Car Reviews First Drives

Review: New Ford Explorer Goes Telluride and Highlander Hunting

Total remake leaves its predecessor in the rearview mirror

Total remake leaves its predecessor in the rearview mirror

After selling more than 7.7 million to date, one of the most iconic three-row family SUVs of all time has been reinvented yet again. The 2020 Ford Explorer gets a major overhaul, as the latest in a line of SUVs that stretches back three decades.

The 2020 Explorer is now on a new platform, and surprisingly, it’s a rear-drive architecture with all-wheel-drive capability available on all trims. And the Explorer family has exploded into new realms. In addition to the regular trim levels, the 2020 lineup includes the first Explorer hybrid and adds an ST performance variant.

Needless to say, we were extremely intrigued when we headed to Portland, Oregon, for our first drive.

There are still 3.6 million Explorers on the road, and the ones arriving in dealerships this month are arguably Ford’s best effort to date.

The look is sleeker with a different grille for each trim level, starting with black mesh and adding more chrome with each upgrade and then blacked out for the ST. It has a wider stance and a sloping roofline for a racier side profile. A huge single body side panel extends to the middle of the C-pillar, which is split down the middle, and the rear quarter panel cuts into the metal. Passive entry on all four door handles add to a sleeker look, and the face is brightened by standard full LED headlights. Overall, the look is not as boxy, but it does pale in comparison to its luxury counterpart, the Lincoln Aviator, or the new Kia Telluride in terms of wow factor.

Benefits of the short overhang were abundantly clear on an off-road course on a hill with an 18-degree grade. The outgoing Explorer’s nose would have received a snootful of dirt at the bottom.

Base engine is a four-banger

The base engine is Ford’s 2.3-liter turbo I-4 that generates 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. That proved to be enough power to pass, and the 10-speed automatic transmission easily found the right gear for each task. It was adequate and uneventful in its performance.

The top-end Platinum gets a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 that produces 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. That engine is tweaked for the Explorer ST to coax 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. Driving impressions of the ST will be coming June 20, so check back with us later this week.

Although the new Explorer has roughly the same dimensions as the 2019 model, it has lost 200 pounds (91 kg), and being rear-drive, there was a higher expectation of agility. It feels like a race car compared with the old model, an engineer said. We wouldn’t go that far, but the rear-drive platform and lightening do liven up the drive.

We started with a rear-drive Limited, which has a base price of $49,225 USD. This particular one, however, was optioned to $52,820 USD with 20-inch wheels and a tow package. The cabin was quiet enough and the suspension adequately supple. Although there’s little body roll, the Explorer is a big vehicle and felt that way. It was not sluggish, but it was no track imp, either.

The hybrid that could

The capability of the Limited Hybrid was impressive. With a 318-hp, 336-lb-ft 3.3-liter V-6 mated to a 10-speed modular hybrid transmission, this is the first hybrid for Explorer—and the first hybrid the Ford brand has offered in six years.

The electric motor is packaged between the engine and the transmission’s torque converter and can drive about 3 miles (5 km) in electric-only mode. The liquid-cooled 1.5-kW-hr battery pack is under the floor between the front seat and second-row footwell on the passenger side, so there is no encroachment on cabin space.

The hybrid claims a range of 500 miles (805 km). We only averaged 22.4–22.5 mpg (10.5-10.4 L/100 km). Other colleagues reported as little as 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km) or as much as 32 (7.3 L/100 km). It speaks to different driving styles and that the vehicles were used in a variety of ways, including off-roading and towing. EPA certification is expected any day; we’ll see how it competes with the Toyota Highlander hybrid, which gets 29/27 mpg (8.1/8.7 L/100 km) city/highway but is only rated to tow 3,500 pounds (1,587 kg).

Surprisingly, the engine does not run on the Atkinson cycle. Engineers tell us the twin independent cam timing is already close to the Atkinson cycle, that it would not work well with the 10-speed, and that the small improvement in efficiency would come at the expense of performance. Ford did not want to sacrifice horsepower or torque on the Explorer. It’s an even bigger issue for police vehicles, which would have lost horsepower, torque, and pursuit performance. The Explorer and Aviator are the firsts to use this new powertrain architecture, which includes the engine, disconnect clutch, e-motor, torque converter, and transmission. The F-150 hybrid will use a version of this architecture next year.

At times the pedal felt a little heavy and the ride a bit jerky, but the brakes were smoother than many hybrids. And it has some serious capability. It’s rated to tow 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) and was not even breathless during a stint with a 3,500-pound (1,587-kg) trailer behind us. It’s not much of a compromise, as the regular Explorer with the I-4 and a towing package brings towing capacity to 5,300 pounds (2,404 kg) and the V-6 tows 5,600 pounds (2,540 kg).

Equally impressive was the hybrid’s off-road prowess, where it was as capable as its regular counterpart. With optional AWD and a tight turning radius, it tackled a challenging course in Trail mode. With hill descent control activated, it led the SUV down a steep decline with controlled speed. The vehicle also held firm on a bank with a 25-degree incline and forded a water hazard 12 inches deep with a rocky and unstable river bottom. Washers keep the cameras on the front and rear clean.

More room inside

While the Explorer stayed roughly the same size, the wheelbase grew 6.3 inches, which makes the cabin more spacious—a big improvement over the outgoing model, which felt cramped despite being such a large SUV. Designers rectified the complaints with thinner doors and a redesigned center console so the driver is better positioned and less cramped even though the vehicle did not get any wider. Space is also freed up by switching to a rotary-dial gearshift dial, which took some getting used to.

The 12.3-inch customizable digital cluster on the top trims has graphics that change to reflect which mode you’re in. The standard screen is 6.5 inches.

An 8.0-inch touchscreen replaces the old 4.0-incher; the upgrade is a 10.1-inch capacitive screen that is upright like a tablet. Designers chose a portrait layout because it mimics the way people use their phones and it’s easier to stack CarPlay and other information. The screen is well integrated into the dash, and designers used the extra inches below the smaller screen to create a shelf for phones. A number of USB ports and wireless charging are placed cleverly against the outside wall of the center storage bin.

The Sync 3 system was slow to load on the preproduction vehicles, but Ford is already sending an over-the-air software update. Hopefully the fix also addresses the nav system, which would shout out instructions late enough to induce frequent last-minute tire squealing or overshooting the mark and turning around during our evaluation drive.

The heated and cooled eight-way adjustable seat is comfortable. All but the base model has standard bucket seats in the second row instead of a bench. Second-row passengers can place their iPads in the ridges in the center storage area. Second-row cupholders are square to accommodate juice boxes.

Getting in and out

The Explorer sits high, so those with short legs can be challenged getting in and out. Passengers get a grab handle. To ease entry into the second and third rows, the scuff plate was widened for a sturdier step. And the second row folds and slides forward with the single push of a button. The Limited trim and those above it have buttons in the cargo area to fold the power third-row seats flat.

A nice touch is a lip to keep items from rolling out the back, and the carpeted cargo cover is reversible; the underside is a rubber mat. The cover can also be slotted at different heights to create assorted-sized storage areas. There is a standard power liftgate, a handy little triangle in the bumper so you know where to put your hand to activate it, and a skidplate to prevent scratching the rear bumper when loading and unloading.

Co-Pilot360 is standard, offering an array of driver assistance safety features such as pre-collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and lane keep systems and a rear camera.

All flavors of Explorer continue to be built in Chicago and are shipping to dealers now, with the exception of the hybrid, which awaits EPA certification. The base model starts at $33,860 USD, XLT starts at $37,770 USD, Limited is $49,225 USD, Platinum is $59,345 USD, and the ST starts at $55,835 USD.

Overall, the 2020 Explorer has more style, capability, and breadth than its predecessor. Whether it vaults to the top of the segment is the subject of future comparisons, but this latest model packs enough goods to retain its status as an American sweetheart.