Ford Explorer ST — A hot-rod SUV

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

During the last half of the 20th Century a famous Ford slogan was "Ford has a better idea," which included a lightbulb as a visual image. It lived up to that mantra several times with the upscale two-seat Thunderbird in the mid-50s, the Ranchero car-based pickup in 1957, and the iconic Mustang in the mid-60s. Another "lightbulb moment" was the Explorer, a four-door compact family SUV introduced in 1990 as a 1991 model.

Before it debuted the family-oriented four-door sport-utility vehicle segment hardly existed at all. The Explorer formula turned out to be a huge success. Ford was indeed ahead of the curve in 1990. Over the next 30 years the Explorer became the best-selling SUV, a favorite of millions of families. In fact, in January Ford sold its 8th millionth Explorer.

A new chapter in Explorer history is now being written with a redesigned-from-the-the ground up sixth generation truck with a new-for 2020 rear-drive platform, a sportier more athletic design and improved on-and-off-road capability. The Explorer's short overhangs, taut musculature, and plunging roofline give it a look that is both sportier and more elegant than the outgoing model's. Overall, it’s a more capable, comfortable, and roomier three-row vehicle that handles daily driving chores with poise, assurance and ease.

The new design is instantly recognizable as Explorer. It’s basically the same size as the outgoing model, but now with a roomier interior.

The Explorer is also more expensive. It comes in six trim levels — Base, XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, ST, and Platinum — starting at $33,960 and climbing to $59,445. The sweet spot for most families might be an optioned XLT (which we drove) in the area of $45,000.

The Explorer comes with three engine sizes (not including the hybrid model), and the good news is that buyers who do not require a lot of towing capability we think can live quite well with the base 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that makes an impressive 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission.

For those that demand more power or simply need it for towing large objects, there are two versions of Ford's renowned 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 engine. The Platinum trim comes standard with 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque.

If that's not enough there's the new-for-2020 ST (Ford's performance designation) that comes with a 400 horsepower version of the V-6 engine, the most performance ever in an Explorer. It's become an instant success. According to Ford, the ST is accounting for 21 percent of all Explorer sales through January. And that's the model we also drove for this review. And we enjoyed the straight-ahead speed measured at 5.2 seconds from 0-to-60 and with a quarter-mile time of 13.8 seconds @ 101 mph.

On the road, the ride has been improved with new suspension modifications. There’s a new Terrain Management System that features seven selectable drive modes, available for customers to individually tailor their driving experience to road, weather and terrain conditions. This is the best driving and handling Explorer yet.

Standard technology includes a large 12-inch LCD touchscreen with swipe and pinch-to-zoom capability, 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, autonomous braking, collision warning, lane keeping and lane departure warning assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic detection, a 360-degree camera, adaptive cruise control, evasive steering assist, reverse autonomous braking, active park assist, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, wireless charging pad, side wind stabilizer, and more.

The interior, however, lacks an upscale appearance even in the upper trim levels, falling short of other competitors in its class. We also thought the ride was on the firm side (especially in ST trim) with bumps and pothole encounters transferring into the steering column and throughout the cabin for an unsettled and noisy ride.

One of Ford's problems is the plethora of new three-row SUV crossovers that are generally less expensive with many sporting more upscale interiors. It was Ford's misfortune that at the same time the Explorer was reaching market, the all-new same-size Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade also started gracing new-car showrooms. The Telluride won North American crossover of the year.

Overall, the 2020 Ford Explorer is certainly improved over the previous generation and does a lot of things well, but it’s not a home run especially with the unremarkable interior. But with its basic function as a family hauler — and its need-for-speed ST trim — it will satisfy the needs of most buyers.

Our ST test vehicle carried a $55,835 base price and an as-tested price including $4,280 in options of $60,115. Our XLT rear-wheel drive test vehicle bottomed out at $45,305 which included $8,535 of extras.

Jim Prueter contributed to the review

2020 Ford Explorer ST

Base price: $55,836; as driven, $60,115
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6
Horsepower: 400 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 415 foot-pounds @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2/2
Wheelbase: 119.1 inches
Length: 199.3 inches
Curb weight: 4,853 pounds
Turning circle: NA
Luggage capacity: 18.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 87.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 21.8 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 18 city, 24 highway, 20 combined
0-60: 5.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Dodge Durango SRT

The Good
• Rewarding performance
• All wheel drive standard
• Quiet interior

The Bad
• Below average interior materials

The Ugly
• Expensive for an Explorer