The Ford Explorer emerged mewling and blinking sometime during the Cretaceous period. The year was 1990. Pterodactyls dominated the skies above great lumbering beasts, their huge wings blotting out the sun. And from its ancestral birthing ponds of the Louisville Assembly Plant the Explorer clung forth to the silted banks, crawling forward in low gear, dragging its heavy truck frame through the sand, its Eddie Bauer plumage resplendent in anticipation of mating rituals.
(Full Disclosure: Ford brought me to Oregon to test drive the Explorer, and eat and stay on the company’s dime.)
The 2020 Ford Explorer puts this model in its 29th year, old enough to experience ennui. This ninth generation is a return to form: It’s back to rear-wheel drive on an entirely new platform, with optional AWD offering up to a 50-50 split.
This will a boon to enthusiasts, who will now have a 400-horsepower Explorer ST to play with if they so desire. This new styling is contemporary: a leering, tapered grille and a downward cant to its roofline, a deceptive touch that makes the whole thing look rakish—a word never heretofore applied to an Explorer.
There are shorter overhangs for improved off-road performance, if one is into that sort of thing, and indeed an optional Trail mode shows digital altimeters and roll angles (as much as 24 degrees! As tested on an off-road course tailored specifically around the Explorer). It’s good to know that if one needs to, uh, ford 12 inches of water, one can do that here, in this here Ford.
There is a hybrid model, for the first time in Explorer history. There’s a power liftgate, standard. There are ten speeds under that rotary-dial automatic shifter. The Explorer can now tow up to 5,600 pounds, a new record for Explorers. Second-row captains’ chairs are standard (and can be heated!), with a bench as an option instead, because customers believed it more premium.
They have a point. The average Explorer customers have envisioned themselves to be much more upscale, says Ford SUV Marketing Manager Craig Patterson, who has conducted ethnographic research in customers’ homes since 2009: “It’s almost like an anthropological study,” he laughed, “people in their natural habitat.”
To that end the Platinum trim receives everything from massaging front seats to a panoramic sliding moonroof, and a 14-speaker, 980-watt sound system by B&O. An eight-inch screen is standard across all models, jutting out of the dashboard like a tombstone. (A 10.1-inch screen is optional.) Technology is something that has evolved with the past thirty years, according to Patterson, why all Explorers come with standard WiFi as well as a suite of autonomous features known as Co-Pilot 360: front and mirror cameras, blind-spot and Lane Keeping Systems, automatic emergency braking, everything a modern car demands to not wipe out its fellow highway-going citizens. Explorer customers also believe that “it’s a much more dangerous world than it used to be.” More on that later.
The Explorer can be optioned with four drivetrains. There’s Ford’s popular 2.3-liter four-cylinder that also resides in the Mustang, the Lincoln Corsair, and every Ranger that arrives on these shores. There’s a 3.3-liter V6 hybrid with a liquid-cooled 1.5-kwh-capacity battery mounted in the passenger side, whose total system aims like a shark at an EPA-estimated 28mpg and 500 miles of range.
(Final figures are not yet disclosed. But if it’s any comfort, you can option it with 4WD and drive it off-road, really test out those improved approach and departure angles if one is so inclined. Only the Highlander Hybrid comes with AWD, a vehicle whose owner manual states on page 351: “Your vehicle is not designed to be driven off-road.”)
Finally, there are two versions of the 3.0-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost engine, both of which make more horsepower as the outgoing 3.5-liter engine. Those figures are 365 and 400, found in the Platinum and ST trims, respectively.
Engineers managed to cut out 200 pounds in between generations, through judicious use of aluminum. One of the biggest gripes of the outgoing generation was its lackluster interior volume, especially in relation to what a lumbering beast it seemed to be. But the wheelbase has been stretched six inches, a direct result of the rear-drive proportions, and increasing passenger volume to up to 152.7 cubic feet—a minor increase, sure, over the outgoing 151.7, but someday that will matter to a very tall friend of yours. For your reference–the passenger volume of a Chevy Tahoe specs out at 120.8 cubic feet while a Toyota Highlander claims 144.9.
For cargo space you get 18.2 cubic feet behind the third row, which is more generous than a 2019 Honda Pilot’s 16.5.
There’s great midrange acceleration to be wrung out of the 300-horsepower 2.3-liter four, pulling smoothly at freeway speeds up to (and beyond) 80 miles per hour. Smooth and sedate, there’s little difference between it and the 365-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 that comes only on the Platinum—unless you spring for, say, massaging front seats. The ten-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly, but lingers in gear well beyond throttle inputs. What’s more, too many gears means paddle shifting becomes a chore—sometimes a necessity to get the engine to behave on hilly roads. The turning radius, at least, is surprisingly compact.
The rugged and blocky interior design feels like a vast improvement over the outgoing button-happy plastic party. Some clever touches: a scuff plate in the rear doors for people to clamber over the 2nd row, a cubby between the rear seats that can display a tablet at a proper viewing angle, 14 cupholders—including square ones for juice boxes, or perhaps box wine.
“No compromises,” said the fine folks at Ford, and even they had to acknowledge what a tired line that is. But in their minds, the Explorer ST is it.
This is the state of the automobile in This Model Year of Our Lord 2020: a three-row crossover with massaging seats that weighs 4,701 pounds but can nonetheless reach 60mph in 5.5 seconds. What a time to be alive. Yet, more than an exercise in absurd excess, the ST’s performance tweaks go a long way to making the Explorer sharper, and therefore safer to drive.
For one, there’s actual semblance of steering feel. With beefy hollow sway bars front and rear, the suspension tuning stays fairly planted on all but the trickiest corners—yet ride quality hardly suffers as a result. At passing speeds the Explorer ST will show its LED taillights instantly to any carload of dropped jaws, shocked at the sight of this hustling big boy. The “electronic sound enhancements” that dupe up engine sounds are on all the time, but they come in sharp in Sport Mode. The ST’s digital-like exhaust note doesn’t growl or bark or burble or backfire like any modern performance car, but the sound builds uniformly across the rev range, almost like white noise.
In an attempt to betray the Explorer’s bulk, the steering falls back to that Seventies vibe: absurdly light and entirely devoid of feedback when you’re not in the ST. As if it is designed to lull hapless drivers into sedateness, whose lazy motoring experience can be bolstered by the suite of autonomous gadgetry.
Ford put a lot of effort into designing this 318-horsepower hybrid drivetrain, the Explorer’s first ever system, modular and flexible and soon to be implemented across more trucks and SUVs. At parking lot speeds, the electric-only operation works as intended. Yet, that gasoline engine awakens with a jarring mechanical cough.
Lastly, SYNC gets a handsome snowy-white graphics redesign: no more colored blocks, or black-on-black. Yet, something feels lost in the clutter of white rectangles. It’s still not the most intuitive system, not when changing fan vents requires a combination of physical buttons and nested menus. Changing or cancelling navigation requires chasing down more than a few buttons. Need I mention that the ST tops out at 143 miles per hour?
For better or worse, the Ford Explorer is one of the most influential consumer products of the 20th century. This is no exaggeration. After the glaciers rolled through this continent, after the Jurassic and the Cretaceous and the Anthropocene, the world will end in fire. When future paleontologists start to dig, they will find the remains of eight million Ford Explorers buried in a thin layer in the Earth’s crust. No other vehicle could have spearheaded the SUV and crossover boom than the Explorer, simple to build and stellar on returns, the vehicle that introduced “active lifestyle” marketing to our lips, reflected what we wanted in the world and therefore changed it.
This newest generation is a combination of the stalwart and the revolutionary, the clean-sheet design that looked good on paper and the formula it never should have deviated from in the first place. A victim of its own model’s success, it now has the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Volkswagen Atlas and Subaru Ascent against which to defend its honor. Crossovers are still booming. We demand so much from one singular vehicle today that there’s no sign of returning to past orders, the same ones that the Explorer upturned.
The world has grown more dangerous, according to Patterson, conducting ethnographic research, visiting customers’ homes, divining their aspirations. Explorer customers cite 9/11 and wildfires. They aim not to sit idly while the world collapses in billowing clouds of smoke, the kind that so doomed the dinosaurs; no, “I’m not going to sit on my couch though and not get out there and experience this,” said Patterson. “I want to be able to have 4WD in case there’s a weather event. I want to be able to feel like I’m in a vehicle that’s safe when I’m out there.”
In that case: large and in charge, smooth and sedate, to the point of quiet numbing contemplation, the Explorer reflects the world.