STEVENSON, Washington—Now that Ford has all but banished cars from its U.S. lineup, it’s spending even more time concentrating on the modern stand-in for the trusty station wagon, the SUV. There’s this 2020 Ford Explorer that will try to hold on to first place in the midsize three-row segment when it goes on sale later this summer. After that, an all-new Ford Escape arrives, tasked with the unenviable goal of eating into Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, and Honda CR-V sales.
The Explorer’s goal is somewhat easier, though last calendar year it outsold the also-redesigned-for-2020 Toyota Highlander by just 17,060 units. This year, the newly arrived Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade probably will cut into Ford’s and Toyota’s market share, and there’s a three-row version of the next Jeep Grand Cherokee, a bullseye-direct competitor of the new Explorer, expected for the ’22 model year.
Ford’s move to a rear-wheel-drive, longitudinal-engine unibody platform for the Explorer and its more luxurious, more expressive Lincoln Aviator mechanical sibling is put to good use with better visual balance and shorter overhangs, and ought to have General Motors’ four divisions feel like also-rans in this profitable and important segment. Even if a north-south-located engine doesn’t affect the dash-to-axle length much in vehicles this tall, it works better for proportions and dynamics, especially when the overall length gets past 195 inches. The 2020 Ford Explorer offers a nice balance of ride and handling, with the proper amount of overall ride compliance and cornering composure for such a tall conveyance. Whether equipped with rear-drive or the available all-wheel-drive system with front-axle disconnect, it gets around twisty mountain roads as well as any big SUV (and probably with much less understeer than most front-drive-based competitors), even if its heft can’t overcome the law of physics.
That said, whether motivated by its adequately powerful 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder, its hybridized 3.3-liter V-6 powertrain, or its impressive 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6, there is nothing about the workaday Explorer’s dynamics that will encourage you to reach for its limits on roads like those we drove along the Columbia River in Northern Oregon and Southern Washington. (A review of the sporty ST model is coming later this week.) All powertrains are connected to Ford’s 10-speed automatic transmission, and all models come with seven selectable drive modes: Normal, Sport, Trail, Slippery, Tow/Haul, Eco, and Deep Sand/Snow.
The ’20 Ford Explorer is a good, competent mainstream three-row SUV, but it’s not the least bit overwhelming in its execution. It’s a vast improvement over the outgoing, front-drive-based model, so it’s kind of disappointing that the new model’s styling is very much an evolution of the old model’s. (This was apparently one of the things current owners said they wouldn’t change.) The 2011–19 Ford Explorer was an ill-packaged penalty box that sold well to families who apparently didn’t mind the large-on-the-outside, small-on-the-inside design. But even if they look similar, a more squared-off structure replaces the old model’s more tapered body sides, so interior elbow room is much better
But Ford stylists couldn’t keep from retaining the old model’s distinctive, raked C-pillar, and the grille and taillamp shapes are familiar, too, although grille mesh design differs by trim level. The various new Explorer interiors display acceptable fit and finish and are rather dark, with black dashboards offset only by thin horizontal accent strips with materials that range from chrome to open-pore wood, the latter in the trim-topping Explorer Platinum.
The Explorer Platinum and the ST are the only models that can be had with the twin-turbo V-6 (good for 365 horsepower in the Platinum; 400 in the ST), and all-wheel drive is standard with this engine. It’s torquey and powerful and it truly feels like an eight-cylinder; it’s hard not to compare it with the big, American straight-line performers of yore, say, the Ford Country Squire of a half-century ago, powered by the optional 390-cubic-inch V-8. The Explorer Platinum’s optional 21-inch wheels and tires sometimes feel like they’re leading the chassis along the road, thanks to too much unsprung weight. The big tires also make themselves heard on grainy surfaces, though these are minor complaints.
The Platinum we drove also came with the optional 10.1-inch-diagonal, tablet-style touchscreen with physical dials for volume and tuning; massaging seats (nice!); and a 980-watt, 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system. This touchscreen is placed low enough on the center stack that the top protrudes just above the dash pad, placing it nicely for minimal driver distraction. The color navigation screen for both the 10.1-inch and the standard 6.0-inch screens uses too much gray for road lines, however, making this one of the more confusing modern systems. Some commands came in too close to the actual turn, while other navigation commands didn’t make it clear which forked road to choose. With or without the big touchscreen, massaging seats, and zooty audio package, though, the 2020 Ford Explorer Platinum is no commodity vehicle, starting $1,315 north of the 2020 Lincoln Aviator Reserve.
The 300 horses you get with the 2020 Ford Explorer XL, XLT, or Limited’s Mustang-honed 2.3-liter EcoBoost will be more than most families will need, and it’s pretty impressive how the turbo four can power a big, heavy family hauler. Though we only wheeled a rear-drive version with no more than one passenger up and down the twisty esses north of the Columbia, this powertrain should have no problem shuttling vacationing families of six or seven (depending on whether you choose the captain’s chairs or second-row bench) across the Rockies.
The hybrid feels up to the task, too. Ford offered a moderate off-road comparo of an AWD 3.3-liter hybrid and AWD 2.3 EcoBoost along a course it says the rear-drive models can’t handle (an altimeter and hill-descent control are included with AWD). The hybrid was seamless on this course, though with the selectable drive mode in “Trail,” the engine was always operating. The hybrid version’s approval and development clearly occurred before any threat loomed the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules might be suspended. EPA figures were not posted prior to publication. It doesn’t seem likely, however, the hybrid’s fuel efficiency will be high enough to justify its $53,375 base price. Ford claims a 500-plus-mile range for the two-wheel-drive hybrid, and as its gas tank is nearly 20 gallons, that comes to just over 25 mpg.
The Explorer’s new rear-drive platform helps boost the 2.3-liter turbo four’s max towing capacity from 3,000 pounds to 5,300 pounds. In the hybrid, towing capacity is an even 5,000 pounds, and if you order the Platinum or ST with standard AWD and that muscular V-6, it’s 5,600 pounds, which might be enough to talk you out of the much larger, less-parkable Expedition.
Ford says the ’20 Explorer’s RWD architecture was designed as an SUV platform, even though plans to downsize it for the next Mustang has been the automaker’s worst-kept secret. The latest intel on the next Mustang is that its migration to this platform has been delayed to the mid-2020s at least, and that the platform will first underpin the next Ford Edge and Lincoln Nautilus. Until that happens, we’re happy to report that the new architecture has done America’s most popular three-row SUV a lot of good. It’s just too bad it isn’t more obvious to the naked eye.
2020 Ford Explorer Specifications
|ON SALE||Late Summer 2019|
|BASE PRICES||base, $33,860; XLT, $37,770; Limited, $49,225; Hybrid Limited, $53,375; Platinum, $59,345|
|ENGINES||2.3L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4, 300 hp, 310 lb-ft; 3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6 with electric motor, 318 hp, 322 lb-ft; 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6, 365 hp, 380 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD or AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||18–21/24–28 mpg (city/hwy); hybrid, TBD|
|L x W x H||198.8 x 78.9 x 69.9–70.2 in|