SKAMANIA COUNTY, Washington – Hypesters and hucksters have drained the term “clean sheet of paper” of much meaning when it comes to new products, but it applies to the 2020 Ford Explorer SUV.
Ford has scrapped the formula that made the three-row, family-carrying Explorer one of its most popular models for a decade and created an SUV whose engineering has more in common with vehicles from BMW and Mercedes than traditional competitors from Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota.
Based on a couple of days driving on- and off-road in Oregon and Washington, the result is a comfortable interior, strong performance and appealing features.
The 2020 Explorer should be on sale any day now. Ford’s assembly plant in Chicago is shipping them to dealers, but Ford can’t sell them until it gets a certified fuel economy rating from the EPA.
A change in drive and engine direction
The new Explorer has a rear-wheel-drive-based architecture and optional all-wheel drive. That’s a major change from the outgoing model, which had base models that were front-wheel-drive and optional AWD.
That means the 2020 model’s engine lines up in the same direction as the vehicle, while the 2010-19 Explorer engines sat crosswise, on the line between the front wheels.
In engineering terms, the 2020’s engine is called “longitudinal” or “north-south,” while the old Explorer had a transverse or east-west engine.
Why the change?
Pickups, and most luxury and performance vehicles, tend to have longitudinal engines because the layout lends itself to more power, better handling and towing.
Power and handling haven’t been a big deal to Explorer owners, but Ford is betting that’ll change as more and more SUVs crowd the market and automakers look for every advantage they can claim when they say theirs is different and better.
While Ford’s F-series and Ranger pickups also have rear-wheel drive with optional 4WD, they don’t use the same platform or architecture as the Explorer. The Explorer’s architecture will also underpin the Lincoln Aviator luxury SUV that goes on sale later this year.
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Features and prices
Here’s some of what you can expect from the 2020 Ford Explorer:
- Seating for six or seven.
- Prices from $32,765 to $58,250. The base model isn’t expected to go on sale until December, though. At launch, price will start at $36,675, excluding destination charges.
- Up to 5,600 pounds towing.
- A base 300-horsepower, 2.3L turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
- 360- and 400-hp twin-turbo V6s in the Platinum and ST, respectively.
- A hybrid with 310 hp and a battery under its floor to preserve passenger and cargo space. There’s no immediate plan for a plug-in hybrid.
- A 10-speed automatic transmission.
Hardly anything from earlier models
The 2020 Explorer barely shares a part with the old model, but its size hasn’t changed much. To fit standard garages, it only grew a tenth of an inch, to 198.8 inches, despite the wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear wheels — increasing by a whopping 6.3 inches.
Ford won’t provide figures comparing passenger space, but front seat room was excellent and then second-row captain’s seats and the third-row bench were comfortable in the vehicles I tested. Cargo space has decreased behind the third row. It’s bigger than the 2019 model when the second-row seats are folded.
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The mid-row seats slide forward to get into the rear, but kids will probably walk between the captain’s chairs that are standard on all models but the base. Assuming that, Ford put a low console with cupholders between the seats and engineered it to survive if a 200-pound-plus adult steps on it.
An 8-inch touchscreen in landscape orientation is standard, while a 10.1-inch touchscreen in portrait orientation is optional. The screens responded slowly in the pre-production models available for test. Ford said that should be fixed when sales begin, but check for yourself.
Standard safety features
- Blind-spot alert
- Lane-keeping alert and assist
- Automatic front emergency braking
- Pedestrian detection
- Automatic high beams
- Rearview camera
2020 Ford Explorer prices
Base model, rear-drive: $32,765
Base AWD: $34,765
XLT RWD: $36,675
XLT AWD: $38,675
Limited RWD: $48,130
Limited AWD: $50,130
ST AWD: $54,470
Platinum AWD: $58,250
The Explorer’s competition includes the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe SL, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas.
The vehicles I tested were well-equipped models likely to cost from the upper $40,000 to around $60,000. That’s at the high end of the segment, at least until Toyota launches a new version of its Highlander three-row SUV late this year. A hybrid system is a $4,150 add on available for the Limited model.
Quiet and smooth over bumps
I drove Explorers with the 300-hp base four-cylinder engine; 365-hp and 400-hp 3.0L twin-turbo V6s; and the 310-hp hybrid, which has a 3.3L V6 in addition to an electric motor and lithium-ion battery.
Ford has prohibited writing about the 400-hp ST performance model until later, but a reader might infer the difference the 35 extra-hp — a 9.6% for the math-averse — makes.
The new Explorer is quiet and smooth over bumps in all trims. The RWD-based chassis creates a good balance in the vehicle’s front-to-rear weight distribution.
Combined with responsive steering and firm brakes, the result is a vehicle that’s easy to drive fast and corners well for a tall — 5 feet 9 to 5 feet 10 inches, depending on trim — vehicle.
Acceleration is satisfying. There’s plenty of power for fast highway cruising, confident merges and sporty driving in the country.
The hybrid is quiet in EV mode, and has plenty of power for driving around town and up and down hills. Its automatic engine shutoff when idling is nearly imperceptible.
The Explorer is surprisingly capable off-road. Despite not having a low range of gears dedicated to off-roading, I went up and down steep dirt trails with ease. The SUV can ford up to 19 inches of water.
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2020 Ford Explorer at a glance
300-hp, 2.3L turbocharged, four-cylinder
365- or 400-hp, twin-turbo, 3.0L V6
310-hp hybrid with 3.3L V6 and an electric motor
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Length: 198.8 inches
Wheelbase: 119.1 inches
Height: 69.9-70.2 inches
Width: 78.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,345-4,727 pounds
EPA fuel economy and electric range ratings: Still to be determined.
Contact Mark Phelan at 313-222-6731, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.