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Driving the 2015 Ford Expedition, the turbo family truckster

July 18, 2014

Cars evolve at a healthy pace in the modern era, but that's not the case with full-size SUVs. These house-sized behemoths change shape more slowly than an Icelandic glacier, sticking around for a decade or more with the most minor of alterations. So long as the bones are solid, the seats are plentiful, and the power keeps flowing, large families, livery businesses, and weekend warriors keep coming in for ‘em and don’t really miss the latest dashboard gadget.

Eventually every truck needs a nip ‘n tuck, and General Motors really threw down the gauntlet this year with the impressive, all-new 2015 Chevy Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon/Yukon XL. And so Ford has a response: the 2015 Ford Expedition, which was refreshed inside and out, and reinvigorated under the hood by ditching its wheezy old V-8 in favor of turbocharged V-6 power. And we just got our first chance to drive Ford’s big new baby at a press program in the scenic Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.

2015 Ford Expedition
2015 Ford Expedition

The three-row Expedition has been with us in much the same form since its last redesign in 2007. And unlike GM's all-new design, Ford has reused the basic chassis, with most of the visible changes limited to the new front end with more articulated headlamp innards, understated three-bar grille and newly available HID headlamps and LED fog lights. A lineup of new wheel designs — including a sweet set of 22-inchers—as well as a redesigned tailgate bisected by a horizontal chrome bar and a new chrome tailpipe round out the other exterior changes. The visual changes don’t go far to modernize the look; then again, this is a segment that doesn't reward rocking the boat (or in this case, road yachts). We’re going to have to wait a few more years for that.

The Expedition’s interior also doesn’t break much new ground. While the instrument cluster, steering wheel and center stack are all new to the Expedition, much of it will be familiar if you’ve driven a well optioned F-150.

2015 Ford Expedition
2015 Ford Expedition

More noteworthy are the additions a new, price-leading XL model to the previous XLT, Limited, and King Ranch trim levels, as well as a range-topping Platinum trim that adds sophisticated elegance to the cabin in the same way the King Ranch pours on the cowboy kitsch. In addition to the Sync/MyFord Touch features, Ford has layered in more technology for 2015, including keyless access and engine starting, a rearview camera, a blind-spot monitor, seven different ambient lighting colors, a Sony sound system with 700 watts, and Ford’s handy “truck apps” that facilitate towing, off-roading, and more.

Especially in Platinum grade, the Expedition’s cabin comes off as welcoming as a vacation lodge. The Platinum’s interior sports a red wine-inspired “Brunello” hue, and the contoured, heated and cooled front seats combine ample support with the comfort of your favorite lounge chair. Ditto the saddle-colored King Ranch chairs that we sampled, which are wrapped in leather that seems even softer.

Second-row seat cushions and seatbacks, however, are as flat as Kansas — such is the price you pay for fold-flat versatility. Ditto the third row, though the headroom and legroom for both rows is commendable, especially on EL models. The payoff comes in the ability of those seats to fold completely flat and low in the Expedition’s floor, unlike the sloping floor (and solid rear axle) of GM’s big utes. A disappointing amount of hard plastic remains throughout the cabin, even on the King Ranch and Platinum grades — but then again, if Ford made the Expedition too nice, Lincoln would have a tough time selling Navigators, which, incidentally has also been refreshed and Ecoboosted for 2015.

Speaking of Ecoboost, the Expedition’s switch from the outgoing model’s 5.4-liter V-8 in favor of its direct-injected, 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 was initially controversial—no V-8 for a three-ton truck, even as an option?!?—but as it turns out, this was correct. Just look at the stats: 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque (the latter produced at just 2,250 rpm) for the turbo six compared to 310 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque for the 5.4.

It was also brilliant for drivability. Our test vehicle was a Platinum EL model that by Ford’s estimates weighs over 6,000 pounds, and even with three passengers aboard, the vehicle accelerates so effortlessly that within the first mile, we were wondering why anyone would want a thirsty V-8 again. It gets down at highway speeds with nary an utterance from the engine bay (but some wind noise), and the engine remains heroically smooth and quiet even under full-throttle. In this application as with the F-150 models powered by the Ecoboost six, the engine never really runs out of breath. Some credit surely must go to the well-calibrated six-speed automatic transmission, which shifts decisively and always keeps the engine in the meat of the powerband. Sure, the smaller engine lacks the old 5.4’s dignified V-8 burble, but its copious reserves of passing power easily makes up for it. We even performed a few throttle-brake acceleration runs, resulting in satisfying ribbons of tire tracks several yards long.

2015 Ford Expedition
2015 Ford Expedition

Ford’s chassis engineers also got busy retuning the suspensions on all 2015 Expedition models and installing a new electric power steering system. We were particularly keen on experiencing the Expedition’s newly available continuously controlled damping (CCD) system, which can align ride compliance and steering assistance along Comfort, Normal and Sport settings. Alas, from the driver’s seat, the differences between the three presets are subtle at best: neither the Sport nor Comfort settings deviate too far from Normal. Regardless of preset, handling is tidy for the big people-hauler it is, with only minor shivers from lumpy pavement.

The happy outcome of downsizing the engine, swapping out the hydraulic steering for an electric system, and numerous other efficiency gains is an estimated 15 percent improvement in fuel economy. If realized, this would raise the Expo’s fuel economy to somewhere around 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for the 2WD model and 15/20 or 15/21 for the four-wheel driver, quite respectable for a 5,500-plus-lb body-on-frame rig with a 9,200-lb. towing capacity. That would also put the Expedition’s efficiency numbers right on top of those of the 5.3-liter V-8-powered Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

The 2015 Expedition’s final equipment list and pricing still has yet to be announced, but Ford provided a ballpark price range of $40,000 for the base XL 2WD to over $63,000 for a loaded 4WD Platinum model. Considering how much metal one gets for the coin, the Expedition can be considered a decent value next to the Tahoe and Yukon, whose prices start in the mid $40,000s and rise past $70,000. It goes on sale in the next couple of months, and could be on the road just as the new school year gets underway.

Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article. Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.