Explorer Hybrid, ST, and EcoBoost get put to the test
In many ways, the 2020 Ford Explorer is a greatest hits of Ford’s best-selling SUV. Like the original 1990s models, the 2020 Explorer is based on a rear-drive platform. The new Explorer takes the impressive towing capacity from the ’00s models. And like the recently discontinued 2010s model, the new Explorer sports three rows and room for up to seven passengers. But after having driven all three new versions of the 2020 Explorer, this sixth-generation SUV’s most memorable feature is the impressive number of choices Ford gives consumers in this new model.
Although the previous generation made a variety of engine options available, each powertrain felt like a different cut of the same sausage. The three engine options in the 2020 Explorer, represented in our Explorer XLT, Explorer Hybrid Limited, and Explorer ST testers, are instead optimized to offer something for everyone.
A 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 is at the bottom end of the engine spectrum, tested here in our base Explorer XLT. Also found in Ford products like the Ranger and Mustang, the torquey little four-pot makes a healthy 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. It nets 21/28 mpg (11.2/8.4 L/100 km) city/highway in rear-drive form and 20/27 mpg (11.8/8.7 L/100 km) with all-wheel drive.
The middle of the lineup is occupied by the Explorer Hybrid Limited. Sporting a 3.3-liter V-6 and an electric motor, it makes 318 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. Not only is this powertrain capable of towing up to 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) (600 pounds (272 kg) shy of the Explorer ST’s max tow capacity), but it also nets up to 27/29 mpg (8.7/8.1 L/100 km) with rear drive or 23/26 mpg (10.2/9 L/100 km) with all-wheel drive. It’s worth noting that a more powerful plug-in hybrid version of the Explorer exists in Europe; the closest we get Stateside is the luxed-up Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring.
Last but not least is the Explorer ST (pictured below in silver), a follow-up to the previous generation’s Explorer Sport. Like the Explorer Sport, the ST gets a twin-turbo V-6—this time a 3.0-liter unit good for 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the old Sport model, the new Explorer ST’s upgraded brakes, wheels, tires, and suspension components make it truly enjoyable to drive.
All 2020 Explorers, no matter the engine, come standard with a 10-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional on XLT and Limited models; ST and the (not-tested) Platinum model come standard with all-wheel drive.
Unsurprisingly, the 2020 Explorer ST is the quickest of our batch of Fords. Its twin-turbo V-6 feels spunky and powerful, and the automatic provides quick, accurate shifts. It runs from 0 to 60 mph in an impressive 5.3 seconds and through the quarter mile in 13.9 seconds at 99.9 mph (160.8 km/h). It out-braked the other Explorer variants on hand, needing 114 feet in our 60–0 braking tests, but its brake pedal felt digital and hard to modulate; half the time, simply brushing the brakes makes the Explorer ST stand on its nose, and other times you’d hardly get any response from the brakes. The ST’s ride/handling balance thankfully helps distract from the terrible brake feel, with well-weighted, linear steering feel and a balanced and composed chassis. It laps the figure eight in 26.4 seconds at 0.72 g average.
The Explorer Hybrid Limited is the slowest of our trio. Despite its healthy power output, the weight of its big battery helps sink its test numbers. In instrumented testing it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 7.7 second and needs 15.7 seconds to run through the quarter mile at 92.0 mph (148.1 km/h). Although it was the pokiest of the three Explorers, it feels sufficiently quick from behind the wheel. The surge of torque the electric motor provides off the line is notable, as are the smooth transitions from electricity to a gas/electricity combo. Its brake tuning is also impressive; it’s notoriously difficult to nail the pedal feel as a hybrid transitions from regenerative brakes (where the electric motor scavenges excess energy to recharge the battery) to traditional mechanical brakes, but Ford engineers nevertheless managed to eliminate the messy transition. Its weight works against it in braking and handling, where this Explorer proved to be a bit too softly sprung; the hybrid model completed our 60–0 brake test in a respectable 125 feet and lapped the figure eight in 28.0 seconds at 0.63 g.
The four-cylinder Explorer XLT splits the difference between the Hybrid and ST. Our only rear-drive model on hand accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.6 mph (144.2 km/h). The EcoBoost engine is remarkably torquey and smooth, and although we experienced a couple rough shifts, its 10-speed automatic helps make the most of the little engine’s powerband. Braking is respectable, at 121 feet for our 60–0 braking tests, but handling feels slightly numb and vague compared with the other models. Even so, it still lapped the figure eight in 27.7 seconds at 0.64 g average.
Prices for the new Explorer start at $37,870 USD. Our XLT, Hybrid Limited, and ST testers stickered for $43,415 USD, $58,570 USD, and $59,520 USD, respectively. And therein lies the problem: Although all three Explorers are comfortable and tech-forward (all of our cars feature Ford Co-Pilot360 semi-autonomous driving hardware), and all offer class-competitive second and third rows, the interior fit and finish and the overall quality is lacking compared with the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Kia Telluride, and Mazda CX-9.
All three Explorers feel shoddier than their high sticker prices would suggest, with cheap plastics and rubbers, low-quality leather, and, on the Explorer XLT and Limited (which have a smaller infotainment screen), exposed wires if you place your hand just right while snagging your phone from its handy cubby. Ford obviously invested heavily in engineering its new Explorer, but the lack of perceived quality surprises given what they cost.
Ultimately, despite its glaring quality issues, the 2020 Explorer is compelling. The three powertrains offer an impressive mix of performance, efficiency, and capability. Although the cabin is in need of a rethink, three of its capable engines might just be enough to entice shoppers into a Ford dealer and out with a new 2020 Explorer.
|2020 Ford Explorer XLT||2020 Ford Explorer ST||2020 Ford Explorer Limited (Hybrid)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$43,415||$59,520||$58,570|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, AWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, AWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.3L/300-hp/310-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4||3.0L/400-hp/415-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus electric motor, 318 hp/322 lb-ft combined|
|TRANSMISSION||10-speed automatic||10-speed automatic||10-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4,367 lb (50/50%)||4,860 lb (51/49%)||5,189 lb (52/48%)|
|WHEELBASE||119.1 in||119.10 in||119.1 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||198.8 x 78.9 x 69.9 in||199.3 x 78.9 x 70.2 in||199.3 x 78.9 x 70.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.8 sec||5.3 sec||7.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 89.6 mph||13.9 sec @ 99.9 mph||15.7 sec @ 92.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||121 ft||114 ft||125 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.81 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)||0.77 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.7 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||26.4 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)||28.0 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||20/27/23 mpg||18/24/20 mpg||23/26/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||187/140 kW-hrs/100 miles||147/130 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.86 lb/mile||0.96 lb/mile||0.80 lb/mile|