Each discovery of brave new worlds is made with some notable conveyance. The Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria brought Christopher Columbus to the North American continent in the late 15th century. The Ford Explorer (UN46) brought its namesake carmaker into the late 20th century automotive quest for light truck rugged, but family utility friendly sports utility vehicles. With marginal non-domestic competition its first 4 generations the Explorer nameplate, taken from a 6th generation F-series pickup truck trim, has reigned as America’s most popular family sports utility vehicle. Sales stand at 8 million and counting.
The fall of the car from consumer’s grace, in the early 2000 teens, set fire to a slew of Davids to battle Ford’s full-size family crossover Goliath. Defending against all comers, an all new 6th generation Explorer showed up last year. This year, Blue Oval’s Sports Technologies division, with neither Fiesta nor Focus to have a hand in, concocted a mother of a bad ass SUV for soccer and hockey parents, which can “SHO”w it’s LED taillights to the competition: the 2020 Ford Explorer ST.
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WHAT: 2020 Ford Explorer ST 4×4 3- Row off-road capable, full-sized sport utility vehicle.
Std. Power: intercooled twin-turbocharged 3.0L DOHC 24V DI gas V-6 w/ idle Start/ Stop = 400 hp / 415 lb-ft @3500 rpm + 10-spd. torque converter planetary automatic transaxle. It marks the first return to longitudinal powertrain, rear drive layout after 8 years.
- -75 hp, -55 lb-ft and lacks Track Mode vs. Dodge Durango SRT 6.4L
- 11.75 lb/hp vs. Dodge Durango SRT 6.4L 11.57 lb/hp
WHAT (A) STYLING DIFFERENCE: 6th generation, code name U625, built on the current CD6 platform shared with the Lincoln Aviator. It replaces the 5th generation U502 series, itself based on the lamented late Ford Taurus D4 sedan.
√ Tandem dual hood bulges; √ Back slanting widened hexagonal dark chainlink grille supporting upper swept back lighting; √ Bolder mid fascia chin with mid air-intake and flanking straked fog lamp brows; √ Dark clad lower air dam rising in center with housings;
√ Dramatic rear rising belt line mirrored by tandem mid and lower body creases; Muscular fenders; √ Kinked C pillar followed by darkened privacy glass and darkened D-pillar for floating roof effect; √ Straked roof followed by twin bulge spoiler; √ Punched out mid liftgate; √ “C” LED “F” wrapping taillamps; √ Inverse “U” mid liftgate with prominent darkened grab bar; √ Dark clad lower rear fascia with wider tow connection housing and dual corner twin exhaust pipes.
- Specifically ST = all glass and accent trim darkened; full body and wheel arch dark lower cladding; ST badges lower right front grille and rear liftgate; darkened bold font “EXPLORER” lettering on hood overhang.
WHY: SHO-ing a performance full size crossover
WHEN: On-Sale (in the U.S.) since late Summer 2019
WHERE: Ford new vehicle dealers
WHERE MADE: Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
- Standard all-wheel drive = PTU to electronic coupling viscous clutch differential, rear ABS torque vectoring
- Nominal / maximum front to rear torque split = 0:100 / 50:50
- 7 drive modes: Sand – Deep Snow, Trail, Slippery, Normal, Eco, Sport, Tow – Haul
ABS Hill descent control; 8.3″ clearance = Snow commanding, but swap out those road performance tires for any planned mud + sand raking, or light off-roading.
HOW ROADWORTHY: Lag reducing lower mass turbo impellers give this new 3.0L Ecoboost more responsive respiration than the previous 3.5L. The torque explosion starts higher than in other forced induction applications. This application of the Ford-GM 10-speed automatic, is calibrated for more deliberation than in a ‘Stang or ‘Maro, with nary an inclination to throttle brake. That’s how Explorer ST delivers on the fuel economy. Even the rear wheel biased all-wheel drive disallows upshift chirps. It A mere jab at the throttle won’t get the Explorer ST anywhere close to sideways. Putting the foot into it, however brings a civilized torrent of the impressive power well close to the 6200 rpm cutoff. -1 Depressing the transmission position dial = clumsy manumatic shifting.
- Weight distribution has improved from 54:46% to 51:49% front to rear
- Mass is pared about 3% from the 5th generation Explorer through martensitic steel, some aluminum (hood, carriers) and magnesium parts
- +10%:8% front to rear spring stiffness vs. Explorer Platinum
- +1.5 mm sway bars vs. Explorer Platinum
S[H]O unlike a sports sedan, a top-heavy sensation lingers. Rebound damping compliance struggles with bob proclivity. See the Ford SVT’s magic on the F-150 Raptor. Aft biased all-wheel drive brilliantly reins in oversteer dance almost too early. Helm assist weight is burdensome in the slog, and surface feel is wanting. While 3-season summer rubber is available, the Street Pack’s all-season 21″ inch Pirelli Scorpions haul are ample anchors. The bigger front brake kit suffers no heavy footed fade. Cabin sound is amply diminished except when the powerplant is prodded to grunt.
HOW FAR: 20 combined miles per gallon = 33% > Dodge Durango SRT
HOW BIG/ LITTLE: √ 6 Occupant seating = full-size 2+2+2 SUV style: Row 3 = Sufficient knee & head room for 2 adults < 5’10”; √ Standard 2nd Row captain chairs; √ Panoramic moonroof with power sunshade = hurts that 3rd Row headroom; √ Ample family camping.
- Wheelbase 119.1″ = 0.7″ < Dodge Durango SRT
- Row 2, Row 3 legroom = +0.4″, +0.7″ vs. Dodge Durango SRT
HOW USEFUL: √ Comfort approach variable height power liftgate; √ Power flat folding 40/20/40% split 2nd Row tilt, sliding outboard seatbacks w/ twin cargo bay release latches; √ Power remote cargo area 3rd Row seat fold & raise; +1 Large sub-cargo floor cargo management w/ reversable hard cover; +1 Long 1st & 2nd Row door pockets; +1 Deep center armrest space w/ fore mobile handset slot; +1 3rd Row wall storage and outboard floor cargo management.
- Cargo Volume (max.) = 4% > Dodge Durango SRT
- Tow rating: 5600 lbs. = 36% < Dodge Durango SRT
- Cargo Volume (max.) = 4% > Dodge Durango SRT
HOW SAFE: STANDARD: Good to Acceptable IIHS scores; √ 10 airbags; √ Rear camera w/ predictive grid; √ Audible rear park assist; √ Roll mitigation; √ MyKey restrictive access; Ford Co-Pilot360: √ Blind Spot, rear cross traffic Warning; √ Post collision S.O.S. alert; Lane Departure Warning & Steer Prevention; √ Forward collision, pedestrian detection warning w/ avoidance braking; -1 Dim headlights
AVAILABLE (included in tester)
- Surround View camera w/ sonar proximity warning
- Ford Co-Pilot360 Assist Plus: Full adaptive cruise control; Emergency evasive steering, Lane center steering.
- Active Park Assist: -1 perpendicular parking struggled.
- Automatic high beam headlamps, rain sensing interval wipers
HOW PEOPLE FRIENDLY: Ford already has a sumptuous cabin as witnessed in the last sampled 2018 Expedition. Instead 2020 Explorer ST gets an upsized version of the newly minted, economy minded Escape compact crossover. Switchgear successfully reduced in number? Yep. Gemlike rotary transmission selector and climate dials? Has those. Steering wheel remote controls fully horizontal spoke integrated? Sure, but with little visual distinction. Mid dash span carbon fiber and center console aluminum accents? Uh-huh. But what about the multi-level dash tiering flowing aimlessly? Undressed climate vents jutting out. Chrome tipped door switch and other buttons engaging far too mechanically. Cohesive? Yes. Functional? Sure. Emotional? Not very, unless a fading Ford ST ignition sequence in the 11″ portrait center mid-dash infotainment screen and a lonely ST emblem at the bottom of the D-shaped steering wheel can induce heart tremors.
√ Leather seating – heated Rows 1 + 2, cooled Row 1; √ Wide berth, sport bolstered front bucket seats; √ 10-way power front seats, w/ 3-setting driver memory; √ Heated leather steering wheel with spoke integrated tactile redundant controls; √ Automatic 3-zone climate control; √ 2nd Row climate fan and seat heating controls; √ Large center console ribbed rotary metallic transmission position and Drive mode dials; √ Overhead console retracting sunglasses bin; √ Power folding side mirrors.
-1 Limited steering wheel reach adjustment; Short 2nd Row seat cushions; Power liftgate, lock switch on liftgate [rather than cargo area panel].
Cool Gizmo(s): √ 12.3″ Drive mode variable color TFT virtual gauge cluster, with mountain range welcome & variable Ford model adaptive cruise control indicator; √ Panoramic glass roof; √ Driver’s and front passengers seat variable massage; √ Variable color foot well, center console & door panel ambient lighting; √ Red ST lettering front door puddle lamps
Details Done Right: √ Contrast stitched leather; √ Smooth soft touch dash and door padding; √ Carbon fiber mid dash accents; √ Aluminum center console and accents; √ Ribbed metal rotary transmission selector
Nearly Non-Descript: -1 Coarse grain below waist-height, pillar, aft cabin wall plastic cabin trim; Steering wheel spoke controls lack tactile distinctiveness; Non-fluid door and secondary switch action.
√ Ford MyTouch Sync3 portait oriented 10.1″-inch capacitive touch LCD infotainment screen; √ Bluetooth & voice command hands-free communications; √ GPS HDD Navigation w/ 3-D map, voice guidance; √ SMS text messaging; √ USB-A x 2, USB-C x 1, 12V x 4 (includes cargo), 115V AC x 1 (2nd Row)
+1 Concealed forward center console wireless device storage; Qi inductive device charging pocket aft of center armrest.
-1 Only 1 2nd Row, and no 3rd Row USB ports
HOW “APP” -LICABLE:
√ Android Auto / Apple Car Play smart phone overlays; √ 14-speaker, 980 watt B&O Play audio shrills the highs; √ Sync3 Apps;
+1 Extensive Sync3 voice command lexicon understands plain language.
By Subscription: √ Sirius XM Traffic & TravelLink apps (5 yrs. included); √ Wi-Fi hot spot (by Verizon Wireless)
HOW MUCH: $59,920 = 2020 Ford Explorer ST, as tested w/ Street Pack and one track instruction day at the Ford Performance Racing School in Grantsville, Utah.
WHAT’S MISSING: Cabin finish distinction; Better rebound damping.
ANY COMPETITION: Dodge Durango SRT: +1 naturally aspirated V-8, track modes, Performance Pages display; -1 Poor fuel economy
(Contributing Editor: J. Flynn)