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2020 Ford Explorer: First Drive Review

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceAll New
A pioneer of the sport-utility vehicle segment, the Ford Explorer has been one of the best-selling SUVs in America for almost 30 years. Since its introduction back in 1991, close to eight million Explorers have been sold. Most would call that a rather successful run. However, it’s been almost 10 years since this iconic SUV’s last complete overhaul. Even though the current Explorer remains a popular candidate among SUV offerings on the U.S. market, Ford is not content to rest on its laurels. As a result, later this summer an all-new 2020 Ford Explorer will begin arriving in showrooms with a fresh look and a range of new features and trims — including the first Explorer hybrid and high-performance Explorer ST.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceDesign Challenge
It’s never easy to redesign a vehicle that has an established history and is already doing well. Automakers have learned some hard lessons when new designs stray too far from iconic elements that contributed to a vehicle’s reputation in the first place. The new version needs to be fresh, but still has to carry over particular elements that have made it successful. “We obsessed about what Explorer customers need and want,” said Bill Gubing, Explorer chief engineer. “We met with customer groups, pored through internet forums, and dissected social media posts to determine what they love about today’s Explorer and understand their pain points. Then we found ways to improve it across the board. Every enhancement on this all-new Explorer was inspired by our customers,” Gubing noted.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceFamiliar Styling
Although the 2020 Explorer has been completely reimagined, designers retained enough original styling cues to keep this popular SUV recognizable as an Explorer. But the new model looks sportier than it has in the past, thanks to a more sculpted body, sloping roofline and shorter overhangs at the front and rear. Up front the grille is larger and wider, flush with narrow LED headlights. This gives Explorer a wider and more athletic stance, further enhanced by horizontal fog lights below. At the rear are larger LED taillights as well as available quad exhaust outlets.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceRear-Wheel Drive
Ford has also returned to a rear-wheel-drive platform for the Explorer — the first time since the front-drive fifth generation debuted in 2011. This new rear-wheel-drive architecture provided engineers and designers more flexibility when creating the new Explorer as well as improving overall performance.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceModel Lineup
The 2020 Ford Explorer is available in four trim levels: XLT, Limited, Platinum and ST. Rear-wheel drive is standard on the XLT and Limited; Intelligent 4-Wheel Drive can be added for $2,000. Four-wheel drive is standard on the Platinum and ST. The Limited can also be equipped with a hybrid powertrain — a first for the Explorer.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceSafety
Ford has equipped all Explorers with a suite of safety features called Co-Pilot360. This includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, cross traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, post-impact braking, automatic high-beam headlights and a rearview camera with built-in lens washer.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceFord Explorer XLT
With a base retail price of $36,675, the Explorer XLT comes well equipped with tri-zone climate control, pushbutton start, power front seats, a 6-speaker audio system, 8-inch touchscreen display, multiple USB ports, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, second-row captain’s chairs with E-Z Entry, a reverse sensing system, power liftgate, LED signature lighting, a rear bumper step pad, roof rails, trailer sway control and 18-inch aluminum wheels.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceFord Explorer Limited
A step up from the XLT, the Explorer Limited starts at $48,130. Although this is a hefty price jump from the XLT, the Limited adds a lot of standard equipment. Upgrades over the XLT include leather-trimmed seats with heating and cooling, a heated steering wheel, voice-activated touchscreen navigation, power-folding third-row seats, a 360-degree view camera, a wireless charging pad, and a 12-speaker premium B&O audio system. Also standard are LED fog lights, a bright silver-mesh grille, a foot-activated liftgate and 20-inch polished aluminum wheels.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceCo-Pilot360 Assist+
The more advanced Co-Pilot360 Assist+ is also standard in the 2020 Explorer on the Limited and higher trims. This package adds adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, lane centering and evasive steering assist. The system also includes speed sign recognition — if the adaptive cruise control is set, the system will automatically slow down or speed up to match the posted speed limit. Ford recognizes that some drivers prefer to drive a bit faster than the limit, so a variance can be programmed so the Explorer will maintain the speed limit plus a driver-chosen number up to 10 mph over the limit.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceFord Explorer ST
The high-performance version of the 2020 Explorer, the ST has a starting price of $54,740. The ST sets itself apart from the rest of the Explorer lineup with a black mesh grille, black EXPLORER badge on hood, black bodyside cladding, black roof rails, quad chrome-trimmed exhaust outlets, blackout treatment on the headlights, a sport-tuned suspension and 20-inch machined aluminum wheels. Inside are sport captain’s chairs and a sport steering wheel with paddle shifters. The Explorer ST has the power to match its sporty styling with a 400-horsepower EcoBoost engine under the hood.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceFord Explorer Platinum
The top-level trim of the new Explorer has a starting price of $58,250. Whereas the ST takes a sportier route from the Limited, the Platinum’s direction leans more toward luxury. Upgrades over the Limited include a satin aluminum finish on the grille, door handles, bodyside cladding and liftgate applique, as well as 20-inch bright machined-face wheels. The luxurious interior features tri-diamond perforated leather-trimmed seats, leather and wood trim, a twin-panel moonroof, adaptive headlights, security approach lighting and LED turn signal indicators.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceParking and Braking
The ST and Platinum come standard with the latest version of Active Park Assist 2.0. This innovative system will automatically park the Explorer in a parallel or perpendicular parking space. Drivers simply activate the Park Assist, and when a parking space is found the system instructs the driver to put the car in neutral, remove hands from steering wheel and pedals and hold the park assist button down. The Explorer does the rest: shifting gears, steering and braking. This system is quite impressive — it practically eliminates the need to learn how to parallel park. Reverse brake assist is also standard, which will automatically stop the Explorer if it detects an object in its path while backing up.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceUnder the Hood
The 2020 Ford Explorer is available with three engine options. Powering the XLT and Limited is a 2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine producing 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to either the rear wheels or all four wheels with the available intelligent four-wheel drive with front-axle disconnect.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperiencePowerful EcoBoost
Ford also offers the new Explorer with a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6. In the Platinum trim the engine generates 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque. For the ST, this engine gets bumped up to 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque for maximum performance.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceHybrid Powertrain
For the first time, Ford is offering the Explorer with a hybrid powertrain. Available only on the Limited, the hybrid powertrain features a 3.3-liter V6 teamed with an electric motor to produce a total of 318 horsepower. The Hybrid employs a specially-designed liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery built into the Explorer chassis. The battery pack is mounted below the second-row seats to eliminate any reduction in cargo or passenger space. The hybrid is also available with rear- or 4-wheel drive.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceTransmission
The non-hybrid powerplants of the new Explorer are teamed with a smooth-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission. The hybrid uses a new 10-speed modular hybrid transmission. Fuel economy numbers have not yet been announced; however, the claimed 500-plus mile range for the Hybrid would reflect at least 27 mpg.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceInner Space
Ford has done a nice job with the layout of controls in the 2020 Explorer so important features are easily accessible. The touchscreen display offers easy access to phone and navigation, while climate controls are separate buttons. Volume and tuning knobs are not a given in new vehicles these days, so we are happy to see Ford has kept them in the new Explorer.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceTall Screen
One of the standout features in the new Explorer is the optional 10.1-inch vertical display screen. The tablet-like display doesn’t fully integrate into the dashboard design — in fact it looks like it should be removable. That said, the screen’s clarity makes it easy to use, and there’s plenty of real estate for multiple functions to appear at once.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceSeats
Front seats in the 2020 Ford Explorer are relatively comfortable with multiple adjustments depending on the chosen trim level. Heating and cooling are quickly accessible and work well. However, some may find the seat bottoms a little short, which can cause fatigue over a long drive.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceSecond Row
Surprisingly, the second-row seats of the new Explorer come standard as a pair of captain’s chairs — a bench seat that provides 7-passenger seating is only available on the XLT and Platinum trims. To get these seats on the XLT requires purchasing the 202A package for a total bump in price of $4,635. The bench-seating option on the Platinum runs an additional $495.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceThird Row
Access to the third row of the 2020 Ford Explorer is easy thanks to the quick fold-and-slide action of the second-row seat. While the space in this rear-most seat is not bad — plenty of headroom and hip room; a rarity in the aft row of many SUVs — the seat is practically on the floor, which puts occupants’ knees in their faces — even those who aren’t that tall.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceCargo Space
The 2020 Explorer offers a good amount of space behind the third row when it is in position, with the added versatility of cubbies and other small storage areas. With the third row folded, the Explorer can handle almost 50 cubic feet of cargo.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceYakima Accessories
Ford has teamed up with Yakima to provide a range of accessories that make the Explorer the ultimate camping and adventure vehicle.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceTowing
As Ford made plans for the next-gen Explorer, it became clear that consumers wanted the SUV to have proper towing capabilities. The switch to a rear-drive platform has increased maximum towing capacity for all engine options. Maximum towing capability is 5,600 pounds with the 3.0-liter EcoBoost engine; even the 2.3-liter engine can handle up to 5,300 pounds of trailer weight, and the hybrid will pull up to 5,000 pounds. We had the opportunity to pull a 4,500-pound boat with the Explorer Platinum and found the updated SUV provided a confident ride. Acceleration is strong and Explorer feels stable even when the road gets a bit curvy.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOn the Road
During a press junket in central Oregon we had an opportunity to spend some time behind the wheel of a variety of Explorer trim levels, and despite possessing differing characteristics, they all bring a lot to the table (or road). The XLT is easily the best value of them all – not only is it the least expensive trim, the 2.3-liter engine offers up a great blend of performance and fuel efficiency. For most consumers the acceleration with this base powertrain will be more than adequate. The ride is comfortable, and handling is quite good for a larger SUV.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceOff-Road
Although most 2020 Explorer buyers probably won’t be spending much time off-road, the new SUV is certainly capable once the pavement ends. The ride remains rather smooth even when the terrain is not, and the intelligent four-wheel drive system provides plenty of traction. All Explorer 4-wheel drive variants come standard with hill-descent control as well as Ford’s Terrain Management System, which allows the driver to set the vehicle up with one of seven selectable drive modes, ranging from deep snow and sand to trail to tow/haul. Ground clearance is around 8 inches.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceST Trim
The most powerful of the Explorer variants, the ST is great fun to drive. Acceleration is very strong, accompanied by a pleasing exhaust note. Steering feels precise and even though this is still a big vehicle, the ST handles quite well, even on winding roads. We like that drivers can enjoy the ST’s performance without sacrificing the utility and capability of this SUV. The Start/Stop functionality was especially impressive — many vehicles seems to take too long to restart, but the Explorer restart with the EcoBoost engine is instantaneous.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperiencePlatinum
Although the XLT doesn’t seem particularly loud, the Platinum is noticeably quieter thanks to its acoustic-laminate windows all around. Not quite as powerful as the ST, the Platinum still sports the larger EcoBoost engine and never lacks for power.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceHybrid
The first Explorer Hybrid is a bit of a mixed bag on the road. There’s plenty of power produced by the hybrid system; and while it has a 10-speed gearbox, the performance doesn’t feel as crisp as the other non-hybrid powertrains. At slower speeds during our drive we were able to cruise in electric-only mode, but when the gas engine turns back on it seems to be a bit noisy. As mentioned previously, EPA figures have not been released for the Hybrid (nor any of the Explorers, for that matter), but the trip computer never exceeded 20 mpg during our short drive. We hope the actual fuel economy numbers will be better.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceRight for You?
Ford has taken the already popular Explorer and made it better in nearly every way. With fresh styling and a lineup of new engines, the 2020 Explorer checks all the boxes with off-road capability, towing prowess and a wide range of high-tech safety and convenience features. Built at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, the updated Explorer is certainly worthy of consideration for anyone looking for a 6- or 7-passenger SUV.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content ExperienceRating: 8.5
Pros: Attractive styling; powerful engine options; advanced technology.
Cons: Cramped third row; 7-passenger seating optional; hybrid not as efficient as expected.
Bottom Line: Explorer should easily continue as one of the most popular SUVs in America.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience2020 Ford Explorer

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Published on: June 20, 2019

Filled Under: Automotive Content Experience

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