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2020 Ford Explorer ST First Drive: Now That’s More Like It

2020 Ford Explorer ST

The redesigned 2020 Ford Explorer has a bit of a split personality, as evidenced by the two new versions that were introduced for the new model year: the Hybrid and the ST. Our post from earlier this week focused on the Hybrid and a few of its shortcomings in the name of efficiency. But while in Portland, Ore., I also spent an afternoon with the performance-focused Explorer ST and found it to be refreshing.

Related: 2020 Ford Explorer First Drive: Charting New Territory

Explorer ST models get an up-tuned version of the Platinum’s turbocharged 3.0-liter EcoBoost V-6 that pumps out 400 horsepower and 415 pounds-feet of torque (compared with 365 hp and 380 pounds-feet). A 10-speed automatic remains the only transmission and the ST comes with standard four-wheel drive.

In place of the Hybrid’s hesitation off the line, the ST charges forward with charming predictability as you tip the accelerator pedal in. Power flows easily from a stop, to pass and to charge up on-ramps — it’s an engine that responds quickly and a transmission that also dials in the right gear without hesitation (much like the Explorer Platinum). Credit is also due to the 4WD system that, according to a handy graphic, gives all four wheels a good dose of power on launches. This does remove some of the urgent feeling you can experience in purely rear-wheel-drive vehicles, but the added stability to the acceleration is a welcome payoff to me in this situation. Ford lists the ST’s top speed at an impressive 143 mph but only suggests doing so on a track, so don’t get any ideas.

The ST is also offered with either of two available performance packages: the ST Street Pack or the ST High-Performance Pack. Both have rather similar contents: 21-inch black wheels, more robust brakes and better tires. But the High-Performance Pack just turns up the dial a bit more, with “high-performance” versus “performance” brakes and a more aggressive tire, Michelin Latitude Sport 3s versus Pirelli Scorpion Zeros.

I drove both versions, and there isn’t much of a detectable difference between them on the street, but I didn’t get a chance to track the Explorer ST, so a gap may appear if you drive closer to the limit. What I can say is that the more robust braking system (in either form) is a vast improvement over the Hybrid as well. Stopping power (again) feels more predictable, there’s less initial grabbiness and the Explorer ST stops in a perfectly straight line in hard braking situations. It weighs 4,701 pounds, so to stop all of that mass without drama is impressive. After a few consecutive hard stops I gave the dashboard a knowing pat and a satisfied grin, while our videographer who was along for the ride gave me a different kind of look (the “stop this or I’m going to revolt” kind).

That being said, the suspension is still too soft for an ST. Ford says that it made the springs 10 percent stiffer all around, and the front and rear stabilizer bars have been thickened to increase stability. Body roll is slightly mitigated but it remains an ever-present companion on any kind of curve, and that unsteady wavering became the limiting factor for pushing the ST on mountain roads.

The Explorer ST felt like it was screaming for an adaptive suspension, which could keep the SUV pliant in day-to-day driving but tighten up a lot more when desired, or when you find the right kind of road. Ford has an adaptive suspension like this that it uses on the Mustang, and I wish that a version could have been repurposed for the Explorer ST.

I think this lack of agility prevents the Explorer ST from being a true “performance” SUV. It needs a bit more competency in the corners to be considered as such. However, its destiny as a three-row, family-oriented SUV that remains fun to drive is nothing to look down upon. The ST was worth more than few smiles in the few hours that I got to drive it, and that’ll be plenty for most who are considering one.

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The Explorer ST has only one close competitor, the Dodge Durango SRT, and the Explorer ST matches up well with it on price. The Explorer ST starts at $55,835, which is well below the Durango SRT’s $64,490 (prices include destination charges), though the Durango SRT does offer a bigger dose of power from its 6.4-liter V-8. The Durango SRT also shows its girth in bends, but it does feel to be faster in a straight line — I don’t think that the jump up is quite necessary over the Explorer, but these two vehicles exist more in the realm of “want” than “need,” so if you want the biggest and the baddest, feel free to pony up.

The as-tested price of the Explorer ST I spent the most time in (which also came with the upgraded 10.1-inch multimedia screen, a panoramic moonroof and massaging front seats) ended up at $59,915. That’s still a lot of scratch compared with most other three-row SUVs, even slower ones, but I think I’d rather pay that for the ST than $57,265 for the Hybrid or $61,330 for the Platinum that we covered previously. This isn’t to say that the Explorer ST has value, but if I’m dropping that much money, at least give me something that’s worth a chuckle or two on the daily.

2020 Ford Explorer ST

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