2020 Ford Explorer ST First Drive Review: Now we’re Talking

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2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey

We take the all-new Ford Explorer ST for a spin and see if two little letters can make a world of difference.

When Ford released its 2019 Edge ST, we were somewhat disappointed by the product’s final execution, stating that it never actually felt fast, even with nearly 400 lb-ft of torque on tap. It was also plagued with a frustrating throttle delay upon corner exits, making it feel more “sporty” than actually performance-oriented.

You can imagine then, that before we set out to drive Ford’s second performance SUV, the all-new 2020 Explorer ST, we were somewhat worried that Ford had messed it up yet again. Turns out it didn’t. As a matter of fact, we got out of this drive rather impressed by what this new Explorer can do, and not just in ST trim, but in all of its variation. Most importantly, we’re pleased to announce that with the Explorer ST, Ford has finally mastered the art of building a bargain-basement Porsche Cayenne.

We flew down to Oregon to sample the entire 2020 Ford Explorer lineup, with a long drive on magnificent mountain roads to sample Ford’s latest hot-rod SUV.


What a Chassis

2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey

At the heart of the 2020 Ford Explorer ST is its all-new rear-wheel drive architecture, a platform shared with the 2020 Lincoln Aviator.  According to Ed Kretz, Chief Functional Engineer at Ford Performance, the new platform gave his team of engineers much more freedom than to build a proper performance variant from the ground up. As a matter of fact, Ford already had the ST in mind when it thought up its new Explorer, contrary to the Edge ST which came during the vehicle’s mid-cycle refresh.

“Edge ST kind of served as a tech bench for developing the Explorer ST. We learned from that experience and got feedback from customers to improve on what was missing from Edge. We also had a lot more freedom in developing a full-on high-performance variant with Explorer. The rear-drive architecture helped a lot”, he admitted.

Although the 2020 Ford Explorer sends its power to the rear wheels first, the ST comes standard with all-wheel drive, a system that can perform torque vectoring, and just like the Edge ST which performs this the other way around, remove traction from the front wheels when need be for optimal rotation in corners.

Power comes from a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, essentially the same one found in the Explorer Platinum, but boosted to a stout 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. Like the rest of the Explorer lineup, a ten-speed automatic gearbox gets the power down, but it’s been fitted with a larger cooling fan to withstand hard driving. Suspension components were then modified for the ST, with 10% stiffer springs up front and 8% stiffer out the rear. Dampers are identical to those of an Explorer Platinum, but their ride frequency was increased 4% front, 3% rear to reduce body roll.

There are larger sway bars – 33mm versus 32m -, as well as stronger brakes sold through an optional Performance package, adding vented discs and larger calipers. However, while the package will be available in the US upon the vehicle’s launch, it’ll only come to Canada later this year.


 On the Road

2020 Ford Explorer ST | Photo: Ford

We’ve already shared our thoughts regarding the 2020 Ford Explorer’s cabin space, comfort and overall build quality, so we invite you to read our review of the standard Explorer on these pages. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the vehicle’s handling abilities.

Highway 84 is a beautifully paved road section that heads east out of Portland, Oregon, carving its way along the coast of the Columbia River. Ford instructed us to drive the Explorer ST over to Skamania lodge on the other side, in the town of Stevenson, Washington, which required us to cross the Hood River Bridge, onto highway 14, then back west towards the coast. The area is magnificent, with rolling hills, abrupt cliffs, Oregon’s snow-covered peaks, like Mount Hood, visually striking the landscape as if they’ve been photoshopped in the scenery.

Our Explorer ST proved the ideal tool to scalpel our way through the endless curves and inclines the state of Oregon could through at us. Set to Sport mode, one of seven available variations in the new Explorer, our ST’s turbocharged six pulled strong across the rev range, with a satisfying surge of low-end torque, and an amplified soundtrack that sang to a much more pleasing note than its little brother, the Edge ST.

We were also satisfied with the ten-speed gearbox’ response times, understanding when a downshift was required all while maintaining gears, letting the engine’s torque fill things up. This is a much better executed package than the Edge’s eight-speed laggy setup.

The Explorer ST enters a corner in a fluid and steady fashion. It’s well-planted to the road and there’s a tendency to rotate easily when applying early throttle. There’s a sense of fluidity in the way its chassis carries you around a corner, with a compliant yet not too harsh ride and body roll kept significantly lower than the conventional Explorer models we drove. What’s more, the enormous brakes never gave in, actually encouraging us to push this behemoth further to its limits, always commanding the Explorer to a steady halt before entering the next apex.

In many ways, the Explorer ST shares its handling attributes with premium German performance SUV’s. The Porsche Cayenne, the BMW X5, heck, even the Jaguar F-PACE. To our astonishment, we felt the Explorer would have no issue keeping up with these vehicles on these twisty roads. We say mission accomplished, Ford.


Conclusion

2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey

We’re not hiding the fact that we were charmed by the 2020 Ford Explorer lineup in general, but we’re even more impressed with what the Ford Performance division has done with the ST variant. While the Edge ST seemed like a half-baked effort that did little to transcend any form of dynamic abilities, the Explorer ST punches well above its weight and makes us wonder why we should pay several thousands of dollars more for a German alternative. With our only real complaint being the vehicle’s cabin design and material quality, we’re glad Ford has managed to keep its performance heritage all while focusing its business on trucks and SUV’s.


2020 Ford Explorer ST Photo Gallery

2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey
2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey
2020 Ford Explorer | Photo: William Clavey

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