The verdict: Moving to a rear-wheel-drive platform makes the Explorer better to drive, but there are shortcomings in the cabin that may be a bigger deal for families and the hybrid is a disappointment.
Versus the competition: In this class, practicality outweighs fun behind the wheel, and the competition offers better cabins with more room for passengers, along with much better value.
The 2020 Ford Explorer gets a full redesign, and its makeover is extensive. The new Explorer rides on a brand-new platform, and it has serious technology upgrades and two new specialized trim levels that widen the model’s scope more than ever before. But in such a contested class, are these changes enough to propel the Explorer to the top?
The biggest change for the 2020 Explorer is a switch to a rear-wheel-drive platform. The old model rode on front-wheel-drive architecture, and the shift gives the Explorer some distinction. (Even when equipped with optional all-wheel drive, the platform’s foundational layout influences how it handles.) In our 2020 3-Row SUV Challenge, the Explorer was the only participant with a rear-drive platform, and that helped its handling stand out. Its other driving-related scores — in the powertrain and braking categories — were also superb.
But evaluating three-row, family-oriented SUVs requires a much longer list of priorities than how they drive, and the Explorer did not do as well in other categories. If this were a driving-only test, the Explorer would have won; instead, it finished fourth out of seven.
The 2020 Explorer is offered in a wide range of variants. The redesign added two new trim levels with very different goals: a hybrid model and a performance-focused ST, which replaces the Sport. The base returns for 2020 (for fleet sales only), as do XLT, Limited and Platinum trims. Much of this review will focus on the Limited we tested for our 3-Row SUV Challenge, but I’ll also address the hybrid at the end. See the Explorer’s specs and features compared with fellow three-row SUVs the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot and Challenge-winning Hyundai Palisade.
It’s true that the new Explorer is better to drive — excepting the hybrid version, which I’ll address next. The base engine found in XLT and Limited trims is a turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that makes 300 horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque; it’s paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission and standard rear-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is optional. The Platinum trim comes with standard 4WD and a larger engine: a robust 365-hp, turbocharged 3.0-liter EcoBoost V-6 that makes 380 pounds-feet of torque.
Both engines are great. The Platinum’s acceleration feels more robust and its easy power more luxurious, but in some ways, I was more impressed with the performance coming out of that base engine. It doesn’t feel like a four-cylinder; it pulls and keeps on pulling all the way past highway speeds. Most other Challenge vehicles had V-6 engines and couldn’t keep up with the Ford.
As with all Fords, we’ll issue a caveat here that Ford bases its engine specifications on premium gasoline, though the Explorer also takes regular. (Not all engines that run on regular get an advantage from higher-octane gas, but Ford’s do.) Because the only mention of higher-octane gas is hidden in the owner’s manual and using it isn’t required, we assume consumers will carry on with regular. That being the case, we conducted our Challenge and other testing with regular fuel, and the Explorer’s performance still impressed. (Such results are usually the case, but the Ford Edge we reviewed proved borderline anemic even on premium.)
EPA fuel-economy estimates are 21/28/24 mpg for the base engine with RWD and 20/27/23 mpg with 4WD. The larger engine comes only with 4WD and is rated 18/24/20 mpg.
The Explorer’s handling was also impressive for a vehicle in this class. There’s appropriate weight to the steering wheel, it doesn’t veer into overboosted territory, and the Explorer never felt out of sorts on winding roads or during abrupt emergency maneuvers. The move to a rear-wheel-drive architecture did pay off in this sense, as the Explorer is actually pretty fun to drive.
What did not improve in the redesign was the Explorer’s roominess. The previous generation wasn’t expansive by any means, and that problem seems to have gotten worse in the third row for 2020. Typically, a rear-wheel-drive platform comes with more mechanical “stuff” to put in the rear, and the Explorer’s floor back there has, indeed, risen — so not only is it short on headroom and legroom in its third row, but the floor is also so high compared with the seat bottom that you’ll sit with your knees uncomfortably close to your chin.
The first two rows are better on space but suffer from another problem: the seats themselves. The front seats’ bottom cushions are too short (thigh extensions are available in the Limited) and not wide enough. The second-row captain’s chairs (which are standard) are too slim and don’t have any bolstering to speak of, so get ready to see passengers sliding around when the Explorer takes a turn. These shortcomings are revealed when you test the Explorer back-to-back with competitors as we did in the Challenge, where the Explorer ranked last in both first- and second-row comfort.
Technology Hits and Misses
As expected of a redesigned vehicle, the Explorer’s technology offerings are solid. I’m a fan of Sync 3, which is much like the Hyundai/Kia multimedia system in that it doesn’t have a lot of frills but remains very easy to use. An 8-inch screen is standard on all trims, mounted high on the dash but still within easy reach. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, as well. Compared with some larger modern screens, it seems a bit small, but Ford does offer a much larger alternative …
In addition to its new RWD underpinnings, much of the hype surrounding the Explorer’s redesign is its fancy new screen: a 10.1-inch, vertically oriented touchscreen that’s optional on ST and Platinum models. Portrait- versus landscape-oriented touchscreens are the feature du jour; they’re offered in Ram, Subaru and Volvo vehicles, as well, with varying degrees of success. The Explorer’s application isn’t bad, as the orientation makes some menus larger and easier to read. The problem is that it doesn’t add much functionality and seems to make smartphone connectivity worse. Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay remain horizontally oriented, and as a result use a smaller space on the tall, narrow screen than they would if they occupied the entirety of the standard screen even though it’s smaller overall. (The system leaves an ugly preferences bar in the middle instead.)
What works well for the Explorer is its safety technology. Ford’s Co-Pilot360 is standard on all trims and includes lane keep assist, automatic forward emergency braking and, in a point of differentiation from much of the competition, blind spot warnings. Limited and higher trims build on that standard equipment with Co-Pilot360 Assist Plus, which adds adaptive cruise control and lane centering so the Explorer doesn’t bounce between lane markers while traveling down the highway. Bear in mind that the lane keeping system as a whole operates only at 40 mph and above, though the adaptive cruise control goes all the way down to a stop. Limited and above models get a 360-degree camera system, which is especially helpful when parking given the Explorer’s visibility problems.
Trailing in Value
What ends up being my largest problem with the Explorer is its value — or, rather, its lack thereof. The most affordable non-fleet Explorer is the XLT, which starts at $37,870 (all prices include destination charges). It goes up from there, with the Limited priced at $49,325 and followed by the Platinum at $59,445. That’s a lot of money, especially when you put the Explorer up against competitors like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, both of which start at less than $33,000.
For our Challenge, we had nearly fully loaded examples of each of those vehicles, and both cost around $47,000. The Challenge’s Explorer Limited — not even the top Explorer trim level — was $54,420 as-tested, and there was a wide gap between the Ford and the South Korean duo in terms of interior quality and features. Had you flipped the price tags on the Palisade and the Explorer, I would have believed the Ford was the cheaper vehicle — and that’s a bad look.
Another arguable advantage of a rear-drive platform is towing capacity. The 2020 Explorer’s trailer maximum of 5,600 pounds is up 600 pounds over the 2019. While that number isn’t dramatically better than the maximum offered by competitors, it does represent an advantage in that even lower trim levels can tow 5,300 pounds (with an optional towing package). Front-drive and lower trims of the 2019 Explorer were limited to 2,000 pounds. Most competitors similarly start with lesser capacities on lower trims.
One of two new varieties of Explorer for 2020, the Explorer Hybrid is offered only in the Limited trim level, starting at $53,475 — a $4,150 premium over the gas version. It features a 3.3-liter V-6 engine and a 35-kilowatt electric motor that produce a combined 318 hp and 322 pounds-feet of torque, which is close in output to the Explorer’s base gasoline engine.
The Explorer Hybrid does have better fuel-economy estimates: 27/29/28 mpg with RWD and 23/26/25 mpg with AWD. Take those with a grain of salt, however: I did a 1,180-mile road trip in a RWD hybrid and didn’t get close to that figure, observing 24.9 mpg on the trip computer and 23.9 mpg based on pump calculations. Given the Explorer’s base engine is estimated at 24 or 23 mpg combined (RWD or AWD), that isn’t as much of a gap as I’d like to see, making it harder to justify the additional cost of the hybrid — especially with Toyota estimating its forthcoming redesigned 2020 Highlander Hybrid to get 34 mpg combined.
The added cost — not countered by large fuel economy gains — makes the Explorer Hybrid a tough sell. Further complicating things is that it isn’t as nice to drive as the regular Explorer. It still has decent steering, but both acceleration and braking are jerky; the Explorer Hybrid doesn’t transition smoothly between gas/electric power and hydraulic/regenerative braking. Ford calls the Explorer Hybrid an uncompromised vehicle because it has the same cargo and passenger room, towing capacity, wading depth and ground clearance as the gas version. But I think I’d have preferred some compromises for better fuel economy to justify its price premium.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Explorer ST, a performance-focused variant that zigs where the hybrid zags. It has the same turbocharged 3.0-liter EcoBoost V-6 as the Platinum, but it’s been tuned up to 400 hp and 415 pounds-feet of torque. It comes with standard 4WD and offers a pair of optional performance packages that have larger wheels, more powerful brakes and stickier tires.
I drove Explorer STs with both packages, and there isn’t much difference between the two on the street. The best part of driving the ST is the confident acceleration of its engine, which pulls hard in every condition I tried — from a stop, at low speeds and at highway speeds. Ford lists the top speed at 143 mph, and it feels like it can get there easily. Upgraded brakes are a welcome addition, offsetting all that speed with added stopping power.
My wish list for the ST includes some kind of adaptive suspension. Ford did make some modifications to stiffen up the suspension, but it didn’t go far enough to mitigate enough body roll in corners. A modified version of the Mustang’s MagneRide suspension would allow drivers to keep the ride comfortable in normal driving, then get very firm when the road gets twisty. The ST starts at $55,935, between the Limited and Platinum.
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