By John Goreham
Car Talk and CarComplaints.com are conspiring to alert you to early warning signs of trouble in new vehicles. Our data is taken from a variety of sources, but in all cases will lean heavily on what you, our readers, report firsthand, and in detail. These reports will be an early warning of an impending technical service bulletin, recall, or general cause for concern. Our first installment of First Signs of the Carpocalypse covers engine trouble in the 2016 Ford Explorer.
The Explorer is hot again after its siesta during the dark days after the flip and roll shenanigans. All Explorers are roomy, but this large crossover in its top platinum trim is darn close in looks, power and appointments to a Range Rover. Having tested both, we say that with a straight face. After a very rough start, the Explorer is also impressively reliable overall, with a very low rate of CarComplaints.com reports. There have been four recalls for the 2016 model year Explorer, but our alert today is a different sort.
The news of late, and we are talking about the past couple of months, is that the powerful and efficient 3.5-liter Ecoboost engine in the Explorer is having electronic throttle body conniptions. CarComplaints.com readers have started to fill screens with news that their new Explorer’s wrench icon appeared and the vehicle either went into limp-home mode or lost power, requiring that they pull over.
Jim D. posted a good description of the problem, saying, “Driving my 2016 Ford Explorer with 10K miles on lightly traveled back roads (fortunately), when forward momentum suddenly and unexpectedly ceased. The engine seemed to still be running, but nothing happened when applying gas. Wrench indicator came on in the display indicating to check owner's manual.” Jim’s 2016 Explorer has only 10K miles on the odometer. His later update said that the cause was diagnosed by his Ford dealer as, “Electronic throttle body defective and similar to other complaints.”
There have been 60 total customer reports of similar problems at CarComplaints.com and another 90 at NHTSA. Bluejay 6 was an early adopter of the problem, reporting it in March of this year, saying , “…driving when check engine light, wrench light came on while the car went into 'limp home' mode.” Bluejay’s follow-up report was, “Dealer said it needs a new throttle body, one catch, none available.”
So what is an electronic throttle body anyway? In any internal combustion car, fuel and air must be mixed, and the throttle is what regulates the air flow into the engine. Remember the old days, when your mechanic would lean over the hood while your car was running and grab that little cable and pull on it to make the car's engine rev? That was the old-school mechanical throttle cable. In today’s modern cars the gas pedal is not directly connected to the throttle. Rather, the pedal has an actuator that sends the input (how hard you press the gas pedal) to an electronic controller that then opens and closes the throttle. This new version has efficiency gains and other benefits – when it works.
Throttle bodies of all types can get gunked up, and many shops will add cleaning it out to a routine service interval. Customers then squawk about it “not being in the manual.” While often true, good mechanics know that fifteen minutes and a little solvent spray can go a long way to preventing the problems these Explorer folks are having.
The evidence is unclear at this point if contamination is the root cause of the problem in the Explorer, or if the problem is a mechanical or electrical defect (or software, or who knows what). Still, it may be worth being proactive and take the time to go to a Ford dealership. If you feel that sensation, have the vehicle checked. Also, if your Explorer is headed to the dealer for any other reason it might be worth asking the dealer to “Check and clean the throttle body.”
Our suggestion to any 2016 Ford Explorer owner would be to be aware of any feelings of loss of power or intermittent power and get the vehicle to a dealer if necessary. Based on the high number of incident reports for this vehicle, and given that loss of power on the highway is a safety concern, we predict there will be an eventual recall on this year.