Explorer ST puts the sport into sport-utility (at a price) …
Ford’s Explorer is the ubiquitous family SUV. It’s likely today’s 20- and 30-somethings think of Explorer as what mom and dad, their uncles, cousins and maybe a brother or sister drove, or still drive.
There are a lot of Explorers on the road and to be honest, Explorer was one of the first super popular SUVs to persuade car buyers to switch to trucks. At its peak it was selling more than 400,000 units a year. After just a few years on the market it became one of the top 10 best-selling vehicles of the year.
So 30 years after its launch, the 2020 model gets a full remake with a new rear-wheel-drive platform that is still trucky, but is said to further refine the ride and handling of the Explorer. And, after its restyling, the Explorer continues to offer something for everyone needing, or wanting, a mid-size to large SUV.
My great looking Atlas Blue Metallic (dark metallic blue) test truck was the upscale performance-minded ST model, not at all what most folks picture as an SUV. This version is a rocket, and I’m not using that term loosely. It’s also not the Explorer most families will buy.
Most will opt for the base or XLT, or maybe the Limited model, all with torquey 2.3-liter EcoBoost I4s that generate a healthy 300 horses and rate a modest 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.
This ST is a throbbing 400-horsepower missile ready for launch with a twin-turbo 3.0-liter Ecoboost V6 to pump power into those rear wheels. Or, if it’s slippery, it can power all four wheels with its fancy Terrain Management System. Most of us would call that AWD, but it is highly adjustable with seven drive modes from Eco for those wanting to pretend they are conscious of their gas mileage, to Sport that drastically firms up the steering and allows its 10-speed automatic to perk up acceleration to racetrack levels.
Oh, and yes there are mud and snow settings too, in case you want to take your SUV off-road, or you live in the snowy Midwest and just need the traction to climb up your neighborhood street after the latest blizzard.
I was lucky to only have to deal with heavy rains during my week-long test drive and traction with the ST’s 21-inch tires was no problem. Other models come standard with 20-inch tires.
As I said, the ST jumps away from stoplights sort of like a Mustang or other muscle car with a V8 or turbo-V6. In Sport mode the exhaust system sings a sweet tune for muscle car lovers, gurgling and grumbling like a NASCAR pulling away from the pits. In Normal mode there’s some burble too, but just a hint compared to the more exciting Sport setting sound effects.
Ford’s 10-speed automatic seems perfectly suited to the twin-turbo power of the V6 and as I did a fair amount of driving in Normal mode, the SUV was still peppy as all get-out and slipped seamlessly through the gears.
Handling is firm and sporty in all modes and the large 4,700-lb. ute barely exhibits body lean in tight turns. Sport significantly tightens the steering feel.
Ride is where the ST model suffers. I’ve heard from other auto writers how comfy the other model Explorers now ride, but the ST’s sport ride is extremely firm so you feel all the road imperfections. It’s not punishing as in some sport sedans and coupes, but there are jolts that will get a driver’s attention.
Braking though is excellent (part of the ST performance package for $995) and there’s even a side-wind stabilization system to help ease highway drives when gusty winds are prevalent. Sadly, my test truck went home a day before we were experiencing 50-mph gusts, so I didn’t get to experience how much that system may help.
Safety? Sure, Ford includes its Co-Pilot 360 safety equipment, emergency braking with pedestrian recognition, a blind-spot monitoring system and lane-keep assist. That lane-keep system slightly tugs at the wheel to keep the vehicle centered in its lane, which is most helpful when cruising the freeway, otherwise an annoyance. Also annoying are the SUV’s giant A-pillars and mirror combo that cut into side sight lines.
Inside, the Explorer is well laid out, but not overly fancy considering its price. Seats were black leather with gray stitching and black dash with black textured trim. The console is matte silver and door handles and console edging and steering wheel hub are satin chrome.
A large 12.3-inch iPad-like info screen sits upright mid-dash. The good news, it’s large, but it looks awkward, and everyone who rode in the car wanted to grab it and put it in their lap. It does NOT detach! Also, as these screens become more prevalent in all cars it should be noted that some simple functions of the past become harder to find and use on screens, especially while driving.
This screen worked well and wisely Ford included volume and tuning knobs on the dash below the screen. All climate controls also were conveniently on buttons spread across the dash, just above the console and a lidded storage area.
Seats are extremely comfortable in the Explorer, well contoured to provide good lower back and hip support. Front seats are heated, cooled and powered, plus there’s a 3-memory setting for the driver’s seat. Likewise, the power tilt/telescope steering wheel also is heated.
But, the Explorer’s actual heating system falls short of warming the driver’s feet, at least in automatic mode. After about 10 minutes of driving each morning I found I needed to kick the fan speed up at least one, if not two, speeds to pump enough warm air to keep my toes toasty. Also, redirecting the heat solely to the foot wells helped once the fan speed was increased.
On the positive side, the test truck added dual sunroofs, costing $1,695 extra, along with a premium tech package for $995 that includes 14 stereo speakers, multi-contour front seats and a larger touchscreen if this had been a lower line vehicle. The larger screen is standard on the ST.
On the coolness side, the Explorer ST shines a bright red ST logo on the ground in the form of puddle lights to help you find your way at night.
On the practical side, Explorer comes with a third row seat to increase seating capacity to seven. With the center row captain’s chairs in the ST really six is the maximum. Those third row seats can be lowered or raised via buttons inside the hatch, which is a powered unit. Cargo space is generous ranging from 18.2 cu.ft. behind the raised third-row seat up to 87.8 cu.ft. when both rear rows of seats are lowered.
Need to tow a boat, etc.? The Explorer maxes out at 5,600 lbs. of tow capacity.
Gas mileage is just so-so with an EPA rating of 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway in the ST. In cold weather I managed just 15.1 mpg, so not great.
Then there’s the price. A base rear-drive Explorer with the smaller turbocharged I4 engine starts at a modest $33,860 including delivery. AWD adds $2,000 to the price. The base, XLT and Limited models are the value-priced models. Meanwhile, the tested ST starts at a hefty $55,835, including delivery. With options, the test truck hit $59,520.
Compare that with trucks like Toyota’s Highlander and Lincoln’s new Aviator. Certainly at the top end of its model lineup the Explorer gets pricey.
Note too that a hybrid Explorer is new for 2020. That’s the Limited HEV and comes with AWD and a combined 318 hp. It lists at $55,570.
Explorer mostly remains an SUV mainstay, but the ST is a rare breed of full-on performance SUV.
FAST STATS: 2020 Ford Explorer ST AWD
Hits: A rocket of an SUV with good handling, 7 drive modes and AWD, plus stellar exhaust note matches sporty image. Well laid out interior with comfy contoured leather power seats, heated/cooled seats, 3-memory seat settings, heated wheel, dual sunroofs, easy radio controls and separate climate controls. Power tilt/telescope steering wheel, power collapsing rear seats, power hatch, and full array of safety devices.
Misses: Stiff ride, poor floor heat, iPad type screen sticks up from mid-dash, large A-pillar.
Made in: Chicago, Ill.
Engine: 3.0-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V6, 400 hp
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Weight: 4,701 lbs.
Wheelbase: 119.1 in.
Length: 199.3 in.
Cargo: 18.2 cu.ft. (seats up), 47.9 (third row down), 87.8 (all rear seats down)
Tow: 5,600 lbs.
MPG: 15.1 (tested)
Base Price: $55,835 (includes delivery)
Twin-panel moon roof, $1,695
Premium tech package (14 speakers, 10.1-inch LCD portrait touchscreen, multi-contour front seats), $995
ST street pack (performance brakes, 21-inch wheels), $995
Test vehicle: $59,520
Sources: Ford, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage