We’ve seen many flavors of Ford Explorers over the years. It’s been a trucky, body-on-frame SUV and a stretched car-based crossover. It has roots that trace back to Volvo and Mazda, and it has also shown flashes of pure Ford DNA.
The common thread—no matter how it was engineered, what it looked like, or how it was critically received—has been its status as an American sweetheart. Ford has sold 7.7 million Explorers since that first one rolled off the line in 1990, and there are still 3.6 million of them on the road today.
The Explorer helped define the SUV segment and is one of the automaker’s best-known nameplates. It’s the centerpiece of a utility lineup that has grown around it. Above it is the Expedition, a massive body-on-frame SUV. Below it is a growing list of smaller crossovers, including, in descending size: the Edge, Escape, and EcoSport.
The centerpiece was in desperate need of its own redo. For 2020 the three-row family utility vehicle gets the complete overhaul while adding a hybrid and an ST performance model when it goes on sale in June.
BACK TO ITS REAR-DRIVE ROOTS
The sixth-generation Explorer moves from a front-drive car platform to Ford’s long-awaited and all-new rear-drive architecture—the same one being used for the similarly sized Lincoln Aviator, both of which are assembled in Chicago. All-wheel drive is available from the base model up.
The clean sheet of paper makes many things possible. In addition to overall improvement gained by starting from scratch, the vehicle takes on a leaner and meaner look with a wider stance. The short overhang performs double duty: better for off-roading and more cabin room for on-roading.
Rear-drive handling comes standard, as does Ford’s 2.3-liter twin-turbo I-4 generating 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. Pricing has not been announced, but the base model will only increase $400 over the outgoing model, executives promise, which would put it at $33,860.
The top-end Platinum trim gets the 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-6, good for 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque.
FIRST NEW FORD HYBRID IN AGES
The 2020 model is 200 pounds lighter, which should also help with fuel economy, and there is now a hybrid option—the first new hybrid for the Ford brand in about six years—and the introduction of the ST model to add a little adrenaline. These augment the base, XLT, Limited, and high-end Platinum trims. More detail on the ST and Limited Hybrid is coming from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week.
There are promises of class-leading interior space—the wheelbase grew about 6 inches—and we anxiously await full specs. But having climbed inside, we can tell you that the old problem of feeling squished against the center console while needing longer arms to reach the door has been resolved with thinner doors and a redesigned center console. Humans can now sit comfortably in a cabin that stayed the same width.
Once inside you can’t miss the new customizable 12.3-inch digital cluster that changes the graphics with each of the six drive modes—seven if you have all-wheel drive and the advanced terrain management system, which adds a snow/sand mode. Nor can you miss the standard 8.0-inch touchscreen or optional 10.1-inch capacitive screen with the updated Sync 3 infotainment interface. Explorer loyalists will be surprised to see the new rotary gearshift and addition of an electronic parking brake.
JUST LET ME SQUEEZE PAST YOU
No third row is easy to access, but the Explorer enhances the experience with a wider step to get in and a single button to push to make the second row fold and slide forward to crawl to the back. Power third-row seats also fold flat. All three rows have adjustable climate control, and all rear seats have child seat anchor points. Up front is a heated and cooled eight-way adjustable seat with massage settings. The steering wheel is also heated.
Acoustic glass and active noise cancellation help occupants converse, and there’s a dual-pane sunroof on top trims for those who want to look up and tune out.
The cargo area has a lip to keep items from rolling out and dividers to chop up the space. The carpeted cargo cover is reversible. Flip to the rubber side when stashing muddy gear.
Towing capacity with the V-6 increases to 5,600 pounds from a maximum of 5,000 in the 2018 model. With the I-4 and towing package it can still tow up to 5,300 pounds, which is quite a hike from 3,000 pounds with the similar current model.
The run started with the 1991 Explorer, a truck-based family hauler that went on to rule the segment for two decades. At its peak in 2000, Ford sold 445,000 Explorers, and its popularity was so consuming that Ford ignored other vehicles in the lineup such as the Taurus, which was relegated to rental car status.
Much like the Ranger it shared a chassis with, the two- and four-door Explorer was a hot commodity in the ’90s, but its Mazda counterpart, the Navajo, was not.
For the second generation, the 1995 Explorer was still based on the Ranger, but efforts were made to give it a better ride and more refined look with rounder lines. The Navajo faded away, but Mercury started making the Mountaineer in 1997.
The Explorer’s third generation (2002-2005 model years) was a new take on a body-on-frame SUV with a new independent rear suspension and third-row seats. The two-door was dropped. Lincoln got the short-lived Aviator.
FALLING FROM GRACE
Sales fell to a low of 52,000 in 2009 when higher gasoline prices torpedoed the SUV segment and consumers gravitated to the new breed of car-based crossovers from Japan. That was also the year the auto industry faltered. GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, and Ford had just enough cash on hand to avoid filing papers, as well. The fourth-generation Explorer (2006-2010 model years) struggled to survive the famine despite improvements to make it hardier.
JOINING THE COMPETITION
Ford reinvented the Explorer in 2010 as a crossover, following the successful path its Japanese competitors had taken. Sales rose again. The 2011 model used the same car platform as the Ford Taurus, which traced its roots to the Volvo architecture for the S80. The lighter Explorer had a 3.5-liter V-6 and optional 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine—no more V-8s. The ground shift resulted in about a 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency.
Change came again for the 2016 model, including the addition of the top-end Platinum trim with a 365-hp, 350-lb-ft 3.5-liter turbocharged V-6 while a new engine was introduced for the rest of the lineup: the 270-hp, 300-lb-ft 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine used in the Mustang.
But it has been too long since the Explorer received a whole scale do-over, which might explain a 4.3 percent drop in U.S. sales in 2018 to 227,732.
TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT
Engineers and marketing execs spent a lot of time in customer clinics, visiting families at home, and peppering Explorer owners at the gas station with questions about what they like and dislike about their Explorer to help Ford build a better mousetrap this time around and not squander the opportunities the new architecture affords.
For 2020 there’s a full array of driver-assist technologies to steer, stop, speed up, park, reverse safely, switch to high-beams, and even set the adaptive speed control to obey changing speed limits—or consistently stay a set speed above the limit. A new side wind mitigation system detects the wind pushing against the vehicle and applies a set of brakes to counteract. A seat belt monitoring system lets you see each occupant buckle up and chimes if any of them release their belt during the drive.
The Explorer has been the segment leader much of its life and is hoping its newest creation can outsell Toyota Highlander and other key competitors in a space that is exploding with new nameplates.