It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 30 years since the first Ford Explorer was introduced. Families couldn’t snap ’em up fast enough; even my sister had one as her first car back in the ’90s. They’ve come a long way since then — six generations that now include the new 2020 Explorer. The Explorer has grown considerably, spawned luxury versions, even a pickup truck version — and now it’s undergone yet another change.
For the last eight years, the Explorer has found big sales success as a front-wheel-drive-based SUV able to seat seven people in relative comfort, even if the third row has always been a little cozy for full-sized adults. But the switch back to a rear-wheel-drive platform for the sixth generation is both celebratory and puzzling — celebratory in that we fully enjoy rear-wheel-drive vehicles for their handling, styling proportions and towing abilities. But for family vehicles, front-wheel-drive crossovers tend to offer up a lower load floor and more passenger space in the second and third row. Before we sat in the new 2020 Explorer, we were worried that these compromises would create challenges for the new Explorer when it hits the market later this summer. Now that we’ve sat in it … we’re still worried.
From the outside, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that the 2020 Explorer is entirely new. It is, obviously, on a completely different platform, but the styling doesn’t look appreciably different from the current one. Not until you look at it from the side or see one side by side with the old version, that is. The proportions of the new one are quite different, with a much shorter front overhang (the distance between the front wheels and the front of the bumper), a longer, more flowing look down the body side and the appearance of a lower roof. It looks subtly sleeker than the outgoing model, and it’s especially attractive in the new blacked-out, performance-oriented ST trim.
Inside, the changes are more apparent. Front-seat comfort is improved — no longer do the seat bottoms feel too short as they do in many Ford products. The dash looks fully modern and the material quality is decent, even on the pre-production model in which I sat. The digital gauge cluster is pretty sweet, reminiscent of the customizable one in the Mustang but limited to the preset looks that Ford has designed to work with the different drive modes selected by the Terrain Management System. This means most Explorer owners won’t see more than half of these themes, as they’re likely to never explore the Tow/Haul, Trail or Eco modes.
The vertical 10.1-inch touchscreen definitely looks out of place in the interior, appearing as if someone has stuck an iPad front and center into a slot in the center console. It would actually be pretty cool if this was the case and I could use a tablet as the vehicle’s touchscreen, but you’ll have to make do with the fixed one. Thankfully, the latest Sync 3 multimedia system seems better than ever, with quick function, clear and easy-to-read displays, and simple operation.
The issues start in the second row, with captain’s chairs that feel quite small. Both the seat bottoms and seatbacks feel undersized compared to competitors like the 2019 Chevrolet Traverse, but the optional one-touch tilt and slide E-Z Entry function is pretty slick. And the Explorer does have an advantage over the Chevy in that you can get into the third row with the easy-entry function from either the passenger or driver’s side — it’s passenger-side only on the Traverse. Once in the third row, you’ll find that the Explorer’s rear-wheel-drive configuration means that the cabin floor is higher than the outgoing model, which leads to the feeling of sitting on the floor with your knees in your chest. There may be more width than the previous Explorer and plenty of headroom, but it’s not nearly as comfortable for full-size humans as the Traverse’s third row or that of the newly arriving Hyundai Palisade. (For kids, it’ll be just fine.)
We’re definitely looking forward to driving this new Ford Explorer. The switch to a rear-wheel-drive platform and the addition of the 400-horsepower, twin-turbocharged ST means that it should be crazy fun, at least on paper. We’ll also be very interested to see the new Explorer Hybrid’s fuel economy. All of that should be coming when the new Explorer goes on sale.
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