First drive: Ford wants to redeem the Explorer with this all-new 2020 model

We compare the different drivetrain options
by Pat Devereux | Aug 4, 2019
PHOTO: TopGear.com
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This 2020 model year Explorer is the sixth generation of the storied SUV. Without wanting to ruin the punchline, it’s also the best Explorer Ford has made. Along with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, it helped kick-start the whole SUV craze back in 1991, when it replaced the Bronco II. It sold upwards of 400,000 units a year at its peak in 1994 as the US dumped wagons and sedans in favor of the hi-rise lifestyle truck.

As competition from all sides has increased, those heady numbers have declined substantially, but more than 250,000 are still sold each year, including more than 30,000 police interceptor units. So, it’s still one of the most important and profitable vehicles in the Ford lineup. But it was not one of the best. Based on a stretched version of the Volvo S80’s ageing front-wheel-drive platform, its performance and interior were fast becoming subpar.

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This sixth-gen vehicle seeks to address all of those shortcomings and add a whole new level of all-round comfort, flexibility, and performance. Central to this is an all-new rear-drive unibody platform using the engine longitudinally. One that features the first use of its Modular Hybrid transmission driveline.

This simple-sounding but no doubt fiendishly complicated setup sandwiches a 44hp electric motor between the 335hp gas-powered V6 engine and the automatic 10-speed transmission. Its mission is more to add performance, adding bottom end torque and throttle response, than aiding economy. Expect to see a version of it in the upcoming Bronco and hybrid F-150 pickup too, before long.

Other engines in the range include a 300hp in-line four, plus two versions of the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6: a 365hp unit fitted in the Platinum variant, and the full-house 400hp version in the Explorer ST. This is the second time Ford has used the hallowed ST tag on an SUV. We expect it to be a lot better than the last time the company used it to spice up the end-of-life Edge.

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Even though the platform is all-new, the 2020 Explorer’s design is still instantly recognizable, with the steeply forward-raked C-pillar and trademark trapezoidal Ford company grille. The interior has been completely rethought with varying degrees of success depending on which seat you are occupying.

On the road

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Right off the bat, the new Explorer steers, brakes and accelerates way better than the model it replaces. The steering has more feel, body roll is better checked, and as a result, you feel far more confident throwing it around. Off-road, the Explorer is more than capable enough to handle even quite unreasonably savage grades, rocks, water, and mud. Those observations are true of all the models tested.

Where the real differences lie is in the drivetrains. Even though this is the first time we have driven the hybrid version, and it was a pre-production model, we came away disappointed with it. In normal driving, it doesn’t offer any benefit over the base-engined car. It’s noisier, spends more time hunting for gears, and is generally less smooth in action.

Over the test route it didn’t appear any more economical, and the brake pedal lacked feel to boot. Which makes it currently nigh on impossible to justify the extra cost of selecting the hybrid over the 2.3-liter four.

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The 3.0-liter twin turbo engine in the Platinum is a much easier sell. Feeling perfectly tuned to move the Explorer with confidence, reliability, and civility, it is absolutely the engine to choose if your budget can run to it. It gives the whole package a more effortless, luxurious feel.

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Likewise, the 400hp ST model, distinctly unlike the Edge ST, is a properly sorted sports SUV. While lacking the outright ferocity of some of the competition, it nonetheless moves down the road and around whatever you point it at with style, speed, and fine-level control. Just like an ST-badged vehicle should.

Away from the drivetrains and chassis, the optional active-safety package works well, only making itself known as and when the need arises. Likewise, road and wind noise is well-suppressed in all models, which will make longer journeys less taxing.

On the inside

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Ford has gone down the ‘iPad nailed to the dash’ look first popularized by Mercedes-Benz for the new Explorer. The size of the screen grows the further up the range you go. While the appearance is fine, the software was occasionally slow to react, the navigation missing turns and inputs being rejected. Again, Ford says this is a pre-production issue and will be sorted before the final production cars go live.

No problem with any of the analog controls, which will probably get more use than the screen. It’s not the most exciting dash on the market, but it has a functionality and wipe-clean look that will endear it to daily users.

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The seats are much better than the outgoing model’s, offering more support and better vision. There is also a sense of spaciousness in the front two rows, and improved materials throughout. But the third row is not hugely improved—it’s still cramped and offers little in the way of comfort. Ford’s competitors do a better job here. There is more absolute cargo space than in the gen five when all the seats are folded. But less when all three rows of seats are being used.

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Final thoughts

Ford has not held back with the revamp of the new Explorer. A new platform, engines, tech, and spec levels will ensure it keeps its place at the front half of the full-size SUV field. It’s better to look at, drive, and own than ever before. But it’s also getting expensive, which starts to make some unfavorable comparisons with the Ford.

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However, focus on the middle part of the range, avoid the hybrid, and be realistic about your options and needs, and the Explorer really comes into its own. That way you get the benefit of most of the new tech and design, but not the big price tag to match.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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