The automotive industry’s constant babbling about vehicle platforms and architectures can sometimes sound like a whole lot of hair splitting and baloney. The sixth-gen Ford Explorer arriving for 2020 is neither. It may look like a modest step forward from its predecessor, but there’s a lot going on underneath that makes this transformation more significant than it appears. Its new unibody platform with a longitudinally-mounted engine and standard rear-wheel drive mimics the layout found in many luxury SUVs, marking the third major change to the Explorer’s construction after it went from being a body-on-frame, truck-based SUV for its first four generations to being a transverse-engined crossover for its fifth.
It was about time. The previous-gen Explorer aged less than gracefully over a life span stretching from 2011 to 2019, and its ancient Volvo-derived architecture-with origins dating to before the turn of the century-was largely to blame. Those bones, which are fossils by automotive standards, have finally given way to this new sixth-generation model’s rear-wheel-drive-based (all-wheel drive is optional) layout, which brings a wide range of improvements.
Much Better to Drive
Chief among them is the way that the new Explorer drives. Ford engineers say that the rear-drive chassis brings a newfound sense of balance thanks to its improved weight distribution, and they’re right. Where the old model was ponderous and unwieldly, the new one is composed and collected over a variety of terrain. Over-boosted steering prevents it from feeling particularly agile, but proper damping keeps body motions minimal and the ride fluid and stable. While it is far from playful, the Explorer inspires confidence on a twisty road and has gone from being one of the worst-driving three-row family SUVs to being one of the best.
The Explorer ST made headlines with its 400-hp V-6 (we will review that model separately), but engine choices for the rest of the lineup include a 300-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four, a detuned 365-hp version of the ST’s twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6, and a hybrid drivetrain that uses a 3.3-liter V-6 with a single 44-hp electric motor. The Ford/GM co-developed 10-speed automatic is the sole transmission choice for every engine, and all Explorers can tow between 5000 and 5600 pounds when equipped with an optional towing package.
Thanks to a claimed curb weight that’s about 200 pounds lighter than the old Explorer, the 2.3-liter engine is perfectly adequate, with smart transmission mapping making the most of the available mid-range torque. The hybrid offers a bit more output, at 318 horsepower combined, but its added weight offsets that so its acceleration feels about equal to the turbo-four’s from our seat-of-the-pants perspective. But the hybrid’s lack of refinement is a letdown; perhaps the rough transition between electric and gas power and the spongy brake pedal can be solved with better tuning. And they should be, given its $4150 premium over the four-cylinder.
The Explorer hybrid introduces a new type of gas-electric drivetrain setup to the Ford lineup that the company refers to as a “Modular Hybrid Transmission.” Rather than the power-split setups seen on many smaller, more economical hybrids, the Explorer hybrid doesn’t use a planetary gearset or dual electric motor-generators. Instead it places a single 44-hp electric motor between the V-6 gas engine and the 10-speed automatic transmission. Intended for larger vehicles that are meant to tow and haul, this hybrid system relies less on the electric motor and focuses more on power and capability than fuel sipping. We suspect that similar gas-electric powertrains will make their way into the promised hybrid versions of the next-generation F-150 pickup and upcoming Bronco SUV.
The twin-turbo 3.0-liter engine available in the Platinum, meanwhile, packs a real punch. Despite being detuned slightly from the ST’s 400-hp version, the 365-hp tune in the Platinum moves the Explorer around with authority and sounds good to boot
Space for Hauling People and Stuff
Some of the Explorer’s static improvements are due less to its layout change than to its new platform, which isn’t a hack job like its predecessor’s. Because the old model’s platform had been dramatically stretched to create such a large SUV, its interior was oddly proportioned. Wide side sills and a high cowl created a bathtub-like feeling in the front seats, and there wasn’t as much useable cargo space inside as its large footprint suggested. The new car’s seating position is far more natural, and outward vision is improved. Cargo space is effectively a wash compared with the old Explorer, as the new car has more cargo volume with all seats folded but fewer cubic feet behind the second and third rows when they’re in use.
Still, many of the Explorer’s front-wheel-drive-based competitors are packaged better, and the Ford’s third-row seat is especially disappointing. Although getting back there is easier than before thanks to a button that easily tumbles the second-row seats (offered either as a three-place bench or individual captain’s chairs), the back row’s bottom cushion is low and unsupportive. This problem, in which passengers’ knees are forced into their chests, plagues many third-row seats, but rivals from Subaru, Volkswagen, and Chevrolet give occupants more space to uncurl from the fetal-tuck position.
We found the first two rows to be more pleasant than before. Even in lower trim levels, the door panels and dashboard use mostly soft-touch materials and everything fits together well enough. The dashboard lacks design flair, but we’re willing to give it a pass because it’s so functional and easy to use. The climate-control buttons are logically laid out, the radio can be controlled by real tuning and volume knobs, and the central touchscreen display looks crisp and has well-organized menus. A cool but slightly gimmicky vertically oriented 10.1-inch touchscreen also is an option.
Broad Price Range
The few driver-assist systems that don’t come standard are offered as reasonably priced options, and desirable features such as a power liftgate and three-zone automatic climate control are included across the board. Mainstream four-cylinder XLT and Limited models are priced competitively in the high-$30,000 to high-$40,000 range, and for that kind of money the Explorer is a compelling contender in the nonluxury three-row SUV throng. (A less expensive base model that starts in the low $30,000s is forthcoming.)
Paying nearly $55,000 for the hybrid or even beyond $60K for a fully loaded Platinum model is a tougher sell. You can get the closely related and more nicely appointed Lincoln Aviator with the same twin-turbocharged V-6 for similar money, not to mention some seriously posh European SUVs for just a few thousand more. But the fact that we can even discuss the Explorer in this sort of company with a straight face means that this domestic SUV has entered a new milieu, not least of all because of what’s going on underneath it.