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2020 Ford Explorer Test Drive Review
For nearly 30 years, the Ford Explorer has settled into the American lexicon like Cheerios. We've gobbled up millions of them, from the rock-crawling Eddie Bauers of the 1990s to the brand-new ST that can take down sports cars. The 2020 Explorer brings an all-new chassis, cranks up the technology, and introduces hybrid and high-performance powertrains in a space the size of a small living room. The Explorer's also getting very expensive while other automakers catch on to Ford's winning formula—for a lot less money.
Look and Feel
Since this section is titled Look and Feel, the "and" necessitates that both elements be rated together. This might seem unfair since the Explorer is such a great-looking vehicle. It's more handsome than the Land Rover Discovery, which totally bit Ford's style years after the previous-generation Explorer came out for 2011. The latest 2020 model refines that upscale, utilitarian design by removing excess fat from the body panels (particularly at the rear) and making this big 3-row truck appear lower and more athletic. The widened headlights, extra-large grille, and italic "Explorer" lettering on the hood's edge cast a prominent and recognizable face. I'd ditch the tiny taillights, but otherwise, the Explorer's proportions are textbook perfect. Need proof? The previous 2011–2019 models still sold like crazy, even after a decade on the road, which is one reason why Ford avoided a major redesign. The ST version I drove with black 21-inch rims, blacked-out trim, red brake calipers, rich Rapid Red paint, and quad exhaust pipes was positively hot. I liked being seen in it.
The problem is inside, and it's not just one part. It's the entire interior. Let's set the scene straight: 3-row SUVs now cost over $40,000. My test car was loaded for $60,000—which is Mercedes, Audi, and Lexus money. Whatever Ford calls leather feels like low-grade vinyl. Much of the door panels are awash in the same flimsy, rough-grained plastic as municipal garbage cans. More hard plastic frames the air vents, center stack, and center console. Fake carbon-fiber trim intersects with even more coarse plastic below. At least the top of the dashboard is padded. The aluminum speaker covers and some splashes of white stitching help break up the all-black monotony in my test car (you can't order the ST any other way), plus the switchgear feels solid. Do you like luxury? You'll find it in a Kia Telluride that costs $13,000 less than this Ford. It's a similar story with the all-new 2020 Toyota Highlander, which tops out at 50 grand. When you can easily buy a 1- or 2-year-old SUV from a real luxury automaker—let alone a new Lincoln or Volvo—for this price, it sets the Explorer up for failure. It's either too expensive or not nice enough. You pick.
A buyer's money will be well-spent on the available engines and the rear-wheel-drive (RWD) chassis, which allows for more even weight distribution than the old Explorer's Volvo-based front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform did. It's very significant that Ford invested so much in RWD—BMW and other luxury automakers rely on this setup. The benefit is immediate, especially on the ST trim, where Ford Performance (the same engineers who tuned the F-150 Raptor and Shelby GT350) upgrades the suspension and steering. Ride quality isn't plush on those large wheels, but it's never harsh or upset by imperfections in the road. This is all the more commendable since Ford does not use adaptive dampers that can better react to worsening surfaces. The Explorer ST turns with a crisp flick of the steering wheel, which is precise enough to hang tight with smaller cars on back roads. It's a nimble machine. Cornering is remarkably flat. Brake feel is superb, too. The smaller 2019 Edge ST we reviewed is inferior in every dynamic respect.
Armed with that terrific chassis, the ST's powertrain is also a sweet spot. It's a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 400 horsepower, 415 pound-feet of torque, and a 10-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive (AWD) is optional on all trims. Aside from an occasional jerk while downshifting, the ST delivers smooth, uninterrupted power that's very addictive. Switching to Sport mode doesn't race the transmission, either—it's smart and calms down when you do. There's no other non-luxury SUV that can keep up with this Explorer at this price. The Dodge Durango SRT is faster, but it retails for much more money. Thankfully, this same delightful engine can be ordered on the softer-tuned Platinum trim with a hair less output—365 hp and 380 lb-ft. Among the competition, absolutely nothing touches it for power, delivery, and overall refinement.
The majority of Explorer models will sell with a 2.3-liter turbo inline four, which produces a stout 300 hp and 310 lb-ft. Remember, this engine also does duty in the Mustang and provides the base for the fiery Focus RS, so it's no slouch in an SUV. A gas-electric hybrid option is available in the Limited, which gets covered as a separate model. That version combines a single electric motor with a 3.3-liter V6 for a net 318 hp. I haven't driven it, but I won't recommend you do, either. The $4,150 upcharge does not bring a tangible fuel-economy benefit like choosing the hybrid Toyota Highlander. The hybrid is rated at 23 mpg city, 26 highway, and 25 combined with AWD. An AWD Explorer XLT and the standard Limited deliver 20/27/23. The turbo V6 does penalize you at the pump. In either ST or Platinum trim with AWD, the Explorer is rated at 18/24/20. I averaged 18 mpg over 960 mostly highway miles—but admittedly, many of those miles passed with a heavier foot on the throttle than most drivers have.
Towing capacity is 5,000 pounds with the hybrid powertrain, which is the same as the previous model. However, the regular 4-cylinder can tow up to 5,300 pounds, and the V6 with AWD can handle 5,600 pounds. A towing package with a Class III trailer hitch mounted to the frame and an additional cooler for the engine oil is required.
Ford also offers seven drive modes that go beyond the usual normal, sport, and eco settings. Separate modes for rocks, sand, snow, and towing modulate the throttle, traction control, shifting, and steering for optimum performance. Twist and click. Easy.
Form and Function
I took the Explorer on a Christmas road trip to Maine with my parents, and we each had gobs of space—and plenty more room for all our camera gear behind the second row. Air vents galore, USB ports, a handy center console for drinks and tablets, and an expansive panoramic moonroof make the second row feel like first class. Where the previous Explorer felt tight in spots, the new one is airier, especially in the third row. Six-foot-tall adults can fit there for short journeys without feeling claustrophobic or having to duck. The bench is too flat for long-distance comfort, but with the wide rear-door openings and easy-exit second-row captain's chairs—press a button and they spring forward and fold—it's doable. To do this, Ford cut back on cargo space behind those seats (which can power-fold up and down). That area now measures 18 cubic feet instead of 21. But I'll take more human space any day. Behind the second row is 48 cubic feet. With all seats folded, it's 88. These are up considerably versus the old model's 44 and 82 cubic feet. The Explorer now has one of the largest cargo areas in the class.
After experimenting with touch-sensitive dashboards, the new Explorer shows no evidence of that ergonomic disaster. Physical knobs and switches control the climate and stereo, although adjusting the fan direction still requires you to move up to the touchscreen and complete your selection. I also dislike the thick D-pillars that, like on the old Explorer, block my view to the rear and create unnecessary blind spots. Making things worse are the fuzzy 360-degree cameras. But otherwise, driving the Explorer is simple, intuitive, and stress-free, even with the option of my test car's tall touchscreen and an all-digital dash.
An 8-inch touchscreen with Sync 3 infotainment, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and 4G WiFi come standard. Factory navigation is standard on all models except the base XLT, where it's optional. Keyless entry, remote start, 3-zone climate control, and SiriusXM satellite radio also come standard. So does Ford's keyless entry keypad, which lets you input a five-digit code using hidden touch-sensitive buttons on the driver's door. Yes, I realize that's decades-old tech next to FordPass Connect, the automaker's smartphone app that can remotely unlock the vehicle from anywhere, but it's too good to ignore. Say you're exercising and don't want to bring your bulky wallet, phone, and keys. Lock them in the car, input the code, and you're off.
My test car came with a 10-inch vertical touchscreen and a 12-inch digital instrument cluster as part of the Premium Technology Package reserved for ST and Platinum models. The touchscreen makes viewing the map much easier, as it can display more of the road ahead. It's a well-organized, high-res interface that makes changing settings, such as the available massaging seats, a breeze. Otherwise, aside from using Amazon Alexa and Waze on screen, it's not terribly innovative (unfortunately, system updates are allowed only through an external WiFi connection, not through the car's 4G modem).
The instrument panel isn't too innovative, either. It's fun to see pretty animations of the southwest, falling snow, and multiple layouts when you switch driving modes. It's also fun that Ford changes the lead car when the adaptive cruise control is active (you follow a Mustang when it's in Sport, an F-150 when in the off-road modes, and a Fusion at all other times). But the driver cannot customize the gauge layout. And so much of the screen is wasted—many times, there's nothing but blank space below the audio information, and there's no way to view the map at any size, let alone full-screen. It feels unfinished. So does the Co-Pilot360 Assist+, a semi-automated driving system available on every Explorer. It doesn't track lanes as well as competitors' systems do, and it is too aggravating to use as a driving assistant. I think the Explorer's tech is a few software updates away from greatness.
Ford Co-Pilot 360 comes standard with forward emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, auto high beams, and lane-keep assist. The Assist+ option brings adaptive cruise control with a steering assist and reverse braking, which activated falsely while I was reversing into a parking space and scared the heck out of me. A passenger front knee airbag is standard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not yet tested the 2020 Explorer, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has put it through five of its six crash tests. In the small overlap test on the driver's side, the Explorer scored Acceptable—not what I'd expect in a brand-new vehicle, but not enough to ding my score too much.
Ford sells a fleet-only Explorer, but for all intents and purposes, the 2020 Explorer starts at $36,675 for the XLT RWD trim. Option the XLT with AWD, a moonroof, front and rear heated seats, and more convenience features like an auto-dimming rear-view mirror for just over $46,000, and it still looks reasonably priced. However, considering you can buy a loaded, equally roomy Kia Telluride with a V6 engine and a gorgeous, pampering interior for the same price, and suddenly the Explorer doesn't look as good. It gets less attractive when you compare it to high-end versions of the Toyota Highlander and Subaru Ascent (both brand-new for 2020) that peak at 50 grand. Choosing the Explorer's V6 commands 60 grand when it's all said and done. In any trim, this is just too much money for a vehicle that doesn't feel that expensive inside, where everyone is spending all their quality time on those long trips. The exterior styling and overall performance are superb. But you pay a premium for them, and I'm not totally convinced that's the right play in this very competitive market. Check back in a year or two, and grab one used—you'll be more impressed.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
What's your take on the 2020 Ford Explorer?
2020 Ford Explorer Top Comparisons
Users ranked 2020 Ford Explorer against other cars which they drove/owned. Each ranking was based on 9 categories. Here is the summary of top rankings.
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I have a 2020 ford explorer. Only had it for about 4 months. I have started to notice that when the A/C is on, recert also on, that it will sometimes create a bad odor coming from the vents. Someti...
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tried to pick up a new explorer 2020. Spare tire well filled with water dripping out from right rear tire area. Also electric fold-down seats not working
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