(Ford)

NAIAS 2019: The tech-savvy next-generation Ford Explorer

Ford's popular three-row SUV goes RWD and adds family-focused innovations.

The 6th-generation Ford Explorer looks to retain its all-time best-selling-SUV in America status by adding driver assist and other technologies, while dropping its former FWD/AWD platform. The Ford Explorer and its Lincoln Aviator sibling are the first midsize SUVs arriving in the marketplace after the automaker’s 2018 downshift from nine global platforms to five flexible vehicle architectures. “This is a pretty significant change for us,” Hau Thai Tang, Ford Motor Company’s executive VP of product development and purchasing told reporters at the 2020 Explorer’s January 9 global debut at Ford Field.

The 2020 Explorer reflects the learnings of a product development team that has been with the vehicle over multiple cycles, Thai Tang explained, noting: “They have a really good, intuitive understanding of our utility vehicle customers and what’s made the Explorer so successful. We’re just building on that.”

The new RWD architecture is paired with an available intelligent 4-wheel-drive system that provides a front-axle disconnect, and the next-generation Explorer will employ a mix of materials, including aluminum alloys and ultra-high-strength steels for a base curb weight of 4345-lb (1970 kg). When properly equipped, the 2020 SUV provides a 5600-lb (2540 kg) towing capacity, 600 lb (272) more than its predecessor.

New-for-Explorer technology includes a standard 10-speed automatic transmission (replacing a 6-speed), an available 10.1-inch/256-mm touch screen that’s mounted vertically on the center stack, and an available Terrain Management System with up to seven selectable drive modes, including deep snow and sand, sport, and tow/haul.

The vehicle’s standard Co-Pilot360 is a package of driver assist technologies including rearview camera with built-in lens washer, hill start assist, and pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection. The available Ford Co-Pilot Assist adds driver assist technologies such as adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, and a “smart” lane-centering feature. “It’s smart enough that if there’s a large vehicle in the lane next to you, it will bias the vehicle toward the other side of the lane – exactly what a human driver would do,” Thai-Tang explained.

The Explorer’s cabin features a few clever, low-cost innovations. “We molded a ledge into the second row center console so you can stack a tablet, and the kids sitting in the third row can watch the same screen,” Thai-Tang said. Even cupholders received an upgrade to accommodate either bottles or juice boxes. “Those types of things came from observing customers and how they use the product,” Thai-Tang said.

Base, XLT and Limited Explorer models will be powered by a 2.3-L turbocharged EcoBoost I-4 that produces an estimated 300 hp/310 lb·ft (224 kW/420 Nm), while the Explorer Platinum will be powered by a 3.0-L twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 that provides an estimated 365 hp/380 lb·ft (272 kW/515 Nm). The 119.1-in (3025 mm) wheelbase SUV will be produced at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, and will also be offered in high-performance and hybrid-electric versions. Vehicles are slated to begin arriving at dealerships in the summer of 2019.

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