• First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

First Drive: 2020 Ford Explorer

The perfect family road-trip vehicle.

Dan Heyman By: Dan Heyman June 18, 2019


    • What’s Good: Varied powertrain choices including hybrid option
    • What’s Bad:  Only one Hybrid trim


The Ford Explorer has been redesigned from the ground up for 2020 and while at first glance, it may look similar to the outgoing model, there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

For starters, 2020 marks the debut of a new platform for the Explorer, one that gets its start as a RWD platform as opposed to an FWD one. While we’ll only be getting the AWD version in Canada across the four trims – XLT ($45,199), Limited ($52,199), Platinum ($64,599), ST ($59,099) – the fact that it starts out as a RWD system means that it’s much more likely to send power to the rear wheels unless the fronts need it – usually when slip’s detected. Used to be the other way ‘round. But this is a new day.

In practice, what this means is that while the Explorer is longer than previous and has a longer wheelbase, you don’t feel it quite so much because the rear bias inherently makes for a better turning radius. It’s great for when you’re in tight spaces, and great for when you need a little more performance, as you might in something like the ST.

Another big addition for 2020 is that of a hybrid powertrain option (Limited trim only, for $57,199), but not just any hybrid powertrain option: this one has been built so that it can do all the work the non-hybrid versions can, thanks in no small part to the addition of a traditional torque converter in the transmission, alongside the EV motor. Which, as it so happens, starts life as the same 10-speed auto that’s found on all other Explorers, whether you’re running the 2.3L or 3.0L EcoBoost turbo V6 engine.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

“Our whole point (with the hybrid) is that we have a no-compromise vehicle for the customer,” said Mark Kummer, Global Hybrid Transmission Manager for Explorer. “Whether you’re driving the hybrid, or driving the traditional gas engine, you shouldn’t really see any different perception in the vehicle.”

90 percent of the parts between the hybrid transmission and the 10-speed are common, so that means that other than the EV assembly, parts can be more easily replaced or repaired. Having said all that: while you may not feel the difference, say, while towing (as we’d soon find out for ourselves) the bottom line is the extra weight that the hybrid takes on means it can’t tow quite as much; it’s limited to 5,000 lbs., while the 2.7L and 3.0L models can haul 5,300 and 5,600, respectively. It’s not that the Hybrid can’t tow more, it’s just that, legally, it’s not allowed to.

But we’re getting ahead ourselves.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

More than just a new platform, the 2020 Explorer gets a host of styling adds including an entirely new front fascia with optional LED headlights and DRLs, three grill choices depending on which model you choose, new wheel choices and new colours both inside and out. The rear fascia doesn’t look quite as different from previous as the front does, but when it comes to SUVs and pickups, there isn’t all that much you can do with the rear deck save for maybe some different headlight lenses, a crease here and there and maybe some new exhaust tips. The profile view, meanwhile, is cleaner now that the gap between the hood and front fenders has been moved atop the hood, instead of above the front fenders, clamshell style.

Inside, there’s a host of new stuff but the addition most are likely going to notice is the touchscreen display on the higher Platinum and ST trims. Like what’s seen in Volvos, Teslas, and more recently, the Ram 1500, the display in the Explorer is now vertical. That makes scrolling through menus easier (and more can be fit on-screen) but whoo boy, the way it’s mounted really had me thinking an iPad was docked there.

You see, the standard screen is an 8” affair aligned horizontally, as is tradition. Obviously, building a whole new centre stack to properly accommodate the vertical screen was prohibitively expensive, so this is what we’re left with. It’s not that it’s bad; the screen is quite crisp, the graphics are nice and I actually found myself missing the ease-of-use it presents when I switched to the other screen size – it’s just that it looks so…odd.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

Either way; it’s your gateway to either a six-speaker or optional 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system and boy, is the latter ever good. Rich sound with speakers that don’t vibrate at all even when the bass gets heavy and a crisp midrange and treble all combine to provide a great experience for the audiophiles in the audience. B & O worked with Ford from the get-go to ensure that their system would fit seamlessly within the confines of the Explorer’s doors, dash and so on.

Of course Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also come as standard. Also available is a digital gauge cluster, that has a different look depending on which drive mode you’re in, and displays different info as well: tow mode, for example, brings the temp gauge and tach to prominence, while mud/ruts shows you the angle of the grade you’re currently on. There’s something to be said for being able to fully customize a screen like this, but it’s nice to not have to go through those motions every time, too, and just spin a console-mounted wheel instead.

Power from the 2.3L is rated at 300 hp and 310 lb-ft, channeled to all four wheels (but usually just the back two, as mentioned earlier) via a 10-speed automatic transmission – the only option you can get on the 2020 Explorer.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

While the 2.3 L option is not the most powerful – those honours go to the 365 hp ‘plant in the ST – the get up and go is remarkable, the Explorer feeling just a little more sprightly than its 4,343 lb. curb weight and 7-passenger digs would otherwise suggest. Turbo motors have been in-use in Ford trucks and SUVs for quite some time now, but that doesn’t stop my being pleasantly surprised whenever I step into one. It’s hard to believe the Explorer once had a V8; that seems positively antiquated in the SUV game at this point, and it’s because of engines like this. Heck, at one point on a loose gravel surface, there was enough power to actually get the rear end to step out a little. You don’t see that from many SUVs and CUVs these days. And this wasn’t even the most powerful one; we can’t comment on the ST for now, though, which gets an even bigger twin-turbo motor – look for our impressions of that model soon.

Handling-wise, the Explorer comes with a number of drive modes that affect the way power gets distributed, how heavy the steering is and so forth but in order for all of that to work, you need to start with a well-engineered platform. Ford has done so with the Explorer, providing a chassis that keeps body roll in check even with the responsive steering it provides. Not overly autocross-ready responsive, of course, but enough to help you quickly avoid road obstructions and so forth. The Explorer provides that, as well as the easy power required to help its case as the perfect family road-trip vehicle.

The turbo power is all well and good, bur you really want to hear about the hybrid, right? Of course you do.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

For this test, I did things a little backward in that I hooked the Hybrid up to a 4,500 lb. boat and trailer and actually tested its towing chops before I tested it unburdened. On top of that, I also had the chance to take it on a small off-road course before the open road; there’s something quite strange about driving on a 25-degree angle (you can tell because the digital gauge cluster displays this), but with no engine noise because you’re in EV mode.

That’s not something that ever happened when towing, though – in fact, it’s not something that will ever happen in towing because the EV portion of the powertrain can’t quite cope with that load. It coped just fine in hybrid mode, however, even over the few grades we attempted on our route. While I probably knew in my heart of hearts that Ford wouldn’t release the Hybrid if it wasn’t capable, I was still surprised by just how capable it felt, and so much of it is down to that transmission that’s been developed from the standard 10-speed, just with a few nips and tucks to make it work in a hybrid format. By keeping the 10-speed, though, they managed to keep the capability because according to Ford, the Hybrid should be used just as regularly and for just the same tasks as any other variant. That means it can still tow, it can carry just as many people, and it doesn’t lose cargo room.

It’s interesting because it’s actually when unburdened that you feel the biggest difference, because it’s here that you can really notice the weight difference between the Hybrid and the 2.3, which is an additional 300 pounds or so. As a result, the Hybrid takes a little longer to change directions, a little longer to get going even if it does make more power (318 hp combined) and torque (322 lb-ft) than the 2.3L EcoBoost models.

First Drive 2020 Ford Explorer

Which is fine in the numbers sense, I guess, but the real story of the Hybrid model is its capability and while EV trucks and SUVs are on the very near horizon, this particular hybrid remains an attractive choice. It’s just a shame that it’s available only on the Limited trim; perhaps it will filter down the range after Ford looks at sales over the first year or two.

The Explorer’s sales over the years have shown that it’s always been the attractive choice, and you have to think that this newfound focus on a complete line-up – from Hybrid to ST – will raise the Explorer’s brand profile that much more in buyers’ eyes. I know I stood up and took notice.