The new 2020 Ford Explorer has more versions than ever, but we start with a review of the one most people will buy.
When the very first Ford Explorer appeared in 1991, it was among the first midsize SUV’s on the market, with only two legitimate rivals; the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and the Jeep Cherokee. Back then, these things had more in common with a truck than an actual car, with pressure from the competition was nowhere near as intense as it is today.
Now, the automotive industry is flooded with these kinds of vehicles, so much so that they’ve now become the norm for any modern family. A segment once owned and dominated by the American carmakers, midsize SUV’s are now being pumped out by Japanese, Korean and German carmakers.
So when Ford sought out to redesign its sixth-generation Explorer, it had to reinvent a vehicle that’s now at the center of its existence. With a promise of focusing its business on trucks and SUV’s, Ford’s new Explorer had an obligation to excel. We were out in Oregon state to find out if there’s enough substance here to allow the 2020 Explorer to shine bright over its rivals.
New Architecture, Three Engines
The 2020 Ford Explorer rides on an all-new rear-wheel drive bias architecture shared with the Lincoln Aviator. Ford admits that such a layout gave its engineers much more freedom to maximize interior space and build an all-new high performance ST variant from the ground up.
We’ll get back on the ST in a few days, since our driving impressions are still locked by an embargo set by Ford.
Three engines power the 2020 Ford Explorer. Base models make do with a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, while the more premium Platinum trim shares its 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 with the Explorer ST. Power for that one is however rated lower at 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque, while the ST cranks things up to 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft.
Finally, there’s an all-new hybrid model which combines a naturally aspirated 3.3-liter V6 with an electric motor for a combined power output of 318 horsepower. All Explorers sold in Canada come standard with all-wheel drive and a ten-speed automatic gearbox.
Three available engines also now mean three different towing ratings across the board. Where the last-generation Explorer stopped at a 5,000 lb (2,267 kg) when powered by the EcoBoost V6 engine, it’s now equaled by the all new hybrid model. Even more impressive is the 2.3-liter turbo four which will pull up to 5,300 pounds (2,404). Mind you, these towing ratings can only be achieved when adding Ford’s Class III Trailer Tow Package, a $710 add-on on the Explorer’s MSRP.
Finally, the Explorer Platinum and Explorer ST top the lineup with a 5,600-lb (2,540 kg) towing rating, while offering the towing package as standard equipment. This places Ford’s new Explo ahead of its main rivals Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Volkswagen Atlas, all of which are locked at 5,000 lb (2,267 kg). Only the Nissan Pathfinder (6,000 lb / 2,721 kg) and the Dodge Durango (8,700 lb / 3,946 kg) out-tow the Ford.
On The Road
Our drive began with the Explorer Platinum, where we then went down the lineup all the way to a base XLT four-cylinder. The immediate first impression when sitting inside the 2020 Explorer, no matter the trim level, is how comfortable those front seats are, with ample lumbar and lateral support, and an impeccable seating position.
Higher trim levels come with an all-new 10.1-inch portrait-style multimedia interface which houses Ford’s latest Sync 3 software. Lower trim levels get a standard 8-inch horizontal screen. We admit finding the tablet’s positioning a bit odd, sticking out of the dashboard as if the designers added it there as an afterthought. We kept wondering if children would instinctively try to pull it out of its position.
That said, Ford’s tried and tested Sync interface remains quick and easy to comprehend. It now neatly stacks Navigation, connected devices, and radio stations on top of each other on the main screen. Driver assistance features are now all controllable directly from the system, compared to the last-gen model that required fiddling with the gauge cluster menus. Ford also added a feedback system, where users can submit comments related to some of the vehicles functionalities, like the speed at which the climate control system warms up the cabin, for example.
While the Explorer’s cabin is a spacious and comfortable place to spend some time in, especially out the rear where even the third row is easily accessible for tall adults, overall dashboard design and material quality let us down, even in the top-tier trim levels. Cheap-feeling hard plastics cover the center console, dashboard and door inserts, making us wonder if Ford even spent some in some of Korea’s latest SUV’s. We’re also not convinced the cabin’s styling will age well.
Luckily, the 2020 Explorer makes up for it with impeccable road manners and efficient engines across the board. The 3.0-liter V6 provides smooth and spirited acceleration, while the hybrid proved seamless when passing from gasoline to electric propulsion. We were however let down by the hybrid’s irritatingly sensitive brakes.
The biggest surprise was the bargain-basement four-cylinder unit, which not only provided a lightweight feel to the Explorer’s front-end, but delivered enough punch to get this big guy up and going. It’s an energetic engine, one that immediately comes to life once that turbo spools up, revving eagerly to redline with a flat and constant surge of torque.
We were also enchanted by this new Explorer’s handling characteristics, with sharp turn-in and a willingness to encourage spirited driving through a composed, well calibrated chassis. The adjective to remember here is buttoned down, to the point where we felt like we were driving large German sedans instead of midsize utility vehicles.
Overall, we are pleased with what Ford has done with its latest people hauler. While it could have had a better appointed interior, especially when packed to the gills in Platinum trim, the 2020 Ford Explorer makes up for it with a comfortable ride, a choice of three potent engines, and driving dynamics that actually rival premium European nameplates costing several thousands of dollars more.
What’s more, with towing capacity besting the main players in the segment, and a rather impressive ST variant we’ll be reviewing here soon, the 2020 Ford Explorer seems poised to give the midsize SUV segment a run for its money.