by Morgan Carter
The new year brings with it a whole new look for the Ford Explorer, but a lot more has changed underneath the hood, too. The hybrid variant of the popular three-row family SUV receives a naturally-aspirated V6 engine paired with an electric motor that develops an impressive 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft of torque. Unlike most rival hybrids, the Ford Explorer puts its electric power to work bolstering the V6 to deliver higher performance, rather than focusing on efficiency. For this reason, the Explorer is not as economical as many of its competitors. Add to this its relatively high starting price, and it may not seem appealing. But, when you increase performance without noticeably increasing the overall cost of the base model, you're doing something right. And it is for this reason that the powerful SUV is worth considering if you need a capable hauler and family vehicle.
The Ford Explorer Hybrid is all-new for 2020, so the number of changes is considerable, but some are more notable than others. A 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system now comes standard, as does a surround-view camera. The Limited Hybrid also comes equipped with Ford Co-Pilot360 Assist+, which comprises a host of advanced driver-assistance features that go above and beyond the standard Co-Pilot360 suite.
The SUV's external changes are more muted than what has changed under the sheet metal, but that is not to say that it isn't sporting an impressive new look. The hybrid model rides on 20-inch alloy wheels and receives sleek signature headlights up front, with LED accent lighting. The grille looks more modern, with dual metal bands breaking the honeycomb into three sections, and the square, dual exhaust tips have been replaced with round chrome variants. It's still a bulky SUV, but it looks slimmed down and more aerodynamic than before.
The Explorer is by no means small, measuring 198.8 inches long, and standing 69.9 inches tall. It has an equally long 119.1-inch wheelbase and will likely fill your garage to the limit with a width of 78.9 inches (excluding mirrors). The SUV maintains its moderate off-roading capabilities with a ground clearance of 7.9 inches, approach/departure angles of 20.1/22 degrees, and a break-over angle of 17.1 degrees. While the base Explorer has lost a few pounds over its previous iteration, the hybrid version is still quite heavy at 4,969 lbs - 624 lbs heavier than a comparable non-hybrid derivative.
Under the hood of the hybrid SUV is a 3.3-liter naturally aspirated V6 that pairs with an electric motor to develop a combined 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque. A ten-speed modular hybrid transmission regulates the power output and directs it to the rear wheels, a departure from the previous year's front-wheel-drive design. There is also an available intelligent all-wheel drive train that comes with seven distinct driving modes, including normal, trail, sport, tow, and eco. The combination is specifically designed to offer high levels of low-end torque for quick acceleration, and it does just that. But after the initial burst, the power tapers off quite rapidly, giving the SUV a lackluster 0 to 60 mph time of about 7.5 seconds in various independent tests. The hybrid V6 powertrain is capable of towing up to 5,000 lbs of braked weight. This is quite impressive for a hybrid when compared to the Toyota Highlander that tows only 3,500 lbs.
The Explorer Hybrid may not be the sportiest SUV on the market, even by hybrid standards, but it's definitely eager. The electric motor is designed to optimize low-end output, giving the hefty vehicle a surprising amount of pep when taking off from a stop. And the Ford really enjoys being pushed, showing more stability and confidence when the accelerator is pushed flat than when it's constantly reapplied.
Slowing down is a little less smooth, however, as the regenerative brakes are very noticeable. They are quite effective, too, powering up the lithium-ion battery quite quickly before shifting back over to the standard brakes. The steering doesn't buck from the norm in modern SUVs. It's light at lower speeds, helping the juggernaut navigate congested city streets, but it offers a certain amount of feedback, too. Along with the Terrain Management System, which has drive modes for trail, snow, slippery, and eco, this helps the Explorer remain capable on the dirt roads, although it certainly isn't designed to reign there.
Where the Ford does shine is in its composure. Very little upsets the comfortable ride provided by the well-balanced suspension. The SUV remains refined, even when fully loaded with passengers and cargo. Noise and road vibrations are well-dampened, too.
For a hybrid, the Explorer doesn't deliver particularly impressive mileage figures. This is because the hybridization of the SUV was designed to improve performance more than just efficiency. It still delivers better fuel economy than the standard Explorer, but only just. When equipped with the rear-wheel drivetrain, the hybrid is estimated to get a city/highway/combined mileage of 27/29/28 mpg. Opting for the all-wheel drivetrain sees these figures drop even further to 23/26/25 mpg, which is somewhat better than what the standard gas-fed Explorer attains at 20/27/23 mpg. More efficiency-oriented hybrid SUVs get much better fuel economy, like the Toyota Highlander, which gets an estimated 36 mpg over the combined cycle. Equipped with an 18-gallon fuel tank, and requiring only regular gasoline, the RWD Explorer Hybrid can cover around 500 miles before needing to refuel.
Unlike most three-row SUVs, the Explorer Hybrid can only seat six in its standard configuration. This is because second-row captain chairs come standard, although a bench can be optioned, increasing seating capacity to seven. The interior is almost cavernous, with the front- and middle-row seats supplying ample head- and legroom for even the tallest adults. The third-row seats are better suited to children or young teens, due to the lacking legroom. Still, it's not as cramped back there as in many similar SUVs. The seats are upholstered in leather as standard, with multi-contour fronts seats that feature Active Motion for improved comfort. Despite all this, the interior of the Explorer doesn't feel impressive, with middling quality materials used throughout and not enough thought going into styling.
Ford paid special attention to the trunk when it redesigned the Explorer. Where many hybrids see their trunk space impinged upon by the bulky battery pack, the Explorer Hybrid manages to stow its battery underneath the rear seats to free up an impressive 18.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seats. This area can be expanded to 47.9 cubic feet by folding down the third-row seats, and then again to 87.8 cubic feet by folding down the second-row seats. Even the standard setup allows for a dozen grocery bags or around ten carry-ons, but with the third-row down, you can easily accommodate the whole family's luggage for a weekend getaway.
Small-item storage is decent for a family-sized SUV. There are several cupholders in the front and second rows, with a rather small center armrest cubby up front, too. The door pockets are adequate for most water bottles, and there is a standard glove compartment.
A long list of features come standard on the Limited Hybrid, as it enjoys a position in the mid-tier of the Explorer range. The offering includes tri-zone climate control, keyless entry and ignition, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a heated leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a power tilt-and-telescoping steering column. The advanced safety suite is particularly extensive, with the SUV receiving a rearview camera, front and rear sonar, and a surround-view camera as standard. The Co-Pilot360 Assist+ Package is also equipped on every hybrid, comprising blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keeping assist, pre-collision avoidance, pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, speed sign recognition, and evasive steering assist. Available additional features include a twin-panel moonroof and Active Park Assist 2.0.
The Limited Hybrid comes equipped with a standard Sync 3 infotainment suite comprising an eight-inch capacitive touchscreen display, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, SiriusXM, 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot capability, and a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. It also gets built-in navigation and SiriusXM Traffic. Dual smart-charging USB ports are provided in the second row of seats to complement the three 12-volt power outlets around the cabin. The suite can be upgraded with a 10.1-inch touchscreen that comes equipped with Sync 3 AppLink, which supports Alexa and Waze. A dual rear-seat entertainment system is available as part of an optional package, and a wireless charging pad can be installed.
The 2020 Ford Explorer has not been rated for dependability yet, and it has been subjected to four recalls already. Notable faults include chafing of the protective sleeve on the vapor fuel line, an improperly secured wiring harness in the air conditioning, and a lacking cover for the Manual Park Release. Ford offers a 36,000-mile/36-month limited warranty, while the powertrain is covered for 60,000 miles/60 months. The hybrid components enjoy a 100,000-mile/96-month warranty.
The NHTSA has not yet crash-tested the 2020 Explorer or rated it for safety, but the IIHS has awarded the Explorer Four scores of Good, with only the small overlap front: driver-side receiving a lower rating of Acceptable. Standard safety features include ABS, traction and stability control, hill-descent control, and trailer sway control. A rearview camera, front and rear sonar, and a surround-view camera are equipped to the Limited Hybrid. It also receives the Co-Pilot360 Assist+ suite, which comprises blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, pre-collision avoidance, and evasive steering assist. Active Park Assist 2.0 automated parking is available, too.
The Explorer Hybrid certainly has its appeal, but most of the elements that will catch your attention are not what prospective hybrid buyers are typically looking for.
The powertrain is tuned towards performance rather than economy, meaning you won't save a substantial sum of money over the course of the vehicle's lifespan. You will get slightly better performance than the base Explorer for the cost of running the vehicle, but other hybrids are much cheaper to own, and cheaper to buy, too. And despite the eagerness of the hybrid engine, the SUV isn't designed to be sporty nor particularly rugged.
Where the Ford does impress is in its standard tech offering, with plenty of advanced driver-assistance features and enough comfort features to make the interior feel less low-budget than it really is. Still, despite the questionable design choices inside the cabin, the Explorer is a very comfortable ride overall, for all but the most inhospitable terrain. But, all this comes at a significant hike in price over the standard Explorer, and most hybrid SUV rivals have a much lower price tag.
The Ford Explorer Hybrid will still see some time on the road, no doubt, as it checks enough boxes to warrant a purchase by drivers who want the impressive cargo and passenger space it provides, along with the peppy in-town performance it offers. But buyers who want the cost-savings of a traditional hybrid would be better served looking elsewhere, perhaps at the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid instead.
Hybrid models are always pricier than standard versions of the same vehicle, but the Explorer Hybrid is expensive even when compared to rival SUVs. Without any extra features, the standard Limited Hybrid will set you back $52,280. The total cost of ownership isn't as low as other hybrids either, considering the Ford's middling fuel economy estimates. You can expect the base price to climb even higher at a shocking rate when you customize your Explorer. These prices exclude tax, registration, licensing, and Ford's $1,195 destination fee.
3.3-liter Turbo Inline-4 Hybrid
There is only a single trim level when it comes to the Explorer Hybrid, so if you choose to purchase it, you will be getting a Limited Hybrid model. There isn't too much need to customize the base offering, either, as it comes with leather upholstery, tri-zone climate control, and a long list of advanced safety features as standard. It does have six seats instead of the standard seven, though, due to the hybrid getting second-row captain seats. If you really need the extra seating space, you can opt to revert the layout to that of the standard Explorer. If you want to keep costs down, however, you should opt for the rear-wheel-drive version of the SUV as it gets slightly better fuel economy.
Much like the Ford Explorer, the Toyota Highlander has been totally redesigned for the new year. However, where the Explorer focuses on heightened performance through hybridization, the Highlander opts to go for better efficiency. With a much lower starting price of $38,200 and a significantly better combined fuel economy of 36 mpg, the Toyota is more likely to appeal to hybrid buyers. It may not be as punchy as the Ford with its 243-hp inline-four, but the Toyota is far more upscale inside the cabin and comes with a more comprehensive infotainment suite. It also gets Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 as standard, which includes most of the safety features you will find on the Explorer. With only slightly lower cargo space and a more comfortable interior, the Toyota Highlander is the better buy for those who want an affordable, reliable daily family SUV.
At almost the same price as the Ford Explorer, the Acura MDX Hybrid (around $53,000) is a luxurious premium three-row SUV that seats seven while still offering a fair amount of cargo space - 15 cubic feet standard, maxing out at 68.4 cubic feet. The interior is of a significantly higher quality than the Ford, however, with more upscale materials and better construction. Still, the Explorer is just as spacious for passengers, and offers more room for cargo. It also gets a more comprehensive and user-friendly infotainment suite. And while both crossovers offer similar lists of safety features, those in the Ford are more refined and effective. And while the Acura MDX hybrid comes with a powerful 321-hp hybrid powertrain, and a competitive fuel economy of 26/27/27 mpg, there is not much that the Explorer simply isn't better at. Overall, if you're looking for best value for money, the Ford Explorer is the smarter buy.