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2020 Ford Explorer Review

LIKES
  • Great ride and handling
  • Attractive profile, styling
  • Soft, nicely detailed cabin
  • Quiet interior
DISLIKES
  • Cramped third row
  • Sluggish/drab infotainment
  • Hybrid emphasizes capability, not mpg
BUYING TIP
  • The 2020 Explorer is the best value near the bottom of its lineup—in base or XLT form. If you’re willing to spend more, you might…


The 2020 Ford Explorer rediscovers its capable, outdoorsy side without becoming trucklike in any other respect.

The 2020 Ford Explorer represents more than a mere evolution of the Explorer’s family-meets-outdoors template; with the first major redesign given to this mainstream, mid-size family SUV in nine model years, it follows a completely different game plan.

What’s different? Just about everything but a few familiar design cues. With the 2020 Explorer, Ford has produced is a vehicle that’s better in nearly every way than the former model.

The Explorer’s attractive design and its excellent ride and handling and well-appointed interior all factor into this model’s 6.8 rating on our overall scale—a number that will likely change when official crash-test data is available.

The 2020 Explorer built on a fresh rear-wheel-drive platform that enables a 200-pound weight drop in base form versus last year. A new generation of turbo-4 and V-6 engines provides power to most of the lineup, with a 10-speed automatic transmission for all. The high-performance ST model gets a cranked-up version of the turbo V-6 making 400 horsepower.

Four-wheel drive and a multi-mode driving system with off-road-oriented and towing modes are offered on most of the lineup. For the first time you can choose a hybrid version of the Explorer. The Limited Hybrid model—appropriate, as the hybrid is limited to the Limited trim—subs in a 44-hp motor unit at the input end of the transmission plus a 3.3-liter non-turbo V-6.

The Explorer’s ride is soft and comfortable, with an underlying firmness to give it reasonably good handling. A quiet cabin and good seating in the first two rows make it a serene place for four or five, whether you get a version with the bench seat or captain’s chairs in the second row. The third row is a different story, though; it’s hard to get to and, compared to most other models in this class, too low and cramped to be comfortable. But the third row folds easily—with power on some models—and the cargo floor is flat for big-box purchases or building supplies.

Base and XLT versions of the 2020 Explorer score well in value; the $33,860 base model includes a power liftgate, LED headlights, an 8.0-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, plus safety features that include automatic emergency braking. XLT and Limited models step up the features, while the top-of-the-line Platinum and sporty ST variant get the turbo V-6.

Styling
The 2020 Ford Explorer shows hints of truck heritage on the outside but looks and feels very carlike inside.

The 2020 Ford Explorer is a pleasant-looking vehicle with a cohesive design inside and out. It looks a little more carlike than before on the inside, a little less like a plus-sized car on the outside.

We award the 2020 Explorer 7 out of 10 for its pleasing proportions on the outside plus a well-coordinated cabin design with more distinctive finishes than is typical on today’s other mainstream three-row family wagons.

On the outside, if Ford made a misstep here it’s that the new Explorer looks a little too much like its predecessor at first glance.

That’s probably because one of the Explorer’s hallmarks, its thick side pillars that angle forward just behind the second-row seats, carries over to this generation. It tends to be a focal point when you see the model for the first time.

Once you linger on the details a bit more, the Explorer’s very different proportions set in—it’s certainly less bulbous than the previous Explorer and many three-row rivals and manages to look stockier and more chiseled. Depending on what you see the Explorer near, the profile from the side can look just as much like a tall boxy sport wagon as like a lowered, sized-down version of the Expedition, Ford’s even larger SUV.

The 2020 Explorer has about exactly the same length and width and ground clearance as its predecessor, and it’s less than an inch shorter in overall height. However it rides on a wheelbase that’s 7 inches longer than the previous Explorer.

Inside the Explorer there’s more of a carlike flow to the design of the dash and door trim. The more vertical orientation of the previous Explorer’s dash and center stack is gone, and the 2020 Explorer’s dash feels lower as a whole, with a more layered design theme. The screens have been moved higher up, closer to the line of sight, with climate control vents flanking the screens.

The layered look itself is soft, curvaceous, and nuanced, with a set of hard buttons for sound system and climate functions, plus trim that wraps outward from that area to form a beltline that, in some versions, shows off some distinctive trim.

Performance
The 2020 Ford Explorer lineup rides and handles beautifully—and offers a Hybrid with all the capabilities of other versions.

The 2020 Ford Explorer lineup consists of base (Explorer), XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, Platinum, and ST models. The majority of Explorers will come with a base 2.3-liter turbo-4 that makes 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Limited Hybrid versions step up to a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 3.3-liter V-6, as part of a modular-hybrid 10-speed automatic transmission setup, that makes 318 combined hp and 322 lb-ft. Platinum versions get a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 that makes 365 hp and 380 lb-ft.

We rate the 2020 Ford Explorer at 7 out of 10 points in Performance for its excellent ride and handling and well-rounded set of capabilities, including towing and off-roading.

Of the two non-hybrid engines our pick is probably the base turbo-4, which provides a lighter, more nimble feel overall while feeling just as perky at city speeds. Only at faster highway speeds (and very full loads, we would assume) does the turbo V-6 justify itself.
Both non-hybrid engines come with a stop/start system that shuts off the engine at stoplights and restarts it when you lift off the brake pedal. All models in the lineup include a suite of drive modes—Normal, Sport, Trail, Slippery, Tow/Haul, and Eco. Snow and Sand modes are added in four-wheel-drive versions.

Overall drivability of the Hybrid system was disappointing at times, with its troubles most noticeable as shudders and indecision in the 15-to-40 mph range, when rolling on and off the accelerator gently. The Hybrid system got better the harder we drove it; Ford engineers told us that with a conventional torque converter plus the motor, it’s calibrated to make no sacrifices to driveline shock under the rigors of towing or off-roading. One unexpected bonus is that the Hybrid is the perkiest model of the whole lineup (in terms of accelerator response) at lower city speeds, where the e-motor does its best work. This hybrid system will cruise on electricity alone up to around 50 mph, but you have to drive it very gently to find it. Ford hasn’t released acceleration numbers for the Explorer lineup, but based on testing already done with the Police Interceptor version of the Explorer, the top-performing ST should easily hit 60 mph in well under 6 seconds.

Explorer ST models step up to a higher-output version of the 3.0-liter turbo that makes 400 hp and 415 lb-ft, as well as a firmer suspension tune all around. They also have a system that pipes in simulated sporty engine sounds into the cabin.

Across the board, compared to the previous generation of the Explorer and to other spacious three-row family SUVs, the new Explorer has a great ride and its ride motions feel nicely buttoned-down. It’s soft and muted, with an underlying firmness revealed if you push harder into a corner or transition, or when you barrel rapidly through major heaves or potholes. This generation of the Explorer also has fewer smaller motions in general than inside other three-row SUVs—perhaps the product of its 7-inch longer wheelbase versus last year’s model. The result is less larger-scale bobbing and bounding as well.

On the road, the Explorer handles like a lower sport wagon and is now the best, or nearly the best, in its class for handling with body motions that aren’t unsettled by tight esses or quick lane-change transitions. Brakes are reassuring and abrupt brake applications involve less of the dramatic nosedive that can be an expected part of the experience in big three-row crossovers.

It’s noteworthy that the Ford Explorer Hybrid makes no significant sacrifices off-road ability or in towing capability versus the other versions. Ground clearance remains the same, and the Hybrid is rated at 5,000 pounds for towing, versus up to 5,300 pounds for the turbo-4 and 5,600 pounds for the turbo V-6.

Comfort & Quality
The 2020 Ford Explorer is comfortable and versatile for a family of four, but bigger families may find the third row a dealbreaker.

With a from-scratch redo, the 2020 Ford Explorer now has great fit and finish and a layout of the Explorer that includes a great driving position and feels just right—as long as you’re not in the disappointing third row.

We give the 2020 Ford Explorer 9 out of 10 points for its plentiful passenger and cargo space and its seats; we also appreciate the detail-oriented cabin fit and top-notch finishes. The tight third row is a demerit that anyone considering the Explorer should be aware of, but it doesn’t drop the score in our system.

The Explorer’s driving position is now more aligned with what you’ll find in German luxury SUVs like the Mercedes-Benz GLE or BMW X5. In the Explorer, you sit a bit lower—in the vehicle—and yet the dash and cowl are low enough to afford a good forward view. Thigh and back support is good for the driver, although we’ve noticed that across the lineup you don’t get the same level of adjustability on the passenger side.

Second-row accommodations in the Explorer are split between a bench seat (seven-passenger) and two captain’s chairs (six-passenger). We’d go with the latter, although both setups offer good comfort and enough space to sprawl out.

The third row is where the Explorer just doesn’t measure up to the adult-level space found in other three-row models such as the Honda Pilot or Subaru Ascent. Getting into or out of the third row requires some contorting for adults, and getting the second-row seats back into position requires more muscle than it should. But it’s the combination of a very low seating position plus very little leg room—even with the second row slid forward—that makes the third row for kids only.

Cargo space of 18.2 cubic feet behind the third row in the Explorer is top-notch. Tthe 50/50-split third-row seatbacks are power folding in many of the trims, and can fold to a flat cargo floor that works for big boxes or building materials. Behind the first row, the Explorer has 87.8 cubic feet of storage space.

The center console gives the driver a lot of alternatives—including several different places where smartphones could potentially go.

Safety
The 2020 Explorer hasn’t yet been crash-tested, but it offers all the safety features that family shoppers should expect.

The 2020 Ford Explorer  hasn’t yet been rated by either of the U.S. safety organizations. It’s built on a completely new body structure so we withhold our score for now.

All versions of the Explorer are equipped as standard with a set of active safety features that Ford calls Co-Pilot360, which includes blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts, hill start assist, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection.

Adaptive cruise control with stop and go, active lane control, speed-sign recognition, and expanded voice controls are part of a Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package.

Depending on your height, you might find side or rearward vision in the Explorer to be difficult due to the thick side pillars. Consider that on the test drive.

Features
The 2020 Ford Explorer comes well-equipped, even in its more affordable versions. Its infotainment systems are underwhelming, though.

The 2020 Ford Explorer lineup consists of base (Explorer), XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, Platinum, and ST models, with four-wheel drive optional for most of the lineup. We give it a score of 7 out of 10 in this category, based on the Explorer’s strong value and feature set at the affordable end of the lineup—especially the likely-popular XLT model—and its good level of base tech content, but we withhold a point due to its somewhat sluggish and unintuitive infotainment systems.

The base Explorer starts at $33,860 and includes a power liftgate, LED headlights, an 8.0-inch display, and a suite of active safety features we cover above. The Explorer XLT steps up to heated mirrors, power front seats, second-row captain’s chairs, keyless ignition, rear parking sensors, and a larger instrument cluster; all-wheel drive costs just $2,000 more, and it's how we'd trim out our version.

Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment systems in the Explorer lineup are compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
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The Limited has strong tech content for less than $50,000. There’s some of what you’d find in luxury-brand models, including rain-sensing wipers, wireless smartphone charging, a surround-view front camera system, and upgraded materials and trims. The Limited Hybrid costs $4,150 more and includes active noise control.

Top-of-the-line Platinum models get the 365-hp, 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 plus adaptive LED headlights and rear automatic emergency braking, while the sporty ST adds heated and cooled seats, a 110-volt AC outlet, adaptive cruise control, memory settings for the seat, mirrors, and pedals, and adaptive cruise control.

ST models also look quite different than others in the lineup with a blacked-out grille and trim, plus big 21-inch dark aluminum wheels. They also have other performance enhancements—larger vented brake rotors and a stiffer suspension—plus many more appearance changes and piped-in engine sound via the speakers.

Four-wheel drive is a $2,000 step up. The Hybrid is a $4,150 premium on the Limited.

The twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 engine is the exclusive domain of the Platinum and ST models, where it makes 365 or 400 hp, respectively.

Across the lineup, the Explorer has a reskinned iteration of Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system, which includes a wi-fi hub good for up to 10 devices. An available 10-inch touchscreen is vertically oriented and has an odd way of designating its screen zones. You can’t make CarPlay full size, for instance, and things that look like they might be selectable or drag-and-drop elements aren’t.

While Ford includes enough hard buttons for audio and climate control below the screen, selections on the screen can be laggy at times—especially the navigation’s mapping features and pinch-to-zoom. Ford says that an update is on the way for the infotainment so we’ll update this at a later date.

Fuel Economy
The 2020 Ford Explorer is only about average for this class even when you figure in the Hybrid.

The 2020 Ford Explorer lineup earns reasonably good fuel economy numbers in turbo-4 form with the base 2.3-liter engine and 10-speed automatic. In rear-wheel-drive form, the EPA rates it at 21 mpg city, 28 highway, 24 combined. Four-wheel drive drops each number by 1 mpg.

Versions with the twin-turbo V-6 earn 18/24/20 mpg, according to the EPA. That’s better than some rival models fare in the city, but not as good on the highway, so it’s mostly a wash.

Based on EPA fuel economy ratings released for the 2020 Ford Explorer, we give it a score of 4 out of 10.


Ford suggested that the rear-wheel drive Explorer Hybrid might average 24 mpg combined. Anecdotally, we haven’t seen close to those numbers yet. In an early drive of the Ford Explorer Hybrid, we saw about 21 mpg from the trip computer, over about 70 mostly relaxed miles.

The closely related Lincoln Aviator will offer a plug-in hybrid version of this same hybrid system—with about 25 miles of range—albeit at a much higher price.


View my Flipboard Magazine.

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