2020 Ford Explorer review: It's back, and anything but basic

1w ago


Nick is a freelance automotive journalist based in New York, and has written for the likes of the New York Times, Road & Track, Car & Driver and the New York Daily News.


The Ford Explorer can be credited with writing the rule book when it came to creating the first modern sport-utility vehicle.

There are going to be arguments for a number of different makes and models that came before the launch of the first-generation Explorer, which was introduced all the way back in 1990 (for the 1991 model year). Everyone from Land Rover and Toyota, to Chevrolet and even Ford itself – with cruder, more truck-like offerings – had dipped their collective toes in the macho-truck-meets-suburb-friendly market. But in terms of sheer sales volume, longevity and, let's not forget, a cameo appearance outrunning dinosaurs in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, the original Explorer was without equal.

Despite this promise, dinosaurs were notably absent during my drive of the 2020 Ford Explorer. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

Let's start with the basic Explorer blueprint

The problem is, time waits for no one – just ask those long-dead dinosaurs – and each generation of Explorer has been forced to fend off much more than a seriously cranky T-Rex.

The market for SUVs is now filled with worthy choices. So how does the Ford Explorer stand out from the pack? Well, with all due respect to Ford, for a number of years it simply didn't. A move to a more crossover-like chassis, one with the engine turned sideways (i.e. horizontal versus longitudinal) and the loss of a rear wheel-drive option caused the Explorer to lose some of its edge and truck-like luster.

But welcome to 2019, a time when being more truck-like is suddenly a good thing. Even Toyota has toughened up the appearance of the smaller RAV4 sport-utility, and added off-road-themed trim levels.

With this in mind, the 2020 Explorer now rides on an all-new chassis that positions the engines in a more traditional north-south, or longitudinal, arrangement. This helps balance weight but, perhaps most importantly, it allows the Explorer to once again be offered in a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive.

If you're easily corrupted by power, and three rows of seating, there is the 400-hp Explorer ST. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

The Explorer ST is the one with bite

Considering the "Jurassic Park" movie connection, let's start things with the Explorer that has the biggest teeth. The Explorer ST is motivated by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 that delivers 400 horsepower to all four wheels. There isn't an overwhelming amount of power, despite that impressive output, and this works to the advantage of the ST. The driving experience feels nicely honed, like the engineers developing the suspension, engine, and handling all had a positive working relationship.

That's not always the case with mega-trucks with almighty engines under their hoods. Sure, you have straight-line performance to rival an Aston Martin, but you're stuck with the fuel bills of a Ferrari and the ride of a hay-wagon riding on wonky wheels. Toggle the drive mode selector into Sport, and the engine starts to truly growl, the 10-speed transmission holds gears longer, and the steering gets added heft. This is silly fun, in a sensible family-SUV kind of way. And yes, there is even room for actual adults in the third-row seating.

If you want everything in your Explorer, the Platinum trim level is the one to choose. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

Explorer Platinum is the touch-screen king

If you're lazy when it comes to the dealership experience and want everything loaded onto your three-row SUV, then consider the Explorer Platinum. This is the range-topping model of the lineup and it comes with all the luxury and tech touches you could want.

Fancy some 21-inch alloy wheels and a gigantic panoramic moonroof? They're both available and were fitted to my test vehicle. There is also three-zone climate control, hill descent control, onboard Wi-Fi, a 980-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system, and full suite of safety features. Take off the Ford emblems and you could fool yourself into thinking you're in a luxury-branded SUV, it's really that opulent.

The cabin is handsome, but what's with the over-sized touch screen? Photo: Nick Kurczewski

Unfortunately, my Explorer Platinum also came with the available 10.1-inch touch screen for the infotainment system. Normally a larger screen means the controls are easier to use, especially when on the move. But I can't help but think the one fitted in the Explorer looks like someone glued a laptop onto the dashboard.

The standard screen looks better integrated into the dash and, truthfully, they both operated with the same speed.

Speaking of speed, the Platinum has a slightly detuned version the of twin-turbo V-6 you get in the ST. There is 365 horsepower on tap, which means this midsize SUV has plenty of power whenever you need it. The ride is also quiet and controlled, the Explorer never feels like some broad-shouldered brute that's forgotten its manners.

The Explorer Limited offers better MPGs, not to mention a lower price. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

Less Explorer can be better

I know, the twin-turbo engines are exciting, and I enjoyed all the tech features cooked into the ST and Platinum. But in everyday driving, and with a true budget in mind, the Explorer Limited with its turbocharged four-cylinder is the best pick of the bunch.

This is one trim level above the base XLT, and the 300-horsepower engine offers more than enough grunt for city and highway driving. It doesn't sound too exciting, but how many people are buying three-row SUVs for their exhaust note?

The cabin of the Explorer Limited is only a small step behind what you get in the Platinum. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

With a starting price here in the U.S. of about $49,000, the Limited isn't a bargain mobile. In fact, it's roughly $12,000 more than the base price of the 2020 Ford Explorer XLT.

But once you start adding desirable options into the lower trim level, it's easy to reach the very nicely-equipped Limited's price range. You get most of luxury touches found on the Platinum, but have to make do with only the turbo-four. That's fine, especially considering it offers substantially better mileage then the turbo V-6 models.

A Hybrid variant is also offered. Except the extra money you spend on it (roughly $4,000 atop the Limited's price here in the U.S.) makes it hard to justify.

The Ford Explorer is back in the battle among the best three-row SUVs. Photo: Nick Kurczewski

If you want power, there is the ST. If you desire every conceivable option in a Ford SUV, there's always the Platinum.

The Hybrid model is there if you prefer a modestly green image attached to your sport-utility. Or, if you want plenty of safety features and a premium feel, there's the Limited. It's the ideal combination of mainstream-meets-luxury, particularly since the turbo four-cylinder and 10-speed automatic gearbox do such a fine job of getting it down the road.

Ford has done an excellent job of making the 2020 Explorer a better SUV by also making it a better truck. Imagine that?