Comparing SUVs can sometimes give us a major case of deja vu because these days, they all seem like similar versions of themselves. Not so with the 2021 Ford Explorer vs 2021 Chevy Traverse, thanks to the existence of some uncommon features, not to mention the nearly 100-year rivalry between American manufacturing giants Ford and Chevy.
For these reasons, and because 2021 marks a year of subtle but important changes for both the Explorer and the Traverse, doing a deep dive into the specs and features of each presents an opportunity to look at the SUV category through a different and more detailed lens. Whether you want a tow/hauler or a plush urban luxury ride, both of these SUVs have an answer.
We also weave a little brand history into our consideration set to honor the iconic Explorer’s role as a pioneer in the SUV category. After all, some would argue the Explorer started America’s ongoing utility vehicle obsession. It’s also worth noting that Chevy seems to occupy a constant presence in just about every segment, albeit with more of a vanilla-flavored appeal.
Which vehicle – the 2021 Ford Explorer or the 2021 Chevy Traverse – gets buyers the best of everything, from value to performance, capability, and even luxury? The answer is buried deep in the specifications. Read on for our comprehensive review.
Trim Lineup and Features
The Explorer trim range is represented by seven different options: the base Explorer, XLT, Limited, Timberline, ST, King Ranch, and the plush Platinum, which is priced at slightly over $50,000.* The 2021 Chevy Traverse also offers seven choices: the L, LS, LT Cloth, LT Leather, RS, Premier, and the High Country, starting at a comparable price point of just over $50,000.*
Ford Explorer Trims
The base starts at just over $32,000 and features trip-zone automatic temperature control, power windows/door locks, and a rearview camera with washer.* For a few thousand more, the XLT adds heated front seats and a Reverse Sensing System to help with backing out of tight spots.
The Limited is designed for affordable luxury, featuring leather seating and an infotainment touchscreen with navigation. The Timberline offers a more rugged setup, including a lifted suspension, Trailer Tow Package, 18-inch high gloss aluminum wheels, and a dark gray carbon grille.
The high-performance ST delivers more horsepower than its siblings, along with trim-specific badging on the exterior and interior. On the high end, the luxury King Ranch and Platinum Explorers come with plush, fully-loaded interiors and, in the case of the Platinum, a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system, twin-panel moonroof, and buttery soft diamond-patterned leather seating.
Both the ST and Platinum are available with an optional Premium Technology Package. This package includes a 10.1-inch LCD infotainment touchscreen, portrait-mounted centrally on the dash, and features a capacitive pinch-to-zoom capability. You’ll also have multi-contour seats and a concert-grade 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system capable of outputting 980 watts.
Chevy Traverse Trims
The 2021 Traverse follows a similar trim lineup strategy as Ford does with the Explorer, except at the base model price point. The Traverse L starts at under $30,000, a price point chosen intentionally to attract budget-minded compact SUV buyers to the mid-size SUV category.* But, that’s exactly what this model is: a budget SUV. The L is sparsely equipped but does offer 18-inch wheels, a dual exhaust, and a rear vision camera.
The LS creeps up to the Explorer base model price point (just over $32,000) and adds tinted rear windows, a drive mode selector, and LED daytime running lamps.* The LT Cloth offers the obvious – cloth seats – along with a power driver’s seat, heated outside mirrors, 7- or 8-passenger seating, and fog lamps. The LT Leather upgrades to leather seating, an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, and a rear power liftgate.
The RS puts the focus on sporty appearance equipment, like black roof rails, bowtie emblems, window trim, and grille, as well as 20-inch black aluminum wheels. An HD Surround Vision camera is standard, along with heated front and passenger seats. The Premier features perforated heated/ventilated leather seating, a heated steering wheel, and heated second-row captain’s chairs.
Spring for the 2021 Traverse High Country, and you’ll get Adaptive Cruise Control, 20-inch polished aluminum wheels, a power 60/40 bench seat in the third row, and a power sunroof with a fixed rear skylight for an open-air driving experience. Even on the High Country, the touchscreen stays at 8 inches, which seems very small for the price.
Performance, Capability, and Specifications
Comparatively, the 2021 Ford Explorer offers far more powertrain options than the Traverse, as well as better performance and capability specifications. It’s a thematic present practically from the time the Explorer was first launched. It’s unmistakably a truck-like SUV, with a more rugged feel than the crossover driving characteristics of the Traverse.
Ford Explorer Performance and Capability
The base, XLT, or Limited Explorer delivers 300 horsepower via a 2.3-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine. The Platinum receives a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 that makes 365 horsepower, and the performance-oriented ST takes the same V6 and tweaks it to make 400 horses. All engines are mated with a 10-speed transmission, and the max towing capability is 5,600 pounds.
For 2021, the Explorer is available in a Hybrid powertrain. That’s a big advantage over the Traverse, which only offers traditional gas-powered engines. The Explorer Hybrid is offered on the Limited trim and includes a 3.3-liter V6 engine that, combined with an accompanying electric motor, delivers 318 horsepower and a 5,000-pound towing capacity, and a fuel-sipping 27 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highway.
Chevy Traverse Performance and Capability
The 2021 Chevy Traverse is offered with one engine option throughout the model lineup, a Dual Overhead Cam 24-valve 3.6-liter V6 that’s mated with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The powertrain delivers an impressive 310 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque and fuel economy ratings of 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
Where the Traverse falls far short of the Explorer is its overall capability ratings. It can only tow 1,500 pounds max, making it a poor choice for weekenders looking to haul a larger RV or boat. In addition, the lack of hybrid or performance-oriented powertrain features puts the Traverse at a major disadvantage for attracting specialty buyers.
Technology, Infotainment, and Safety
When it comes to interior cabin technology, the 2021 Explorer handily eclipses the competition. The available massive portrait-mounted 10.25-inch touchscreen is leaps and bounds ahead of the puny 8-inch version standard across the entire Traverse trim range, and nothing dates a vehicle more than lagging, outdated technology.
Add to that the glaring absence of any standard or available driver-assist technology on the base L, and we can begin to see why it’s priced so much lower than the base Explorer, which comes with Ford Co-Pilot360, a suite of systems that includes Blind Spot Monitoring, Lane Keeping Assist, Automatic Emergency Braking, and more.
The 2021 Ford Explorer earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for highway safety and a 5-Star Overall Vehicle Score from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Traverse also boasts a 5-Star score from the NHTSA but lacks the IIHS distinction.
Time to Choose Your SUV
Choosing between the 2021 Ford Explorer and the 2021 Chevy Traverse is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison because the two vehicles are so different. The Explorer has history on its side, along with the fact that it’s more rugged, truck-like, and capable. The Traverse has its merits, including a lower entry price, but there isn’t enough trim range variety to satisfy most SUV buyers.
Overall, the 2021 Explorer gets our pick for the best SUV. We think the combination of a Hybrid option, along with better tech, more standard safety features, and better brand pedigree, make it a stand out in the segment, especially in a side-by-side comparison with the 2021 Traverse.
Winner, hands down: the Explorer.