Test Drive:2020 Ford Explorer

Christian Wardlaw | Jun 20, 2019

Introduction

One of the best-selling SUVs in America, the Ford Explorer is completely redesigned for 2020. Based on a new vehicle architecture shared with the revived Lincoln Aviator and expected to form the basis for other future Ford Motor Company products, the 2020 Explorer is available in entry-level base, popular XLT, upscale Limited, performance-tuned ST, and luxurious Platinum trim levels.

You’ve got a choice between two turbocharged engines—a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder and a 3.0-liter V-6—and a hybrid powertrain based on a 3.3-liter V-6 engine. Rear-wheel drive is standard with a driveline disconnect all-wheel-drive system optional.

2020 Ford Explorer ST photo

With this redesign, Ford sets out to improve the Explorer in numerous ways. From on-pavement driving dynamics to off-pavement capability, and from safety engineering and systems to the infotainment technology, Ford aims to make the 2020 Explorer better than ever.

To learn more about this new SUV, and to sample it first-hand, Ford invited me to drive the new Explorer in the Portland, Oregon region.

Styling and Design

Though reflective of previous-generation styling cues that make this SUV instantly recognizable as a Ford Explorer, the 2020 model’s proportions are completely different. The move to a rear-drive platform reduces front overhang and places more of the greenhouse and cabin over the rear wheels, and both the upward sweep of the body character lines and tapered roof give the new Explorer an athletic stance.

Inside, the Explorer feels smaller and lower to the ground, but passenger and cargo space improves except for third-row-seat legroom. Digital instrumentation complements 8-in. horizontal and 10.1-in. vertical infotainment displays, and both the ST and Platinum trim levels are convincingly premium.

Up front, the driver and passenger sit on comfortable seats. The base and XLT trim offer standard cloth, with available Active-X leatherette for the XLT. Real leather upholstery is standard for Limited, ST, and Platinum trims, along with heated and ventilated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

All 2020 Explorers but the base trim have second-row captain’s chairs as standard equipment. You can swap them out for a 3-passenger bench seat, which costs $495. A shallow center tray with cupholders separates the captain’s chairs, making it easy to pass between them to enter the third-row seat.

Third-row comfort proves elusive—unless you’re a kid. The cushion is mounted low to the floor and is as flat as the proverbial park bench. Adults will be unhappy, even if people in the second row slide forward, because leg support is non-existent.

Features and Controls

With the new Explorer, Ford attempts to simplify configurations. As such, each trim level includes a generous list of standard equipment with most popular options bundled together in a handful of packages. There are few standalone extras. Prices are higher than the outgoing Explorer.

Inside, Ford delicately balances the need for controls and the desire to reduce visual clutter. The end result is a collection of knobs and buttons for primary functions that minimize interaction with the infotainment screen. A rotary transmission control knob might stir controversy, and the steering wheel contains numerous functions devoid of tactile definition, but otherwise the Explorer is easy to understand and use.

Storage space is generous, Ford missing few opportunities to carve trays, bins, and nooks into the cabin. Cargo space behind the third-row seat shrinks in comparison to the previous Explorer, from 21 cu. ft. to 18.2 cu. ft. Remaining cargo volume figures increase over the old Explorer, providing 47.9 cu. ft. behind the second-row seats and 87.8 cu. ft. with both rear rows folded flat.

Safety and Technology

The outgoing Ford Explorer did not perform well in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Given its role as a family vehicle, this needs correction with the redesign. New testing is not complete as this review is published, but Ford claims the 2020 Explorer is engineered to achieve top safety ratings.

Furthermore, Ford makes its complete suite of Co-Pilot360 technologies either standard or available on the new Explorer. This next-generation collection of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) operates with newfound accuracy and refinement, and proved effective during testing in the Pacific Northwest.

New for 2020, Ford’s Active Park Assist 2.0 debuts in the Explorer. It is a fully autonomous self-parking system that steers, brakes, accelerates, and shifts the transmission while the driver is sitting in the driver’s seat. The technology also extracts a vehicle from tight parking for you. During a demonstration, the system worked flawlessly.

The latest Sync 3 infotainment system is standard in the new Explorer. It uses an 8-in. horizontal display, with an upgrade to a 10.1-in. vertical display available for the ST and Platinum trim levels. Based on experience with both, I prefer the 8-in. display, which is better integrated visually. The larger screen looks like an iPad propped up against the air vents.

Highlights of Sync 3 include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, MyKey programmable vehicle features, FordPass Connect with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi connection, and 911 Assist. All but the base and XLT come with standard navigation, and a Bang & Olufsen-sourced audio system is exclusive to Limited, ST, and Platinum trims. It sounds terrific.

Driving Impressions

Ford provided opportunity to drive all versions of the 2020 Explorer except for the base model. Here are summaries of each driving experience:

The Explorer XLT and Limited benefit from responsive acceleration from the 300-horsepower, turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, and return decent fuel economy at an observed 21.7 mpg.
The Explorer Hybrid is the most efficient version (though at a 23.6-mpg test average not to the extent you might expect), easily tows weight closing in on its maximum rating of 5,000 lbs., and can tackle a challenging trail with the rest of the lineup.
If you want something fun to drive, look no further than the 400-horsepower, twin-turbocharged Explorer ST. And if you seek maximum capability be sure to upgrade to the optional High Performance package for its bigger brakes, wheels, and tires.
Blending the ST’s engine and available 21-in. wheels with the Explorer’s standard dynamic tuning, the plush Platinum trim gives you the best of both worlds, complete with premium leather and massaging front seats.

Every version of the new Explorer is rewarding to drive, but in different ways. My preference was the Platinum, but that experience comes with a big price tag.

Conclusion

In the midsize SUV segment, Ford faces more competition than ever. The new 2020 Explorer is up to that task.

Stumbles include reductions in both third-row comfort and cargo space when the rearmost seat is in use. Hybrid buyers will likely expect better fuel economy. And Platinum shoppers might decide that paying as much as $60,000 for a midsize SUV with a Ford badge on it makes little sense.

That makes the XLT and ST the most compelling versions of the new Explorer. Even when optioned up with all of the extras, the former delivers genuine value, while the latter is basically a sports wagon with true performance capability. Aside from the Dodge Durango SRT, there’s nothing quite like it at its price.

No matter which version of the 2020 Explorer you choose, though, you’ll be getting one of the best midsize 3-row SUVs you can buy.

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