2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Honda Pilot Comparison

Erin Riches-Wong | Feb 16, 2021

If you've raised a family in the 21st century, you've heard of the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. For years, these midsize SUVs have offered practical and appealing solutions to consumers traveling with children, pets and groceries bought in bulk.

Not surprisingly, the Explorer and Pilot rank among the best-selling 3-row midsize SUVs in the United States. They're also made in the USA. Ford builds the Explorer at its Chicago assembly plant, while Honda Pilots roll down the assembly line in Lincoln, Alabama.

You're likely to have one or both of these vehicles on your test-drive list if you're planning a 3-row midsize SUV purchase this year. Here's a 2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Honda Pilot comparison to aid your research process.

Price and Value

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum

Ford Explorer shoppers can select from five trim levels: base, XLT, Limited, ST, and Platinum. The base 2021 Ford Explorer starts at $32,225 (not including a $1,245 destination charge) and tops out at $54,480 in Platinum trim.

The base, XLT, and Limited trim levels come with a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that most consumers will like. Optional on the Limited trim level only is a hybrid powertrain that combines a V6 engine with an electric motor and a small lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the second-row seats. Better known as the Ford Explorer Hybrid, this version costs $49,855.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Explorer ST and Platinum come with a high-performance V6 engine. These trim levels have all-wheel drive as standard equipment.

All other versions of the Ford Explorer, including the hybrid, have standard rear-wheel drive. You can have AWD for another $2,000 on these trims.

All 2021 Ford Explorers come with FordPass Connect, which offers a very limited menu of connected services. For the moment, everything is complimentary. Owners can use their phones to lock the doors, start the engine, or schedule a time to start the engine. 

You can activate the Explorer's 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and use it free for three months (up to three GB of data) before you have to buy a subscription.

There is no complimentary scheduled maintenance on the Explorer. But you can use the FordPass app to earn points for various activities (purchasing an Explorer, for example) and then redeem them at participating Ford dealerships for discounts on oil changes and other services.

If you're shopping for a 2021 Honda Pilot, you'll have seven trim levels to consider: LX, EX, EX-L, SE (Special Edition), Touring, Elite, and Black Edition. The LX starts at $32,550 (excluding a $1,175 destination charge), and the Black Edition tops out at $50,220.

In contrast to the Ford's trio of powertrains, the Honda Pilot comes with just one engine: a strong V6. Most versions of the Pilot have standard front-wheel drive, with AWD available for another $2,000.

Honda's connected services, known as Honda Link, are only available on certain trim levels. Owners of the Pilot EX and EX-L can, for example, use the Honda Link app to check to check fuel range and oil life, or get information about warning lights, but that's it.

Most of the worthwhile Honda Link services are limited to the Touring trim and up. It's an impressive list that includes automatic collision notification, live emergency assistance, rapid access to roadside services, and live concierge services – all of which are complimentary for the first year of ownership. Other features like remote door locking, anti-theft alarm notifications, geofencing (allowing you to set geographic driving limits for inexperienced drivers), a stolen vehicle locator, and Amazon in-vehicle package delivery are free for three months. You also get a 3-month trial subscription (up to three GB) for the Wi-Fi hotspot in the Pilot Touring, Elite, and Black Edition.

Honda does not offer free scheduled maintenance on the 2021 Pilot. Instead, there are prepaid maintenance plans available for purchase.

In the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Resale Value Awards, the Honda Pilot ranked second among midsize SUVs.

Advantage: Honda Pilot

Reliability and Quality

2021 Honda Pilot Elite Red Driving in Dirt

2021 Honda Pilot Elite

The Ford Explorer did not rank in either the J.D. Power 2020 Vehicle Dependability Study or the 2020 Initial Quality Study. The Explorer comes with the following warranty and roadside assistance coverage:

  • Standard warranty: 3 years or 36,000 miles
  • Powertrain warranty: 5 years or 60,000 miles
  • Hybrid system warranty: 8 years or 100,000 miles
  • Hybrid battery warranty: 8 years or 100,000 miles
  • Roadside assistance: 5 years or 60,000 miles

The Honda Pilot also did not rank in the 2020 Vehicle Dependability Study or 2020 Initial Quality Study. Honda's 3-row midsize SUV comes with the following warranty and roadside assistance coverage:

  • Standard warranty: 3 years or 36,000 miles
  • Powertrain warranty: 5 years or 60,000 miles
  • Roadside assistance: 3 years or 36,000 miles

Advantage: Ford Explorer

Performance and Efficiency

2021 Ford Explorer Interior Dashboard

2021 Ford Explorer

Standard power in the 2021 Ford Explorer comes via a turbocharged, 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine. This engine generates 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque and feels quite responsive in normal driving situations. The turbo-4 engine is paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission.

The Ford Explorer Hybrid uses a 3.3-liter V6 engine and a hybrid-specific version of the 10-speed automatic transmission with a 33-kilowatt electric motor built into it. The hybrid Explorer makes a total of 318 hp and 322 lb.-ft. of torque.

This arrangement allows Ford to offer 2021 Explorer Hybrid buyers two drivetrain options. You can have either rear-wheel drive or a conventional AWD system with a driveshaft connecting the front and rear axles. This is the same AWD system offered with the 4-cylinder engine, and it includes a Terrain Management traction control system with driver-selectable modes.

Properly equipped 4-cylinder Ford Explorers are rated to tow up to 5,300 pounds, while hybrid Ford Explorers top out at 5,000 lbs. The 10-speed transmission has a tow-haul mode, and the stability control system has trailer sway control.

If neither of those engines seems interesting enough, look to the twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter V6 engine on the ST and Platinum. Ford offers it in two different states of tune. In the sporty Explorer ST, the twin-turbo V6 is rated at 400 hp and 415 lb.-ft. of torque. In the Explorer Platinum, which is more about a luxurious experience, it makes 365 hp and 380 lb.-ft. of torque. The 10-speed automatic is standard and so is AWD. Both versions have a 5,600-lb. tow rating. 

The rear-wheel-drive, 4-cylinder 2021 Ford Explorer earns a 24 mpg rating in combined city and highway driving, while AWD versions rate 23 mpg. The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid rates 27 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 25 mpg with AWD. The twin-turbo V6 Explorers have a 20 mpg rating in combined driving.

There aren't nearly as many choices on the 2021 Honda Pilot. All versions come with a refined 3.5-liter V6 engines that makes 280 hp and 262 lb.-ft. of torque. That's less power and torque than you get on a 4-cylinder Explorer, but on the road, the Pilot provides robust acceleration.

A 9-speed automatic transmission is standard on all trim levels, and unusual for this class, paddle shifters and downshift rev-matching are included on all trims.

The optional AWD system is worth considering both for extra traction on slippery roads and improved handling on dry pavement. Similar to Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system, it includes torque vectoring capability and can direct up to 70% of engine torque to a single rear wheel when needed. Like the Explorer's AWD system, it includes multiple terrain traction modes.

When properly equipped, an AWD Honda Pilot has a 5,000-lb. tow rating. Front-drive versions top out at 3,500 lbs.

With front-wheel drive, the 2021 Honda Pilot rates 23 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The AWD Pilot rates 22 mpg combined.

Advantage: Neither. The Ford Explorer offers a wider variety of powertrain options and is the obvious pick if you want a hybrid or a 400-hp V6, or you plan to tow a trailer. But if you're just looking for a capable V6 engine, the Honda Pilot is tough to beat, and it has a neat AWD system.

Safety and Driving Assistance

2021 Honda Pilot Elite Interior Dashboard

2021 Honda Pilot Elite

If getting the latest and greatest advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is a priority for your next vehicle, the 2021 Ford Explorer packs in plenty. 

Ford's Co-Pilot 360 is standard across the board. It includes a forward collision warning system, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alerts, and automatic high-beam headlight control. 

If that's not enough, consider Co-Pilot 360+, which offers Level 2 semi-autonomous driving assistance with the addition of adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, lane-centering assistance, speed-limit sign recognition, and evasive-steering assistance. Co-Pilot 360+ is optional on the Explorer XLT and standard on higher trim levels.

There's still more, though. The ST and Platinum trims come with

Reverse Brake Assist, a rear emergency braking system, and Active Park Assist 2.0, a fully autonomous self-parking system. A surround-view camera system is standard starting on the Explorer Limited. The Platinum alone has adaptive headlights.

The 2021 Ford Explorer earned a 5-star overall National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rating, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 2020 model a Top Safety Pick+ (applicable only to Explorers built after May 2020).

Honda refers to its ADAS technology as Honda Sensing, and it's standard on all versions of the 2021 Honda Pilot. For the most part, Honda Sensing matches up feature for feature with Ford's Co-Pilot 360, but there are a few differences.

For one, Honda Sensing does not include blind-spot warnings or rear cross-traffic alerts. Those features are standard starting on the EX trim level, though. Secondly, every 2021 Honda Pilot comes standard with both lane-centering assistance and adaptive cruise control. But the Pilot's adaptive cruise lacks stop-and-go capability ("low-speed follow" in Honda parlance), so you'll need to reset it after a traffic delay. 

Like the Explorer, the Honda Pilot has a 5-star crash-test rating from the government for overall crash protection, but it received a lower 4-star rating for frontal-impact safety.

In addition, the IIHS rated the Honda lower than the Ford. The lower IIHS rating is due to the Pilot's less than stellar Acceptable performance in the Institute's small-overlap frontal offset crash test on the passenger side (it rated "Good" on the driver side in this test).

Advantage: Ford Explorer

Infotainment and Technology

2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid Rear Quarter View

2021 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid

Every 2021 Ford Explorer comes with the automaker’s Sync 3 infotainment interface and an 8-inch touchscreen display. If that's not enough screen for you, the ST and Platinum can be equipped with an optional 10.1-inch display. The larger display has a vertical orientation, though, so it looks like someone just propped a tablet computer against the Explorer's air vents.

The standard arrangement includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, two USB ports (one a regular Type-A, the other a newer Type-C), a 3-month trial subscription for SiriusXM satellite radio, and six audio speakers. If you upgrade to at least the XLT, you'll have two additional USB ports (one of each variety) in the second row. A wireless phone charging pad is standard starting on the Limited trim level.

Optional on the XLT and standard on higher trims is a factory navigation system with a 5-year subscription to SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link.

If you want a better audio system, the Limited and higher trims have a standard 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen system. A 14-speaker version of the B & O system is optional on the ST and Platinum. Ford also offers a rear entertainment system as an accessory.

The 2021 Honda Pilot LX takes you back to an earlier time with its 5.4-inch LCD screen and lack of smartphone integration. It does have Bluetooth, a 3-month SiriusXM trial subscription, an auxiliary audio jack, and a single, charge-only USB port, though.

The Pilot EX is a better choice for most consumers, as it comes with the expected 8-inch touchscreen infotainment interface. It also has Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, an additional USB input, and seven audio speakers. The EX-L adds two more USB ports in the second row, while the SE adds wireless phone charging and a second-row HDMI input.

The Pilot Touring adds a lot more content, including factory navigation with Honda HD Digital Traffic, a rear entertainment system with a Blu-Ray player and built-in streaming apps, and an upgraded audio system with 10 speakers.

Higher trim levels also feature Honda's CabinTalk in-vehicle public address system that makes it easier for the driver to communicate with rear passengers who are busy with their devices. In the SE and Touring, rear-seat passengers have to be wearing headphones. In the Elite and Black Edition, CabinTalk also broadcasts your voice through the Pilot's stereo speakers. If your passengers happen to be using the Pilot's Blu-Ray player or built-in apps, CabinTalk will pause the audio and video before you start speaking.

Advantage: Neither. The Explorer has a better infotainment interface on its base trim, but the Pilot offers more entertainment options for long trips on its higher trims.

Comfort and Utility

2021 Honda Pilot Elite Blue Rear Quarter View

2021 Honda Pilot Elite

The 2021 Ford Explorer can accommodate a maximum of seven occupants, and that's with the 35/30/35-split second-row bench seat. It's standard on the base Explorer. The higher trims have second-row captain's chairs (reducing capacity to six), but you can still get the bench as an option.

The base Ford Explorer is quite livable thanks to triple-zone climate control, an 8-way power driver’s seat (4-way manual for the front passenger), and a power liftgate. The XLT gets nicer cloth upholstery and interior finishes, along with a 10-way power driver’s seat (4-way power for the passenger).

If you want leather upholstery, proceed directly to the Limited, which also comes with heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row chairs, second-row sunshades, and ambient LED interior lighting.

Optional on the Limited and standard on higher trim levels are driver memory settings, power tilt/telescope steering wheel adjustment (instead of manual adjustment), and a hands-free liftgate. The Platinum has premium leather upholstery and real wood accents. A twin-panel, panoramic moonroof is optional on most trims.

Maximum cargo capacity in the Ford Explorer is 87.8 cubic feet. If you're using ever seat, you'll have 18.2 cu. ft. behind the third row. Folding the 50/50-split third-row seats down provides 47.9 cu. ft. On the higher trims, those third-row seats will power into the floor at the press of a button.

If you're trying to fit eight people into a 3-row midsize SUV, it can be done with a 2021 Honda Pilot. The third-row seat has a 60/40 split and three seatbelts, and a second-row bench seat is standard on most trims. The Pilot Touring is available with either the second-row bench or captain's chairs, which reduce seating capacity to seven. Higher trims have captain's chairs only.

All Pilots have triple-zone climate control, but you'll have to step up to at least an EX to get a power driver’s seat. It's a 10-way power seat with lumbar adjustment, and you also get front seat heaters and second-row climate controls.

The EX-L adds leather upholstery, driver memory settings, a 4-way power front passenger’s seat, second-row sunshades, and a power liftgate. The SE upgrades to a hands-free liftgate.

Touring models with second-row captain's chairs get seat heaters in those positions, along with ambient LED cabin lighting. Ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a panoramic moonroof are included in the Elite and Black Edition.

Maximum cargo capacity varies slightly in the 2021 Honda Pilot. Most trim levels offer 83.8 cu. ft., but the Elite and Black Edition offer slightly less at 82.1 cu. ft. If you're using all the seats, you'll still have 16.5 cu. ft. of storage behind the third row. If you fold those seats into the floor, you'll have 46.8 cu. ft.

Advantage: Neither. The Explorer has a few more premium amenities, while the Pilot offers 8-passenger seating. You'll want to assess your priorities.

Learn More About the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot

If you’d like to learn more about these 3-row midsize SUVs, be sure to read our expert reviews of the Ford Explorer and the Honda Pilot. To find out how people like you rate vehicles in this segment, be sure to check out our ratings from verified vehicle owners.

Also, please keep in mind that while the information in this article was accurate and valid on February 16, 2021, it may have changed since that date. Always confirm product details and availability with the automaker’s website or your local dealership.

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