- fairly numb around town and in parking lots, but stable at highway speeds. It won't be your choice for weekend canyon-carving, but hauling the basketball team to a game is no sweat. Ride quality is truck-like but comfortable; the sheer mass of the Expedition lets it swallow bumps and broken pavement with little interruption to passengers' serenity. Compared with a big crossover like Ford's own Flex, the ride is not as refined and the handling is not as crisp, but these are the trade-offs one makes for the Expedition's cargo room and towing capability. Owning an Expedition means being no stranger to gas pumps. In a lot of mixed driving, I recorded an average 15 mpg overall, a respectable figure that won't surprise anyone in the market for such a truck. My observed mileage matches the EPA estimates precisely -- the Expedition EL 4x4 is rated 13/18 mpg city/highway, with a 15 mpg combined rating. The 4x2 version gets slightly better mileage, rated 14/20 mpg city/highway and 16 mpg combined. There are no mileage differences between regular and extended-length versions.
Just as Old School Inside
Climbing up into the cabin -- which I did with the help of optional retractable running boards -- puts you in a large, comfortable leather seat with a commanding view. It's not hard to see why high-riding SUVs gained widespread popularity; the view up there is impressive. The layout of the Expedition's controls and switches is logical, and everything is within reach. The design is last-generation; the Expedition was last updated way back in 2007 and has not yet fallen in line with the interior quality of the latest Fords. Materials are hard plastic, mold seams are visible, and the fake wood is just a bit too glossy by current Ford standards. But it is quiet and comfortable, and with a thick steering wheel nicely centered for the driver (a trait the GM trucks do not share), it's still a better place to spend a long road trip than the even more outdated GM models.
Ford's Sync voice activation is present, but the generally reviled MyFord Touch system is not yet available in the Expedition. Instead, you get the past generation of the old-style Sync system -- which, frankly, works quite well: It responds better and makes fewer errors than Ford's latest voice-controlled nightmare. The big touch-screen in the center console is smaller than most competitors' screens these days, but it also works well and is reasonably uncluttered, if visually outdated. The navigation system is similarly ready for an update, but there's something to be said for previous-generation, bug-free systems.
For passengers, the Expedition is a great cruiser. Space in the second and third rows is decent even for adult-sized passengers, but the fact that this is a body-on-frame truck means that its higher load floor compromises somewhat on legroom. Third-row passengers have their knees fairly high up, but the extra width provided by the EL minimizes this discomfort. Fold everything down, and you get a flat floor without having to remove the third row of seats, as is required in the GM models. That ability to keep the third row with you when filling the truck with cargo is a major advantage over the GM trucks, which force the driver to choose between hauling cargo and leaving the seats behind or compromising on room.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, the 2013 Ford Expedition's results are mixed, ranging from two stars for a side impact into a pole to a five-star side-impact rating overall. The Expedition's overall rating is four stars, matching the GM models. The Ford has six standard airbags: two front, two front-seat side and two side curtain airbags that descend from the ceiling to protect all three rows of seats in a side impact or rollover. The Nissan Armada and Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon feature the same airbag count. NHTSA gives the Expedition a rollover rating of three out of five stars. Full-size SUVs are among the last vehicles on the market with ratings this low, representing a greater propensity to roll over. Minivans and crossover SUVs, including large ones, typically score four stars. Much of this derives from full-size SUVs' origins as high-riding trucks, whereas minivans and crossovers tend to be car-based with a lower center of gravity.
In the Market
The full-size SUV market may be a fraction of what it was, but there are still several options for shoppers. The 2013 Expedition starts at $41,600 including a $995 destination charge, $44,310 for the EL. Three trim levels are available for both models: XLT, Limited and the top-of-the-line King Ranch. I tested an EL Limited 4x4, which starts at $53,425 and includes leather seats, a backup camera, all-wheel drive, a power-folding third-row seat, heated second-row seats, rear climate control, rain-sensing wipers and a heavy-duty trailer tow package. My tester included an optional equipment group that threw in a power moonroof, power retractable running boards and a navigation system, plus stand-alone options of a load-leveling air suspension, a remote-start system and 20-inch polished aluminum wheels. All this content pushed the Expedition EL Limited to an as-tested price of $60,735, which is generally on par with its biggest competitors in the GM family of full-size trucks. Some of the Expedition's biggest competition comes from within the Ford brand, in the form of the company's large crossovers, like the Flex. The trend in recent years for many family buyers has been to downsize out of behemoth truck-based SUVs and into more reasonable car-based crossovers like the Flex and Explorer. These smaller models don't have the towing capacity or passenger room that the larger ones do, but they can seat seven people and fulfill most of the duties for which buyers purchased big trucks. Yet the new wave of large crossovers cannot do it all. For towing, hauling big loads, maximum passenger capacity and taking off through the rugged wilderness, there are few substitutes for the Expedition.