2020 Ford Explorer First Drive Review: Ready For Adventure

First Drive / Comments

Ford's family hauler is all-new and ready to do some exploring.

Ford's Explorer nameplate is their most-popular vehicle sold behind the behemoth F-Series lineup and is valuable to the company's bottom line and reputation in the SUV segment. While the last-generation model wasn't bad, there were a few notable areas where it fell short. For 2020, Ford addresses the shortcomings with an all-new platform and a slew of new engines and options to both modernize the vehicle and make it more appealing to families everywhere.

Exterior Design: Very Familiar

From a distance, the 2020 Ford Explorer doesn't look all the different from the 2019 model. A similar character line flows from the front to the rear, and the C-Pillar is a distinctive callback to the current generation. Up close, the similarities end. The front overhang is shorter, as is the rear. Underneath, the Explorer sits on an all-new unibody architecture that is rear-wheel drive based. Ford's change to a base rear-drive format let designers push the wheels out, increasing interior space and improving approach and departure angles.

Each version of the Explorer has subtle differences in exterior design. The XLT, Platinum and Limited trims have varying levels of chrome outside, with wheels starting at 18-inches and growing to over 20-inches depending on model and trim. LED headlights are standard on XLT and above, and signature lighting gives the Explorer a unique look on the road. The biggest visual change from the current generation are those front headlights, which are wider than the current model with an LED daytime running lamp strip running across the top.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG

The XLT gets a 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that makes 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. All Explorers get Ford's 10-speed automatic transmission, including the hybrid model. All-wheel-drive is standard on ST and optional on other grades. The hybrid models get a 3.3-liter naturally-aspirated V-6 - similar to the mill found in the base F-150 - mated to an electric motor making a combined 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft. Platinum trim models receive yet another engine, a variant of a 3.0-liter EcoBoost making 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft.

The base engine is rated by the EPA at 21-mpg city, 28-mpg highway, and 24-mpg combined with rear-wheel-drive. There's a 1 mpg reduction for all-wheel-drive and the 3.0-liter with all-wheel-drive is rated at 24-mpg highway, 18-mpg city, and 20-mpg combined. Engine stop-start is standard. 3.0-liter models with rear-wheel-drive are rated to tow 5,600 pounds, the 2.3-liter models are rated to tow 5,300 pounds, and the hybrid rear-wheel-drive model can tow 5,000 pounds. Fuel economy ratings for the hybrid are not yet available.

Interior Design: Better But Polarizing

Explorer's interior is all-new, with an optional digital instrument cluster and even a new 10-inch infotainment display. Top trim models get ventilated seats and some even have a massage function. The real selling point in the new Explorer is the second-row seating, where captain's chairs are standard on XLT and above and the middle row has more room than ever with 39-inches of legroom.

The passenger doors in the rear also have unique, square cup holders built-in. Most of the cupholders are round, but those two are square to specifically hold juice boxes. Power ports, table holders and storage solutions are plentiful throughout the cabin. All versions we drove had leather interiors and most had a black interior with a black headliner. While this configuration is a boon to parents because dark colors are far easier to keep clean, it does create a very dark, dreary feeling cabin. Fortunately, a panoramic opening roof can add some light and give passengers additional viewing angles.

The new digital instrument cluster is fantastic to look at and depending on which drive mode you are in, varies in the information it shows you. There's even a neat Easter egg which changes the car in the adaptive cruise control display from a Fusion to a Mustang GT to a Raptor depending on which mode you're in. The standard eight-inch Ford Sync infotainment system is only slightly updated for the new Explorer, but it supports Android Auto, Apple Car Play and has a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot. For those who want the better B&O stereo, it also includes a new 10-inch tablet display.

The new display offers split-screen functionality for most functions, and in theory, is a clever idea. In reality, the execution isn't a good as Ram's 12-inch display, mainly due to screen bezel and width. The map display can go full-screen but if you have Android Auto or Car Play running, most of the display is devoted to stuff you're not going to care about. It's the most polarizing part of the interior.


Trunk & Cargo Space: It's Massive

Ford is pushing the Explorer as the vehicle to help bring in a new era of the family road trip. To do so, it has to be able to haul your family's stuff. With all three rows in place, there are 18.2 cubic feet of cargo volume. The third-row folds down easily, either by a lever or the push of a button, which creates an expansive 47.9 cubic feet of space. Competitors like the Kia Telluride, for example, only has 46 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The rear load area is flat so you don't have to lift up heavy cargo over a hump to get it into the rear. All Explorers get a power liftgate because it was the number-one requested feature from Ford's internal data.


Driving Impressions: Built Ford Tough

Ford had XLT, Platinum, Hybrid, and ST models available for driving during their program in Oregon so that we could sample a bit of everything. The XLT model with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost is quite good. The power delivery is solid, and it's calibrated well with the 10-speed automatic. Similar to how it feels in the new Ranger, the powertrain is refined and a delight to drive. It doesn't feel like a penalty box and buyers of this volume model will be thrilled with their purchase, making it the surprise of the day.

The upgraded 3.0-liter provides extra grunt for those who might not think the 2.3-liter is enough. It's quicker off the line and yet again, the 10-speed automatic seems well-calibrated for the job. There doesn't appear to much gear hunting and shifts are smooth at slow speeds and quick at higher speeds.

Hybrid models feel remarkably unlike other hybrids. Yes, they proceed on electricity only during slow driving, but because there is a real 10-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT, the Hybrid drives like any other Explorer. Talking with Ford engineers, that was the goal. In their minds, there shouldn't be a trade-off when going hybrid.

Does it work? It's hard to say. Drive programs are notoriously bad for getting a real-life fuel economy number, but power delivery is solid and there's more than enough power to overtake with. The lack of a plug-in option is the only real hybrid demerit, which the company is reserving for the Lincoln Aviator.

We also had a brief opportunity to tow various trailers and can report that confidence in the Explorer is high. It's one of the best unibody vehicles to tow with, feeling much like an F-150 from behind the wheel.

Reliability & Problems

Every engine offering in the new Explorer isn't all-new, meaning they have been tested on other models without issue. The hybrid drivetrain is the only all-new offering, but previous Ford hybrids have proven to be quite reliable. The 10-speed automatic first debuted in the Ford F-150 in 2017 and has been updated and improved upon since. With trucks being Ford's bread and butter, they need to use a transmission that's rock solid. It's what they're using here, so there shouldn't be any major issues.

Price & Trims:

The base Ford Explorer won't be available until the end of the year but the other trims levels will arrive in showrooms starting in July. The XLT starts at $37,770 (including the $1,095 destination charge). Stepping up to the Limited trim costs $49,225 with destination fee and the top Platinum trim starts at $59,345 with destination.



When Ford set out to redesign the Explorer, it wanted to make sure the new car lived up to the history of the nameplate. The all-new platform, which will be shared across many new Ford vehicles, allowed the engineers to pack in better performance, fuel economy, and driving dynamics while offering the customer new engine and drive options. The Explorer is an excellent family road trip machine and has the capability to take you and your family, plus your gear, out for summer fun.



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