The 2020 Ford Explorer lineup is based on the all-new global rear-wheel-drive architecture and includes a new hybrid version along with an ST model from the Ford Performance division. (Ford)

2020 Ford Explorer: Knockout styling caches all-new engineering

Debuting a RWD global architecture and new hybrid system, the 2020 Explorer brings a host of new tech along with stunning styling.

Already America’s all-time best-selling SUV, the all-new 2020 Ford Explorer is cast on an entirely new global rear-wheel-drive (RWD) architecture and boasts the first Ford application of it new modular hybrid transmission (MHT). The lighter and stronger architecture underpins the broadest Explorer lineup yet, featuring a new hybrid, an ST model, more powerful EcoBoost powertrains, all-10-speed gearboxes and a host of new safety/convenience tech. With new styling that is razor sharp, consumers would have likely flocked to it regardless.

The biggest news for the 2020 Explorer is the new global RWD architecture, with the Explorer being the first application for Ford (Lincoln has already debuted its version with the all-new Aviator). “When you start all-new, the exciting part is you get to work on not only upping the game, but you get to listen to feedback on the prior product, its shortcomings or opportunities,” explained Scott Slimak, the vehicle engineering manager on the new Explorer. “When you're all new, you get to go after all that. You get a chance to wipe the slate clean.”

The all-new architecture is noticeably stiffer, and shifts the Explorer from FWD/AWD to RWD/AWD, a boon for towing capability. Maximum towing capacity only jumps 600 pounds for the V6 models (from 5,000 to 5,600 pounds, a 12-percent increase), but that spec doesn’t do the new architecture justice. A better measure is the change in towing capacity for 4-cylinder models, which jumps from 3,000 to 5,300 pounds, a 77-percent increase over the outgoing model.

All new MHT hybrid
With the all-new RWD architecture came the opportunity to create a new hybrid setup, and one designed for the rigors and use-cycles of a large, three-row SUV, including towing. “We knew right away that we wanted to enable this rear wheel drive architecture to enable hybrid technology,” Slimak (below) explained. “Much better when you get in from the ground floor because now you can really think about where you want to put the battery pack.”

The new hybrid setup is a “no compromise” system built around the new 10-speed automatic and does not impact passenger or cargo space. A similar system will appear on a host of future Ford products, including the F-150. “We can now place the battery pack strategically under the seats, outside of the passenger compartment,” Slimak said. “So we're not giving up luggage space, package space or seating or head room. And you get the win-win because now the battery pack's lower so our Cg is lower, and we don't compromise on towing.”

The Explorer Hybrid use a naturally aspirated 3.3-L V6, paired with an electric motor integrated into the 10-speed transmission, with total system power rated at 318 hp/322 lb ft. (237 kW/437 Nm). The liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery is mounted beneath the second-row seats. Ford did not provide a final EPA MPG rating, but claimed “more than 500 miles between fill-ups” for a rear-wheel-drive hybrid. The hybrid has an 18-gal. (68-L) fuel tank, which equates  to 27+ mpg.

For 2020, the hybrid will be offered in Limited trim only, one of five available trims (base, XLT, Limited, ST and Platinum). The base engine on the 2020 Explorer is a 2.3-L EcoBoost 4-cylinder producing 300 hp/310 lb-ft (224 kW/420 Nm). Platinum trims will provide a 3.0-L twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 (365 hp/380 lb-ft; 272 kW/515 Nm). The new ST version gets a hot-rodded version of the same 3.0-L EcoBoost rated at 400 hp/415 lb-ft (298 kW/563 Nm). All Explorers feature the new 10-speed automatic transmission, and are available with RWD or AWD.

Along with chassis mods including stout-looking 21-inch wheels, the new ST model nets the upgraded twin-turbo V-6, standard all-wheel-drive and a flat-bottomed, heated steering wheel. Two available packages for the ST (Street Pack, High-Performance Pack) provide performance brakes derived from the police package featuring larger vented rotors, red-painted brake calipers with stainless-steel pistons and larger brake pads.

Tons more tech, more convenience
The 2020 Explorer comes standard with Ford’s Co-Pilot360 suite of driver-assist tech that includes pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking, a blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic alert; lane-keep assist, rearview camera with built-in lens cleaner, auto high-beams and Post-Impact Braking to automatically apply the braking after a collision to lessen the impact from a secondary crash event.

The all-new Terrain Management System provides seven selectable drive modes (normal, trail, deep snow and sand, slippery, sport, tow/haul and a new eco mode), each with its own unique 3D animated cluster graphics. Sliding second-row seats improve third-row access, and the available power-folding third-row seats create a flat-floor cargo area rated at 87.8 ft2. Redesigned ISOFIX anchor points allow child seat installation anywhere in the second and third rows.

FordPass connectivity provides an app that permits owners to monitor key vehicle diagnostics and remotely lock, unlock, locate and start the vehicle, along with Wi-Fi connectivity for up to 10 devices. The second-gen of Ford’s Active Park Assist will manage parallel or perpendicular spots without having to work the steering wheel, gear shifter, gas pedal or brake pedal. The available reverse brake assist can apply the brakes automatically to avoid collisions at low speed, and a new adaptive cruise uses cameras to read speed-limit signs and adjust the cruise control accordingly.

The 2020 Explorer features an available 10.1-inch nav screen mounted in portrait configuration on the center stack. The vertical orientation takes a little getting used to, as it appears someone has left an iPad attached to your dash. We didn’t notice any major advantages or distractions from the vertical layout, though it does seem to provide a benefit in full-screen-map mode. The new vertical display uses capacitive glass similar to most smartphones and tablets for easy pinching and swiping, and the setup is Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Waze compatible.

A wireless charging pad is available on the new Explorer, as are new type-C USB outlets and a 980-watt, 14-speaker B&O audio system. The new 12.3-inch all-digital instrument cluster is bright and sharp, and uses 3D animated graphics to change information depending on which of the seven drive modes are selected. A new Calm Screen clears all data from the cluster except for speedometer and fuel readings.

Sharp duds for the road
We’re not ones to generally discuss styling, but the Explorer is so purposeful looking in the sheetmetal, it’s likely to help drive a new Ford profit center on looks alone. Even though outside dimension are roughly unchanged, its presence has been altered completely. The styling accentuates the rear-wheel-drive stature, with the sheetmetal drawn tight like a bow-string set to be unleashed.

“We grew the wheelbase but kept the outer dimensions. The height, the overall length, they're within a tenth of an inch, it's decimal dust,” Slimak explained. “Yet the whole stance and positioning of the vehicle looks more aggressive, with a wider stance. People are asking us, ‘Is it wider?’ No. It's not wider. ‘Is it taller? Longer?’ No.”

On the road, the new chassis and longer wheelbase are instantly apparent, and the three-row SUV tracks confidently, even when towing near its max capacity. The hybrid is swift and transparent, and is also effective when towing. A revelation was the RWD XLT trim with the base 2.3-L EcoBoost. It felt light, athletic and nimble, and should prove a great daily choice for families in kinder climates. We’d love to see a revived Explorer Sport with the 2.3-L EcoBoost, RWD only, and some of the suspension and brake bits from the ST.

The new interior helps accentuate the wide premium feeling of the cabin, and Ford’s new “revolution” seats provide better comfort than the previous (and somewhat woeful) Explorer perches, but could still use longer thigh support. The cabin was serene on a variety of road surfaces, and the new Explorer includes three major sound-reduction features – including a first-for-Ford dual-wall dashboard, acoustic glass and active noise cancellation on hybrid models.

Part of the quiet might come from the new Michelin Selfseal tires. The Explorer will be the first SUV to offer them, with the inner tread portion of the tire lined with a natural rubber sealant designed to withstand common nail and screw punctures. The tires do not have the extra sidewall structural reinforcements of a run-flat, so ride quality is (mercifully) unaffected, but they are not designed to work uninflated. They can be plugged like a normal tire, and all Explorer models are still equipped with a spare tire.

Explorer owners will also be able to add a host of Yakima outdoor accessories at the point of purchase. The Yakima catalog of Explorer accessories will include an assortment of racks to haul bikes, kayaks, canoes, skis, snowboards and even a slick new rooftop tent with its own access ladder. The all-new 2020 Ford Explorer SUV is on sale now, with hybrid models expected later this year, and will be manufactured at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant in Chicago, Illinois.

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