Ford already revived its Explorer franchise earlier this decade. Now, FoMoCo seeks to shore it up for the next one, with the all-new, decisively redesigned 2020 Explorer. The carmaker physically unveiled the 2020 Explorer this evening at Ford Field in Detroit—home of another moribund franchise, the NFL's Detroit Lions—in the run-up to next week’s North American International Auto Show. But Ford graciously gave journalists a hands-on preview here in New York, several hours before the official unveiling.
(I can’t help taking that as another sign that the Motown show itself is in perhaps-irreversible decline. Looking to stave off that irrelevance, including mass automaker defections and the competitive threat of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Detroit will move the show from its traditional dead-of-January spot to June, beginning in 2020.)
The 2020 Explorer goes on sale this June. And it couldn’t have picked a better time to seek the warm embrace of Americans who insist on a three-row, six- or seven-passenger SUV, whether they really need one or not. Ford, smartly or not, is snuffing out cars like the Fusion, Focus and Fiesta in favor of a full-time truck-and-SUV party. Perhaps more than any other model, its original Explorer converted great swaths of America’s middle class to SUV ownership at its debut in 1990. But by the post-recession apocalypse of 2009, Ford could find barely 50,000 buyers for its archaic, truck-based Explorer.
Despite lukewarm critical reviews, today’s front-drive-based, unibody model brought those loyalists storming back. In its opening year of 2011, the current Explorer tripled those recession-era sales to better than 135,000 units. Sales steadily doubled again, reaching 271,000 in 2017, before slipping a tad to 261,000 last year.
2020 Ford Explorer is ready to take the fight to its foes
Smartly restyled, roomier, and stuffed with tech, this 2020 Explorer will look to defend those sales against stalwarts including the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Chevrolet Traverse, and newbies such as the Subaru Ascent and the intriguing new Kia Telluride. And one of the Ford’s most critical gains is one that a casual SUV shopper might never appreciate, even as they enjoy its benefits: This Explorer adopts an all-new, rear-wheel-drive architecture, shared with the new Lincoln Aviator, that also spins off an all-wheel-traction version.
Ford expects about 70 percent of buyers to choose optional four-wheel-drive, with the RWD model accounting for the remainder of sales, largely in Sun Belt states. The Explorer will continue to be built at the lavishly upgraded Chicago Assembly, Ford’s oldest continuously operating plant in North America, which built its first Model T in 1924.
New EcoBoost engines, hybrid option for a new Explorer
Ford says the new Explorer sheds about 200 pounds, with expanded use of high-strength steel and aluminum, including the latter for the hood. A 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbo four base engine, familiar from the Mustang and Lincoln MKC, delivers 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. The next step us is a hybrid Explorer with a 3.3-liter V6—standard for the Police Interceptor model that dominates law enforcement fleet sales—with roughly 318 horses and 285 pound-feet, and the promise of significant fuel savings and CO2 emissions reductions. Power users can have the Platinum edition's 3.0-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 packing a muscular 365 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. That powertrain will also be the potent basis of an Explorer ST, its chassis tuned by Ford Performance, that could be an affordable sleeper in the high-powered SUV class when it arrives in 2020. Ford is expected to release more details on the Explorer Hybrid and ST in Detroit next week.
“It’s our fastest Explorer ever,” said Michael O’Brien, product manager for Ford’s large SUVs, of the 3.0-liter Ecoboost versions.
Every Explorer adopts the company’s 10-speed automatic transmission, co-developed with General Motors, as a replacement for the aged six-speed unit of the current model. A rotary transmission knob replaces the space-hogging shift lever of the current model, opening up space for a media bin with a 12-volt outlet, USB and USB-C ports.
The new SUV is just 0.1 inches longer than before, at 198.9 inches, and identical in width. But the new platform brings a significant six-inch wheelbase stretch, allowing much easier ingress and egress to rear rows—a major handicap of the current model.
Photos don't fully reveal how much better and more-modern this Explorer looks: The rear-driven architecture does wonders for the Ford’s stance and proportions, bring along a better dash-to-axle ratio, wheels moved toward the corners, and an attenuated front overhang. With its clean lines, gently scalloped doors, blacked-out roof pillars (aside from the body-colored C-pillar) and subtly sloping roofline, this is a handsome, contemporary SUV—a fine stylistic rival to the Traverse or Jeep Grand Cherokee, and decidedly more attractive than a Pilot, Highlander, or Ascent. (The production version of Kia’s Telluride, if it looks anything like the streamlined concept version, may trump them all).
The Explorer’s interior may be even more striking—especially in the deluxe Platinum version I climbed around in, with its swirled-grain ash wood and stitched-leather instrument panel and door trim. The busy-ness and control-confusion of some Ford cabins has been done away with, in favor of a cleanly-sculpted, straightforward affair. The Platinum, and other uplevel Explorers, pairs a 10.1-inch tablet-style touchscreen with an equally sharp 12.3-inch digital driver’s display. That portrait-oriented tablet seems perfectly located for an easy reach: pulled toward the driver and front passenger, set high enough to easily scan while driving, yet low enough to avoid blocking even a sliver of view through the windshield. Nice.
Plenty of tech to be found in this Ford
More-basic Explorers get an 8.0-inch, landscape-oriented center screen, which is still double the size of the current model’s. Hard switches are minimal, aside from (thankfully) analog controls for climate, audio volume/tuning, and program selection. Wireless phone charging is an option, along with a huge dual-pane sunroof and a 980-watt, 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen audio system.
The Explorer offers a quieter interior, expanded passenger and cargo space, and improved outward views due to a lower hood and slimmed-down dashboard. Ford claims class-leading hiproom in the first and second rows, and class-best headroom in the second and third rows. Whether you choose a three-passenger bench or bucket seats in the middle row, tilting and sliding the seats for easy access to the way-back is a one-touch operation. Up-level models get a powered button to slide the seats.
Generous standard features include a power liftgate, 100-percent LED lighting inside and out, the 8.0-inch touchscreen, and a “FordPass” mobile app which features remote vehicle tracking, starting, unlocking, and other controls. Also standard is the Ford “Co-Pilot 360” suite of driver assistance systems, including automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning and assist. An optional adaptive cruise control system will allow hands-off driving for roughly six to eight seconds, along with active lane centering. The Explorer Platinum brings standard 20-inch wheels (there are 18s on starter models), or optional, seven-spoke 21-inch wheels with Pirelli Scorpion tires.
Most of today’s self-parking systems, including Ford’s, simply handle the steering, requiring the driver to operate the throttle, brake, and transmission. But the Explorer’s new Active Park Assist 2.0 does it all, for both parallel or perpendicular moves: Find an open spot and hold down a console button, and the Explorer will manage its own steering, throttle and brakes, even shifting itself into Drive to complete the maneuver.
O’Brien acknowledged that most Explorer owners “aren’t into rock crawling.” Yet the new model still brings a Terrain Management System with seven selectable driving modes, including “Slippery,” “Trail,” and “Deep Snow/Sand,” all managed via a Land Rover-style console knob. Those modes are reflected in attractive animated displays in the driver's screen. Explorer ground clearance rises by 0.8 inches, and towing capacity jumps to 5,600 pounds, up from 5,000.
The Explorer also holds the line on price, at least for the base model; we’ll have to see how high a loaded Platinum model will soar. But the 2020 Explorer will start at $33,860, about $400 more than the 2019 model, despite its major upgrades in design, performance, comfort, and standard content.
The Explorer's fortunes have boomed and busted since its arrival nearly 30 years ago. But Ford has sold more than eight million Explorers in that time, and the SUV climate seems more ripe than ever. Considering America’s insatiable appetite for tall-riding utilities, and the ongoing exodus—among both automakers and consumers—from traditional cars, this 2020 Explorer seems guaranteed to kick historic sales over the nine million mark sometime in the next four years.
“If someone has the money in America, they’re going to choose a utility,” O’Brien said.