2020 Ford Explorer First Drive: Better in Every Way
New Explorer benefits from the shift to rear-wheel-drive, new engines, and a hybrid that does it all.
Ford Motor Company recently invited several groups of journalists to Stevenson, Washington to drive the all-new 2020 Explorer. The location allowed us to experience the redesigned sport utility vehicle on the steep, curvy roads of the American Northwest; along with three different towing setups and a dirt off-road course. We drove the XLT, Limited, Platinum, and Hybrid models in all of the various drivetrain configurations and with each of the three available engines. This allowed us to get a feel for the new Explorer in just about every key situation that an owner might encounter.
Not surprisingly, the 2020 Explorer shines bright in every situation, leaving no question that Ford’s new SUV is better in every way while also being one of the strongest competitors in the segment. Today, Ford Truck Enthusiasts brings you a look at each of the new Explorers, and how each performed in the various test modules with the expectation that buyers are going to love it.
Since the drive event was so elaborate, with different drivetrain configurations and different models in different testing modules, we will breakdown the event by trim level, with the exception of the off-road course. Since the off-road portion included the XLT model that we didn’t drive on the street, we will discuss the muddy fun in its own section.
The Explorer Limited
First up, we have the 2020 Ford Explorer Limited, which comes standard with the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder and rear-wheel-drive.
Some people might scoff at the idea of an SUV of this size being powered by a relatively small four-cylinder mill. But buyers need to focus on the power figures more than the number of cylinders. With 300 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft of torque, this small EcoBoost engine works with the 10-speed automatic transmission and the standard rear-drive layout to make the new Explorer surprisingly quick. You have to hunt for turbo lag and most drivers will appreciate the quick throttle response and the pop of torque when you hammer the throttle, with the aggressive gearing of the 10-speed transmission leading to impressive acceleration. Of course, with standard rear-wheel-drive, if you really hit the gas hard, the new Explorer will spin the rear tires, which some owners might appreciate.
More importantly, when you are cruising along at highway speeds with the new Explorer Limited and you ask for the power needed to quickly pass a slower-moving vehicle; the transmission quickly downshifts, engine speed brings up the boost levels and the big Ford SUV gets up past the speed limit in a hurry. The small engine pulls strong from a stop, through the mid-range and on the top end, showing that the concerns about the 2.3-liter EcoBoost being underpowered for a vehicle of this size are unfounded.
Aside from basic power and acceleration numbers, the rear-drive Explorer Limited drives and rides very nicely, with the rear-drive layout offering more enjoyable driving dynamics on the twisty roads while the suspension setup keeps all of the road vibration out of the cabin. Unlike some other, similarly-sized SUVs, the Explorer feels light on its toes, often feeling smaller than it is when you are in tight quarters, but during stints of spirited driving, the rear-wheel-drive layout leads to a far sportier feel.
When I switched to a 2020 Explorer Limited with the Intelligent four-wheel-drive system, I was pleased to find that the vehicle didn’t feel dramatically heavier or slower. In some cases, adding the weight and drivetrain components of four- or all-wheel-drive will really bog down a small engine like the 2.3-liter EcoBoost. But the little turbo mill does just a good of job of powering all four wheels as it does powering the rears. When you drive the vehicles back to back, you might notice that the rear-drive version handles a spirited blast through tight turns a bit better, but I don’t believe that the average buyer could drive the Limited with each drivetrain layout and pick which was which, unless they do a big, rear-drive burnout.
Finally, while driving the Explorer Limited, I enjoyed the leather seats with a cooled surface, as it was almost 100 degrees when I was in Washington. These seats have a bit of bolster support that keeps you in place when you are carving through the curves, but they aren’t designed in a way that will pinch larger drivers. In short, they have a sporty look and a bit of the sport seat feel, but they clearly focus more on comfort than holding you in place. And that makes sense, since most Explorer Limited owners will worry more about comfort than how well they are held in place during hard cornering.
The Explorer Platinum
Those folks who are shopping for a 2020 Ford Explorer, but who want more power and more premium features will want to opt for the Platinum model. It comes standard with Intelligent four-wheel-drive and the new 3.0-liter twin turbocharged EcoBoost V6. In the Platinum model, this mill delivers 365 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft of torque with help from a standard 10-speed automatic transmission. But rear-drive is not available at all, so if you go with the Platinum package, you have to get four-wheel-drive.
Fortunately, the power of the 3.0-liter EcoBoost doesn’t have any issue turning all four wheels and like the smaller engine, the EcoBoost V6 provides crisp throttle response with instant power delivery. As was the case with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost that is the premium powerplant in the current Explorer, this new, smaller turbocharged V6 offers what used to be considered “V8 power” in a package that yields better fuel economy than the average V8 or the outgoing EcoBoost V6 in the right conditions. Due to the big hills and traffic of our drive route, I was not able to get a realistic fuel economy number with any of the new Explorers, but even with the shift to the larger chassis, fuel economy numbers should be better across the board.
While the Explorer Platinum with the twin turbo V6 is noticeably quicker than the Limited with the smaller engine, the handling attributes of the two are very similar. The added weight of the V6 engine leads to a bit of understeer in the most extreme driving conditions, but I would guess that very few new Explorer owners will drive their SUV hard enough to really notice that difference. The key point here is that the Explorer Platinum is smooth, comfortable and quick on the tight roads of southern Washington and on the highways.
After driving the Explorer Platinum without a trailer, I spent time towing a 3,800-pound camper and a 4,500-pound boat. Although there was a weight and aerodynamic difference between the two trailer setups, the Platinum pulled both trailers smoothly and easily. With both trailers, the Explorer handled the added weight flawlessly in tight quarters, comfortably climbing up the steep hills without a whole lot of effort. While the weight was obviously back there, the Explorer Platinum confidently handled both trailers as well as any vehicle of this size that I have tested.
Finally, in addition to the larger engine, the Explorer Platinum offers a larger touchscreen than the Limited, making it easier to see where I was headed while on the various drive routes. Of course, the premium SUV also has the heated and cooled seats, but the Platinum package adds massaging seats that I enjoyed during the many hours of road testing.
When speaking with the Ford Motor Company representatives at the drive event about the hybrid package, they refer to it as the “no-compromise hybrid”, and that is exactly what it is. The Explorer Limited Hybrid is sure to offer far-greater fuel economy than any of the other drivetrain options along with obviously being the only model to offer all-electric driving, but those expected features aren’t what makes this hybrid model special. A fuel-friendly hybrid SUV of this size is rare enough, but unlike the average electric-assisted vehicles, the Explorer Hybrid tows just as well as the non-hybrid models and it handles the off-road course surprisingly well.
For the basic road drive, the Explorer Limited Hybrid was only available for testing in rear-drive, which is the most fuel-efficient layout of the new SUV. This hybrid system offers 318 horsepower and 336 lb.-ft of torque from a 3.3-liter V6, while an electric assist motor mated to the 10-speed automatic transmission provides torque when the output from the gas engine is lowest–or when the power of the gasoline engine isn’t needed. When driving in tight, rural areas, the Explorer Hybrid spends much of its time in electric mode, with the gasoline engine seamlessly firing up when you ask for harder acceleration. As I drove around the twisty roads, the only way that I could tell for sure that the gasoline engine was running was by looking at the tachometer. The engine fires and runs so quietly that when you are moving at speed with the windows down or the radio and air conditioning on, you really can’t hear or feel the gasoline engine engage.
Honestly, if not for the fact that the new Explorer Hybrid offers all-electric driving, I don’t think that the average driver would be able to know that it was a hybrid model. The gasoline engine is quiet, the start/stop aspect is seamless and best of all, this electric-assisted SUV is considerably quicker than you expect. Also, thanks to the low mounting point of the hybrid battery system, the hybrid handles just as well as the non-hybrid Limited models and there is no interference with cabin space compared to non-hybrid models.
After driving the rear-drive hybrid, I climbed into an all-wheel-drive hybrid that was hooked up to a 4,300-pound boat trailer. Most hybrid vehicles are exempt from towing, but as part of the “no-compromise” aspect, the Explorer Hybrid tows almost as much as the non-hybrids and it tows just as well as the non-hybrid. Our towing route led from our center of operations in the hills above the Columbia River and we wound our way through the trees to the boat drop area, then back up into the hills. This allowed us to experience how the new Explorer handled that weight pushing against the rear end as it cut through the tight turns on the way down followed by getting a feel for how the new SUV pulls that weight up a series of steep inclines.
Realistically, the hybrid aspect didn’t come into play while towing the boat trailer, but the point here is that the 2020 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid will tow just as much and just as well as the non-hybrid models. No longer do you have to avoid a hybrid if you need an SUV that will tow a boat, horse trailer or small camper, with the 2020 Ford Explorer Limited Hybrid pulling the boat just as well as the Platinum model discussed above.
The Off-Road Course
Finally, the 2020 Ford Explorer drive event in Washington included an off-road course that was quite a surprise to me. Let’s be honest here; most people who buy a new Explorer will never go off-roading in their new SUV, but the point here was to showcase how well the new Ford handled the rough trail. Maybe you will never intentionally go off-roading in your new Explorer, but if a visit to a friend’s new house leaves you on a rough, unpaved road, the 2020 Explorer won’t have any problems.
We drove the XLT model first, starting with a steep downhill followed by a steep incline, twisting through a series of tight turns into slide slope, through a water crossing with loose rocks at the bottom and finishing up with another steep climb. While modern unibody SUVs don’t get much credit for being off-road-capable, the Explorer XLT cleared every obstacle without any issue. Some drivers had to let the wheels spin and dig on the steep inclines if they didn’t approach with enough speed, but even on the steepest hills, lined with dirt, rocks and mud, at no point did anyone get stuck.
Next, I climbed into a new Explorer Hybrid and while unibody SUVs don’t get much credit for being off-road capable, hybrid models get even less. In many cases, hybrid SUVs have decreased ground clearance and the batteries have vents that can take in dirt, water and debris, but the no-compromise Explorer Hybrid has a sealed battery that is tucked far enough into the chassis that there is no risk of getting hung up on the hybrid bits.
I was able to get through the off-road course with the hybrid just as smoothly and as quickly as I did with the XLT, achieving 26-degrees of lean on the slide slope with the electric-assisted model. The hybrid handled the climbs, the water crossing and all of the loose dirt flawlessly, and while we would guess that no Explorer Hybrid owners will intentionally go off-roading, if you own one and you run into a muddy, flooded road, you have a better chance of making it to dry land than you do in any other hybrid vehicle of this size.
The Final Word
After driving the 2020 Ford Explorer in XLT, Limited, Platinum and Limited Hybrid trim, I was truly impressed by every one of them. The rear-drive chassis leads to better driving dynamics and even in all-wheel-drive form, the rear-wheel-drive feel is present and appreciated. The 2.3-liter “base” engine offers excellent power everywhere that you need it, but if you want better performance and greater capabilities, the bigger engine and premium interior upgrades of the Explorer Platinum are an excellent option.
Frankly, I prefer the stronger engine, massaging seats and larger infotainment screen of the Platinum package, but the Limited with the four-cylinder EcoBoost and rear-wheel-drive is a fuel-friendly SUV that offers tons of driving fun for a vehicle of this size.
Of the models discussed here, I was most surprised by the new Explorer Hybrid. The fun-to-drive factor was far greater than the average hybrid SUV, the electric assist system offers all-electric functionality at highway speeds with seamless transition, it pulls a boat trailer just as well as the non-hybrid and it handles a rough off-road course better than any large, unibody SUV I have tested over the past few years. This hybrid lacks all of the perceived shortcomings of a large hybrid SUV, offering the electric-assisted advantages without any of the downsides that have caused criticism of past hybrid SUVs.
Regardless of which trim level, engine or configuration you pick, the 2020 Ford Explorer is better than he outgoing model in every way while also reasserting itself as one of the top picks in the segment.
Join the Ford Truck Enthusiasts forums now!
Photos: Patrick Rall for Ford Truck Enthusiasts