Ford could have waited another year to launch a completely re-designed Explorer, and thus make a big fuss over it being the 30th anniversary of the nameplate that arguably got the four-door, family-focused SUV segment rolling in earnest. The fact that they didn’t is just one of the many ways Ford is showing they’ve not only listened to customer feedback, but are acting on it as well. The outgoing fifth-generation Explorer was a run-of-the-mill crossover using a front-wheel-drive-based layout; the sixth-generation model, however, returns to a rear-wheel-drive-based layout. This brings with it a number of benefits, such as improved overall balance and handling, towing capacity and interior volume. By retaining unibody construction while switching to the rear-wheel-drive layout, customers get the best of both worlds: a capable SUV that’s as easy to drive as a midsize car.
The Good: First and foremost, the 2020 model is the best-looking Explorer Ford has built. Regardless of whether you opt for the Base, XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, ST or Platinum, you get nicely sculpted sheet metal, with thoughtful variations on the theme by model. A well-equipped base model with seating for seven and the standard, comparatively strong 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four engine sets the tone for the 2020 Explorer line. The smallest engine’s quality is bolstered by the smooth shifting 10-speed automatic, but that transmissions shines brighter when paired with the high-output variant of Ford’s EcoBoost 3.0-liter V-6 found in the sporty ST.
The transmission does a great job slowing the vehicle when towing a trailer, and even offers a low first-gear ratio that does a decent job mimicking a traditional 4WD vehicle’s low-range when Trail, Sand or Snow mode is selected. In fact, the Explorer is far more capable off-road than one would expect just looking at it, thanks to a short front overhang and decent departure angles.
Who It’s For: Putting visions of a Baja-spec Explorer Raptor aside, it’s easy to understand who Ford is angling to bring into the fold here. Families of various sizes and ages are the main target, especially those that often leave near-urban environments in search of rural getaways. The return to a rear-wheel-drive platform also signals that Ford wants the boat and camper crowd back, as well as the weekend warriors who might have a vintage Mustang that needs a lift to a track day. (Visions of an Explorer ST towing a Grabber Blue ‘71 Boss 302 seem delightful.)
Watch Out For: Base and Limited models are competitively priced with their competition, but there’s some standard equipment missing in the active safety system department. This has long been an underlying issue with Ford, who is as adept at serving up a la carte options as any German automaker. As a result, the price of an Explorer can easily rise from its published starting point.
Interior materials in the Limited and Platinum models don’t exactly live up to their names. Base, XLT and ST models were satisfactory, if not impressive; however, in the more upscale models, I wondered why certain touchpoints were not softer, covered with better leather or made with noticeably higher quality hard materials.
Review: While I spent time behind the wheel of each of the six new Explorer models — on pavement and off, towing and unburdened, in RWD and AWD specs — it was the Explorer ST that seemed the most worthy of praise. Compared to the Edge ST, which was little more than the application of a badge to an old platform, the Explorer ST is a dramatically better vehicle.
With 400 horsepower on tap, it’s fast — but more importantly, it feels fast, not an easily-accomplished feat with a three-row SUV. More surprising than the sensation of speed is how it goes around corners so nicely, without any sense that you’re battling the weight of the damn thing. Happily, the balance of purpose is maintained, so even with 21-inch wheels and a sport suspension, the ST’s remains plenty comfortable. The chunky steering wheel specific to the ST is yet another welcome surprise, and a joy to hold onto. There are purpose-built sports cars that don’t have tillers this good, let alone myriad crossovers and SUVs with sporting aspirations.
All that being said, every Ford employee I spoke with about how the Explorer ST spoke about how they sought to go beyond past Explorers in terms of sportiness, while still retaining all the traditional qualities of a family-friendly SUV. Take the front seats, for example –truly some of the best I’ve parked my butt in lately, in terms of comfort. The three-way adjustable independent lumbar support is a clear indication that Ford expects drivers to spend extended periods of time in the seat, while the six different massage options drive that point home — and embarrass a number of luxury automakers. Those folks hoping for deeply bolstered chairs like those from the Fiesta and Focus ST may be disappointed at the lack of lateral support and adjustable bolsters would be a nice option, but that remains a rarity in this segment, particularly with domestic automakers.
The use of interior space is highly efficient; from passenger seating to cargo storage, I couldn’t find any missed opportunities to make the cabin more comfortable or accommodating. There’s reconfigurable storage at the rear, the requisite power fold-flat seating and stash spots throughout — all of what you’d expect in a vehicle in this class, but all one quite right. The center armrest storage proved quite useful for holding my full-frame mirrorless digital camera and its large lens and battery grip, allowing quick access while letting me keep my camera bag secured in the back. The wireless charging mat that sits at an angle at the rear of the center console was also much appreciated. It’s a much better solution than having it take up space inside the armrest, where far too much transmission heat gets trapped, potentially damaging your device.
The giant vertically-mounted 10.1-inch tablet that anchors the dash may be off-putting to some, but it fits with the rest of the design and operates smoothly. Let’s face it, there’s not much more you can ask of an infotainment system; screens rarely beautiful, but they’ve become necessary in vehicles over the past decade, so surely we can all appreciate a thoughtful approach when we see it.
Perhaps that’s the best way to sum up not only the ST, but the new Explorer overall. Nobody is going to call it beautiful, but it’s not hard to find attractive qualities inside and out. Certainly, a lot of thought went into it — thought guided by lessons learned from past mistakes. The result is a vehicle that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Verdict: By considering what’s underneath all the metal and leather, you can understand what an undertaking redesigning the Explorer was for the folks at Ford — and how important it was to them to bring their A-game. The brand’s line of trucks and SUVs are certainly their standard-bearers and the Mustang will remain an icon for all-time, but the Explorer nameplate carries weight too — especially with Eighties babies who remember a T. rex eye appearing through the window of one in Jurassic Park. Perhaps for the first time since it was a boxy body-on-frame SUV, the Explorer is worthy of more than a passing glance, much of that due to excellent powertrains and thoughtful packaging. Ford finds themselves on solid ground with the first year of the sixth-generation Explorer, and they should be in good shape for the future if they continue to incorporate the best aspects of their past.
2020 Ford Explorer ST Specs
Price as Tested: $55,835
Powertrain: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6, 10-speed automatic, all-wheel-drive
Torque: 418 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 5.5 seconds
Ford hosted us and provided this product for review.
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