The all-new 2018 Ford Expedition offers splashy styling, a powerful turbocharged engine and lightweight aluminum-alloy body panels.
But the transmission is the star of the show.
Ford equipped the new Expedition with an easy-shifting 10-speed automatic. It aids the driving experience whether traversing rocky inclines, towing a 6,500-pound Airstream trailer or pushing the SUV hard around the scenic canyon bends of Malibu, Calif.
Developed in tandem between Ford and General Motors, the transmission is standard equipment on the 2018 Expedition — the first Ford SUV to use the 10-speed. It first appeared in the Ford F-150 Raptor and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performance vehicles, and is standard on the 2018 F-150 as well.
GM offers the 10-speed as an option on its Chevrolet Tahoe RST trim, and it is standard equipment on the current 2018 Cadillac Escalade. It will also be standard on the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali.
In the Expedition, the new transmission proves that large SUVs can learn new tricks.
The sole powertrain in the 2018 Ford Expedition is a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine with 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Compared with the outgoing model, that equates to an increase of 10 horsepower and 50 pound-feet of torque. The top Platinum trim boasts 400 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque.
Ford shaped the 2018 Expedition with an all-new aluminum-alloy body that saves 300 pounds over the previous generation. At 5,443 pounds, the total curb weight of the 2018 Expedition is 119 pounds lighter than the outgoing model.
Engineers used the weight savings to add equipment that improves ride quality and reduces noise and vibration inside the cabin, said Todd Hoevener, chief engineer on the Expedition.
On the road, the Expedition clicks through its 10 gears imperceptibly. For an SUV with seating for eight its ride is effortless. Dig into the gas pedal and the EcoBoost engine emits a faint turbocharger whine as the Expedition barrels forward. The electric power-assisted steering requires more effort than some EPS systems, but it delivers accurate handling at speed or with a load.
Standard equipment includes an independent rear suspension and Ford’s AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control to provide a comfortable ride. Normal and Comfort modes deliver luxury smoothness while Sport mode firms the suspension without bringing harshness into the cabin.
The Expedition is capable of being driven hard around corners, though it prefers to move in straight lines. Large brakes help the SUV stop in a hurry.
In its FX4 off-road trim, the Expedition features a new Terrain Management System with Sand and Mud/Rut driving modes. This optimizes the transmission to hold onto the right gear in low traction situations. On a challenging off-road course with steep grades and uneven terrain, the Expedition never struggled to deliver grip or power. The SUV’s helpful Hill Descent Control is vastly quieter than similar systems offered on rival models.
Still, the new transmission is best when towing.
During a recent media drive, Ford hitched identical horse trailers weighing 5,500 pounds each to both an Expedition 4×4 and a Chevrolet Suburban 4WD. Where the Expedition utilized its new 10-speed, the Suburban was equipped with its familiar 6-speed automatic.
Towing the trailer was not a problem for the Suburban, which has a powerful V8 engine and a maximum trailer weight rating of 8,300 pounds. However, its engine braking system, which keeps speed under control on steep declines without stressing the brakes, noisily kept the transmission in fourth gear to create the back pressure necessary to slow the vehicle.
By contrast, towing in the Expedition felt drama-free. The extra weight savings from its aluminum body allowed Ford to fortify the high-strength steel frame, Hoevener said. Maximum towing capacity is a best-in-class 9,300 pounds.
The engine braking system held onto lower gears just like the Suburban did, however the 10-speed transmission could create enough pressure to slow the Expedition on a higher gear. Noise inside the Expedition cabin was quiet compared to the Suburban.
The transmission also does heavy lifting when it comes to fuel economy. The Environmental Protection Agency has rated the 2018 Expedition 4×2 at 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg overall. That gives the 2018 Expedition the highest fuel efficiency rating in the large SUV segment.
In comparison, the outgoing 2017 Expedition 4×2 with the six-speed transmission is EPA rated at 15 mpg city, 21 mpg highway and 18 mpg overall.
The total package comes at a cost. Pricing for the base 2018 Ford Expedition XLT starts at $51,695.
The tech-heavy Expedition Limited is priced from $62,585. Pricing for the plush Expedition Platinum starts at $72,710.
Some vehicles available for the media drive in Malibu were loaded to the gills and topped $80,000, reflecting rising prices across light trucks and SUVs in recent years.
The new Expedition arrives as its chief competitors are relinquishing market share.
General Motors counts four models in the large SUV segment across the Chevrolet and GMC brands. Combined, they commanded 69.5 percent of total sales through the first 10 months of 2017, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
That number is down from 74.6 percent of segment sales in 2016 — each of GM’s four entries has seen sales fall this year. Meanwhile the redesigned Nissan Armada has surged. Sales of that vehicle rose from more than 9,000 in the first 10 months of 2016 to more than 29,000 through the same period in 2017.
Ford is hoping the all-new Expedition reverses its own fortunes. Sales have fallen by 14 percent to 42,475 vehicles through the first 10 months of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016.
A bump in Expedition sales could prove fruitful. Trucks and SUVs garner big profits even though their cost to design and build is only incrementally higher than that of family sedans.
The 2018 Expedition is available now, and its luxury twin — the 2018 Lincoln Navigator — will be on sale before the end of this year. The Navigator also uses the 10-speed transmission, and some versions are priced at more than $100,000. Both look to be both popular and profitable additions to the Ford truck and SUV lineup.