Car Reviews

Review: The 400-HP Ford Explorer ST is the Sportiest Explorer Yet

Turn off the stereo, the engine is music to a driver’s ears

Turn off the stereo, the engine is music to a driver’s ears

Buying a three-row family vehicle does not meaning checking your purse or manhood at the door—that’s the message Ford is sending with the 2020 Ford Explorer ST, a 400-hp performance crossover. Enthusiasts’ ears should perk up at hearing that the Explorer rides on a new rear-wheel-drive architecture and is powered by a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 tweaked to produce 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque.

To look the part, the grille goes all black and glossy with a grille insert and satin aluminum finish as well as a unique fascia and EXPLORER badging across the front edge of the hood. There are side rails on the roof rack. In back there is the perfect juxtaposition: quad exhaust outlets and an exposed trailer hitch with easily accessible wiring.

The Explorer’s switch back to rear-wheel drive is interesting. Rear-wheel drive scares people in snow states, but the reality is that electronics and driver assist technologies have advanced so far that vehicles can drive in almost any conditions. Of course, the same engineers have long defended front-wheel drive as being as dynamic as rear drive, so there’s plenty of rhetoric on both sides of the equation. And the great leveler: all-wheel drive, is available across the Explorer lineup and is standard on the ST. Also standard is a trailer tow package, enabling the ST to tow 5,600 pounds (2,540 kg).

The switch makes the Explorer, especially the ST, so much more fun to drive. It still feels like a large vehicle, but on the roads outside Portland, Oregon, it showed an agility that its predecessor did not possess.

Seven drive modes include normal, sport, eco, trail, deep snow and sand, slippery, and tow/haul. Each comes with a 3D animated graphic that appears in the 12.3-inch digital cluster that is standard on the ST.

Switching to the sport mode, there is instant throttle response and the sound is downright yummy. The ST has a high-flow exhaust with less attenuation. Where there are holes in the exhaust note, it is enhanced for a full symphony, resulting in more volume as part of the throttle response. It makes you want to turn off the stereo and enjoy, something I was not expecting from an Explorer.

Shifts are also quicker—abrupt at times—but engineers say that is on purpose, as opposed to the more seamless shifts of the 10-speed automatic in the top-trim Platinum. In sport mode the transmission holds gears longer and when there is a hard brake, it will downshift to stay in the power band on the assumption the driver will get right back into it. When using the manual paddles the vehicle will do an automatic upshift when deemed necessary, and there were a few clunky downshifts. Using the paddles in drive, it will time out and revert back to drive in five seconds.

Sport mode also tightens steering to react quicker but that was hard to discern as, overall, the steering is a bit numb. Brakes provide strong and confident stopping power without being too harsh or grabby.

The acceleration is not neck-snapping but this 4,700-pound (2,132-kg) vehicle has strong get-up-and-go. There is no need for a V-8 like days of old. Bill Gubing, Explorer chief engineer, says consumers are not asking for V-8 power in this segment; they are not towing huge horse trailers. They just want effortless and fun, which engineers provide with the ST’s increased power and the 2020 Explorer which is about 200 pounds (91 kg) lighter. Being engineers, they have played with a V-8, Gubing admits with a smile, but they are not working on one with this platform, he insists.

Upgrades include an ST Street Pack ($995 USD) and ST High-Performance Pack ($1,595 USD) which offer 21-inch wheels, performance brakes with larger vented rotors, red brake calipers with stainless steel pistons and larger brake pads. Michelin Primacy 20-inch all-season tires are standard.

We tried the ST with 21-inch Pirelli Scorpion Zero all-seasons as part of the High Performance package and then switched to a model with the optional 21-inch Michelin Latitude Sport 3 summer tires which will be available this fall for $2,500 USD. We have no quibbles with either and there was no appreciable additional road noise with the larger tires.

The first Explorer rolled off the line in 1990 and it has been a truck-based body-on-frame SUV and a car-based front-drive crossover over its history. This sixth-generation vehicle not only shifts to the new rear-drive architecture but also expands the lineup. The base trims have Ford’s 2.3-liter turbo I-4 that generates 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque with the 10-speed automatic transmission. The top-end Platinum has the same 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 as the ST but with less output: 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. The other addition is the first Explorer Hybrid with a 318-hp, 336-lb-ft 3.3-liter V-6 mated to a 10-speed modular hybrid transmission.

The vehicle has not changed much in overall dimensions but the wheelbase grew by 6.3 inches, which made the cabin more spacious. The racier profile and short overhangs help erase the boxy look of the predecessor. Although the 2020 Explorer isn’t the best-looking entry in the segment, it is a refreshing new take and a solid entry. For a more stunning design, upgrade to the Lincoln Aviator which is on the same rear-drive platform and is offered with the same 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 as well as a plug-in hybrid that pairs that engine with an electric motor for an impressive 450 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque.

Inside, the Explorer ST has a flat-bottomed steering wheel with the ST logo, leather bucket seats and unique floor mats. The materials are much nicer than the long-in-the-tooth fifth-gen Explorer with a nice layout of the dash and assorted designs for the plastic trim pieces, although they still scream plastic. The cockpit is dominated by a 10.1-inch touchscreen in the portrait position to mimic a phone. Despite its pedestal stance, it is well integrated into its surroundings.

For 2020 there’s a full array of driver-assist technologies to steer, stop (even after a collision), speed up, park with the push of a button, reverse safely, switch to high-beams, and set the adaptive cruise control to obey changing speed limits—or consistently stay a set speed above the limit. A washer keeps the rear camera clean. A side wind mitigation system detects wind pushing against the vehicle and brakes to counteract. A seatbelt monitoring system lets you see each occupant buckle up and chimes if a belt releases during the drive.

Active Park Assist 2.0 is standard on the ST and makes parking almost idiot-proof. The original Park Assist system enabled the vehicle to steer itself but the driver had to shift, brake, and work the throttle. With 2.0, you push a button to activate the system, drive past a spot so the sensors get a good look at the space, and let the vehicle do all the work. Let go of the wheel, shift into neutral, release the brake, press and hold the parking button and the car will take over. It will shift, accelerate, steer, and brake until it is settled into the space and puts itself in park. The same process works to get out of the spot: initiated with the turn signal, and ending with a chime to tell the driver the car is in position and ready to be shifted into drive to continue the journey. If you want to park old school, the Explorer has a crisp camera view in front of and behind the vehicle, as well as well as a bird’s eye view.

Built in Chicago, the new Explorer is arriving in dealerships this month. The base Explorer 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.