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The Ford Explorer is a force. This iconic beast pulls big sales — it’s the best-selling Ford SUV, moving nearly 140,000 units this year. That puts the Explorer in the 20 top-selling cars of 2023, outperforming legends like the Jeep Wrangler. On paper, that’s not a surprise. The Explorer is an established nameplate with plenty of examples on the road and a relatively solid rep. So, why shouldn’t it perform well? Despite its popularity, 2023 Ford Explorer owners aren’t thrilled with its driving experience.

Reputation versus reality of the best-selling Ford SUV

A white 2023 Ford Explorer Hybrid, which is the best hybrid Ford, parked close to a pier.
2023 Ford Explorer | Ford Motor Company

Frankly, the 2023 Ford Explorer isn’t great. In particular, it underperformed its rivals and earlier Explorer model years in almost every measure of driving experience.

“Driving experience” is a vital but nebulous concept in car design. It’s fundamentally an average across many small variables, from responsiveness to controls to cabin ergonomics. It’s not as easily quantifiable as, say, horsepower and torque, but in many respects, the driving experience is an essential part of most people’s car purchases. The majority of Explorer buyers want a daily driver more than a track toy. That calls for a car that’s a nice place to be.

What’s wrong with the 2023 Ford Explorer’s driving experience?

Cabin in 2023 Ford Explorer, best-selling Ford SUV and also the least reliable
2023 Ford Explorer | Ford

The 2023 Ford Explorer has disappointed multiple expert test drivers, but J.D. Power ran the numbers based on owner feedback. The Explorer got an “average” rating in the “Driving Experience” category, with surveys showing Explorer drivers dissatisfied with fundamental elements any popular SUV should have nailed down. The cabin is noisy. The displays are unclear. The second and third rows are awkward and inaccessible.

MotorTrend concurs, finding the interior unimpressive, questioning its tech quality, and rating the Explorer as a mid-pack performer overall. Both MT and AutoBlog found the 2023 Explorer overpriced, taking particular exception to its subpar gas mileage and cheap-feeling design. Car Help Corner put the Explorer and the Ford Escape EcoBoost in its top 10 worst SUVs of 2023.

Ford’s other SUVs put up similar “average” ratings from owners. Only the resurgent Bronco Sport broke the Ford SUV curse, with owners praising its customizability and interior design in J.D. Power surveys.

When ‘average’ isn’t

The past several months have seen brisk car sales, but more Americans buy SUVs than cars, trucks, or any other class of daily-use passenger vehicle. That’s been true for several years. In such a competitive market, excellence is necessarily the norm. Ford’s underperformance represents a real threat to its market presence.

However, the Bronco Sport standout likely shows the way forward. In addition to reviving the popular Bronco name, Ford has fully modernized the Bronco Sport’s design, making it modular and providing straightforward comforts like cupholders and an easily navigable interior. If the Explorer is going to win back SUV buyers’ goodwill, it might begin with a long look at its Bronco sibling.