Test Drive: 2017 Ford Expedition is uncommonly rugged

The rental-car company was supposed to set us up with a compact sport-utility vehicle, but by the time we arrived at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport, all the compact and midsize SUVs were gone. So we were “upgraded” to a king-sized SUV, one we’d never driven before — a 2017 Ford Expedition XLT. It delivered a few surprises, but one trait — low fuel economy — was quite predictable, considering this big SUV weighs in at nearly three tons.

The Expedition is Ford’s biggest SUV as well as one of its lowest sellers, reaching 40,000 to 50,000 a year. Sales figures for the compact Escape and midsize Explorer typically are several times higher. But there’s a reason for that. The market for large, rugged SUVs like the Expedition is limited.

Yes, some people want and need a vehicle with the Expedition’s capabilities. For starters, it can transport eight adults in comparative comfort. Even the third-row passengers have ample head room and knee room, and access is fairly easy. We’ve driven a number of midsize and compact SUVs with three rows of seating, and none could accommodate adults comfortably.

The Expedition also is uncommonly rugged. Our white Expedition was equipped with four drive settings — 2-wheel, automatic 4-wheel, locking high-range 4-wheel drive, and locking low-range 4-wheel drive. A simple twist of a dashboard-mounted knob puts the Expedition into the proper range. The big SUV also clears the road, logging trail or wilderness track by 8 inches. And its towing capacity is 9,200 pounds.

For most people, smaller SUVs and minivans are sufficiently roomy and accommodating. They’re also easier to maneuver on urban streets and in tight parking lots. Indeed, our Expedition was a bit too long for some of the parking spaces we encountered.

Still, the Expedition wasn’t as rough or unwieldy as we expected. The ride was smooth and quiet, and the turbocharged V-6 delivered ample power. The seats were plush but not supportive, breeding some discomfort on long drives.

While passenger room was impressively spacious, the Expedition had one weak spot: a very small luggage space behind the third row, and almost no room below the deck. Cargo room is substantial when the third row is lowered, however.

And fuel economy? We briefly crept into the low 20s on the highway, but after a few hundred miles of driving, we averaged a little less than 19 mpg. Thanks to the 28-gallon fuel tank, however, the Expedition’s range was more than 500 miles.

The Expedition was redesigned for 2018. Among the new model’s improvements is a higher quality of materials, especially the molded plastics on the dashboard and door panels. They looked and felt cheap in the 2017 Expedition. This trait seemed inappropriate, given the Expedition’s $50,000-plus price.

While automakers focus on their perennially popular SUVs, cars that compete with the Expedition are few: the GMC Yukon; Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban; the Toyota Sequoia and Nissan Armada.

2017 Ford Expedition XLT 4X4

Price: $51,245

Engine: 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, 365 horsepower, 420 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Suspension: body-on-frame, independent short-arm and long-arm front, multi-link rear

Ground clearance: 8 in.

Curb weight: 5,789 lb.

Wheels: 18-in. machined aluminum

Tires: P276/65R18 all-season

Seating capacity: 8

Luggage capacity: 18.6 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 108.3 cu. ft.

Towing capacity: 9,200 lb.

Fuel capacity: 28 gal.

Fuel economy: 15 mpg city, 20 highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.