We match up two of the best three-row crossovers to find which is the better buy: the 2021 Ford Explorer or the 2021 Buick Enclave.
The three-row crossover segment is about as hot as they get these days. At the top of the heap sit the Telluride and Palisade siblings, virtually unmatched in their value proposition of quality, style, and sophistication. But below this pair, however, is a whole cadre of highly competitive SUVs all vying for your dollars. Among them are the tried-and-true Ford Explorer and the stalwart Buick Enclave. The Explorer makes it case partly on legacy and partly on its generous array of powertrains. The Enclave offers that classic Buick bargain of semi-luxury. But which is the better three-row crossover? We’ll breakdown all the tangibles below and then give our recommendation.
The Ford offers three separate powertrains for the Explorer. The base engine is a 2.3L turbocharged four-cylinder making 300 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. Rear-wheel drive is standard with the option for all-wheel drive. Fuel economy for the RWD version comes in at 21 city and 28 highway mpg while the AWD gets 20/27.
Next is the 3.0L twin-turbo V6 available in the Platinum and ST trims. It gets 365 horsepower and 385 lb.-ft. for the Platinum and is then tuned up for the Enthusiast ST and ST trims to 400 horsepower and 415 lb.-ft. of torque. Fuel economy with the twin-turbo comes in at 18 city and 24 highway mpg.
The final option is a hybrid powertrain combining a 3.3L V6 with an electric motor for 318 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque. Again, rear-wheel drive is standard with an option for all-wheel drive. Fuel economy comes in at 27 city and 28 highway for the RWD version and 23/26 for the AWD version.
All the Explorer’s powertrains come paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. Properly equipped, the Explorer can two up to 5,600lbs.
The 2021 Buick Enclave is satisfied with a single powertrain offering. It runs a naturally aspirated 3.6L V6 making 310 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard with an option for all-wheel drive. Fuel economy runs 18 city and 26 highway mpg for the FWD version and dips slightly to 17/25 for the AWD version. The Enclave is rated to tow up to 5,000lbs.
The 2021 Ford Explorer’s base four-cylinder does a good job motivating the Explorer and most buyers will appreciate the additional gas mileage. But for those who want more power the twin-turbo V6, in either Platinum or ST versions, impresses with its plentiful low-end torque. While it won’t rival considerably more expensive German 3-rows or a Hellcat equipped Durango, the souped-up Explorer is far ahead of segment average. The hybrid version likewise delivers good power but the switch from electric to gas power can be clunky.
The chief weakness of the Explorer is its 10-speed automatic transmission. It often feels lost, hunting for the right gear under acceleration. Meanwhile, the ride in the Explorer is comfortable. While body roll is present around corners its an artifact of the soft-tuned suspension and an easy trade off. Steering is precise and evenly weighted.
The 2021 Buick Enclave makes do with its single powertrain. The naturally aspirated V6 provides adequate power for nearly all driving situations. The nine-speed automatic smoothly transitions between gears and impresses even more when set against the Explorer’s 10-speed. Body lean is well controlled in the Enclave; almost to the point that you forget that this is a full three rows worth of SUV. The ride is smooth and quiet, befitting the Buick legacy.
The Explorer and Enclave have both a lot in common and a lot to separate themselves when it comes to their respective interiors. The Explorer’s strengths lie chiefly in the amount of space afforded passengers, with a very capacious front row and generous second and third rows. In fact, the way way back is particularly expansive, with impressive amounts of head and leg room. The floor is relatively high in the third row, forcing taller passengers to scrunch up more than they’d probably like.
Overall quality suffers a bit in the Explorer with the liberal deployment of hard plastics. And while this isn’t all that jarring on the lower trims, where it’s fairly in line with comparable rivals, it makes the higher, more expensive trims feel on the cheap side. Especially once you set it side-by-side with an equivalently priced Enclave.
Indeed, the Buick Enclave delivers on the brand’s perennial promise of semi-luxury at an affordable price. The Enclave’s interior, while not as fashion forward as some of the competition, is replete with soft touch materials and thoughtful, if reserved, styling. Not only does the Enclave look nicer on the inside, it’s also more comfortable. While both vehicles have a decently smooth and pleasant ride the seats are different story. The Explorer’s second and third row lack the support and cushion you’ll find in the much plusher Enclave.
Space was a strong suit for the Explorer’s cabin, but the same can be said of the Enclave. In fact, the Enclave offers even more room for both passengers and cargo with the Buick sporting 23.6 cu. ft. in back, 58 with the third row folded down, and a full 97.6 cu. ft. of total cargo space. The Explorer, while generous can’t match those numbers with 18.2 cu. ft. in back, 47.9 with the third row folded down, and 87.8 cu. ft. in total.
The Ford Explorer comes in five basic trims along with two special edition trims.
Base ($32,925) – The base Explorer comes equipped with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Ford’s SYNC 3 software housed in an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, a power liftgate, Wi-Fi hotspot, remote start, and tri-zone climate control.
Standard safety technology includes a rearview camera, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, lane keep assist, driver attention monitoring, blind spot detection, and automatic emergency braking.
Optional safety technology includes adaptive cruise control, reverse braking assist, parking assist, surround-view camera, and evasive steering assist.
XLT ($35,075) – Adds optional captain’s chairs and heated front seats.
Limited ($45,225) – Leather upholstery, Bang & Olufsen stereo, navigation, hands-free power liftgate, wireless charging, heated steering wheel, second-row heated seats, ventilated front seats, and adds safety features like adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and traffic sign recognition.
ST ($49,000) – Tuned twin-turbocharged V6 with 400 horsepower, AWD, sport seats, and parking assist.
Platinum ($52, 730) – Moonroof, 365 horsepower version of the twin-turbo V6, and AWD.
Special Edition trims include the rugged Timberline Edition and the King Ranch trim ported over from the F-150. The Timberline starts at $46,015 and adds off-road items like skid plates, extra plastic cladding, and 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels and comes equipped with the 2.3L four-cylinder. The King Ranch starts at $52,600 and features Del Rio leather seats and 20-inch alloys to compliment its twin-turbo 3.0L V6.
The Buick Enclave offers four trim levels along with a number of feature packages.
Preferred ($41,495) – Tri-zone climate control, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (both now wireless for 2021), Bluetooth, an 8-inch touchscreen display, Wi-Fi hotspot, hands-free power liftgate, heated front seats, and proximity keyless entry.
Standard safety features are slim in the Enclave with just a rearview camera and rear parking sensors coming standard. Optional safety tech is plentiful however, with automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, lane departure warnings, front parking sensors, rear cross traffic alerts, forward collision warning, and pedestrian detection.
Essence ($43,495) – Satellite radio, blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alerts, and AWD (for an additional $2,000).
Premium ($49,595) – Heated second-row seats, ventilated front seats, HD radio, and a 10-speaker Bose stereo. The Driver’s Confidence Plus Package adds lane departure warnings, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, automatic high beams, and parking sensors. The Sun and Sites package adds a moonroof, navigation, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
Avenir ($55,285) – 8-inch digital gauge display, wood-trimmed steering wheel, and wireless charging. The Technology Package adds adaptive cruise control along with a chassis and suspension tune.
The 2021 Ford Explorer and the 2021 Buick Enclave are two comparably priced three-row crossovers, but they serve very different masters. The Explorer succeeds at delivering where it counts for a wide range of potential buyers. The combination of a higher towing capacity, sportier engine options, and a lower entry price make for a strong case.
For its part, the Buick Enclave is far and away the nicer vehicle of the two from a day-to-day livability standpoint. A smooth ride and a spacious, well-appointed interior make the Enclave a pleasure to cruise long distances in. The naturally aspirated V6 doesn’t exactly excite, but it feels perfectly adequate to the task at hand.
In the end, price may be the deciding factor. Not only does the Ford Explorer have a lower starting price, it also doesn’t hide the bulk of its safety features within expensive add-on packages, unlike the Enclave. With that said, if you’re nearing the $50,000 mark with the Explorer, the Enclave Premium becomes an attractive (both literally and figuratively) alternative.