With the SUV craze still at a frenzied level, it’s no wonder automakers are trying to slice off ever more niche pieces of the pie in order to make crossovers all things to all people. While lamenting the slow and agonizing demise of sports cars, I find myself routinely regarding sport-utes with disdain, yet also a healthy level of respect for what they can do.
And while I can’t imagine there are that many people who need to haul a dog, a boat, and six other people to the cottage on a path that happens to have a rocky stream crossing and a detour to the race track, Ford is happy to sell you an Explorer ST built for exactly that.
Power: 8.5/ 10
Let’s get right to it: the 2020 Ford Explorer ST has 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. There is virtually nothing from a mainstream brand that comes close to this lunacy in a three-row crossover, and during a week-long test, it’s the power that became the focal point of this rig.
The team at Dodge is the only bunch crazier than the folks at Ford, since it’s possible to get an SRT version of the ancient Durango SUV whose monstrous 6.4L V8 bellows to the tune of 475 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. But you’ll pay dearly for that level of craziness – and not only for its nearly $80,000 price tag, but at the gas pump, too. The more competitively priced Durango R/T has a smaller V8, but falls well short on power.
In this Explorer ST, Ford uses its 3.0L EcoBoost that’s been dialled up from the Platinum trim’s already impressive output to the big four-oh-oh. And thanks to a pair of turbochargers, it generates its big numbers without as many revs as those Dodge V8s require. This means when the driver wants thrust it’s available – and in large doses – making passing a breeze and surprising fellow motorists as the big family wagon zips away from a stoplight with authority.
All that gusto is managed by a 10-speed automatic transmission. In Eco and Comfort modes, the shifts are virtually undetectable, but in Sport mode, they’re notably quicker, but also far more abrupt. Pleasingly, despite so many cogs, the transmission doesn’t suffer from constantly hunting for the right gear the way some other similarly stuffed gearboxes do. The only time the transmission’s volumes are noticeable is when the driver is after a burst of speed while cruising efficiently in top gear, which requires a slight pause and a drop of three or even four gears before the Explorer launches.
Driving Feel: 7/10
It’s simply awesome how capable some SUVs have become in terms of handling and performance, and the Explorer ST deserves some of that admiration. It’s a big machine, weighing in at over 2,000 kg and measuring more than five metres in length, yet thanks to its stiffer suspension and beefier sway bars than other Explorers, it keeps from leaning on its side mirrors when cornering. The big 275-mm Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires it rides on offer enough grip to cling to the pavement, and it helps that Ford’s all-wheel drive system does a good job of doling out the power where it’s needed, too.
Still, make no mistake – a vehicle this large and heavy is not a substitute for a sports sedan. It drives well, but only for a vehicle of its size, and it’s certainly not what one would call “nimble.”
My tester was fitted with the $1,500 ST Street Pack that adds higher performance brakes with larger, red-painted calipers and vented rotors. These brakes offer plenty of stopping power, but they’re very grabby, making smooth braking around town a bit tricky.
Comfort: 7 /10
The ST Street Pack also adds black-painted 21-inch wheels and those meaty tires that look great but conspire with the sportier suspension tuning to make the ride a bit rougher than other Explorer models. Alas, such is the trade-off of sportier handling. The ride is far from harsh though, and does a very good job of soaking up moderate bumps completely and, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t crash over big potholes.
There’s plenty of cabin space inside, and even the third row offers decent comfort. The second row of my tester features standard captain’s chairs that move fore and aft for legroom, while also reclining. The front seats are heated and ventilated, and, thanks to a $1,500 Premium Technology Package, are also massaging. My driving companion and I found ourselves using the massage feature more often than expected since the seats themselves were not as comfortable as we had hoped, with strangely placed seams and contours causing both of us back fatigue prematurely.
Fuel Economy: 6.5/10
For several years now, Ford has promoted its EcoBoost turbocharged engines as a perfect balance between superior power and efficiency compared to larger, normally aspirated engines. Certainly, compared to competitive V8 models, the Explorer ST’s twin-turbo V6 consumes less fuel, but in normal driving, it’s very difficult to achieve the government figures of 13.3 L/100 km city, 9.8 highway, and 11.8 combined. After a week of driving – with the majority being highway cruising – I still saw an indicated average in the low 12s.
Unlike its competitors, the Explorer ST prefers premium fuel to regular, and its 68 L fuel tank is on the small side for such a large and somewhat thirsty machine, limiting its driving range between fill-ups.
Features: 8.5 /10
The Explorer ST comes very well equipped with niceties like those heated and ventilated leather seats, power-folding rear seats, a heated steering wheel, self-parking functionality, and an infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
My tester was optioned up with the aforementioned massaging seats, plus a 14-speaker sound system and an enormous panoramic sunroof, all helping the Explorer feel like a proper luxury vehicle.
User Friendliness: 7/10
The standard infotainment system in the Explorer is a horizontally oriented touchscreen, but my optioned-up version featured a vertically oriented 10.1-inch touchscreen that doesn’t seem to add any benefit other than being able to display a map – or smartphone mirroring – simultaneously with audio information at the bottom of the screen. It’s meant to be familiar to tablet users and indeed it looks like someone has stuck an iPad to the dashboard as a bit of an afterthought.
Still, the system is laid out simply enough to allow for a quick learning curve, but the responsiveness is somewhat lacking, with the drive mode displays that show up in the full LCD instrument pod being particularly slow to respond when a different setting is selected.
There are simple knobs and buttons for key climate control and volume/tuning functions, and the steering wheel has enough buttons for plenty of redundancy control without being overwhelming. The rotary-dial gear selector worked well without providing the frustration of easily overshooting the desired gear that I’ve experienced with other similar setups recently.
The 2020 Explorer is equipped with the usual suite of airbags and safety structure, but in ST trim it also comes standard with adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, plus collision avoidance, evasive steering assist and lane-keeping assistant.
The 2020 Explorer’s styling is an evolutionary step beyond the previous generation. Ford’s designers have exercised considerable restraint with the new Explorer, yet succeeded in making it appreciably better-looking than last year’s model. The profile of the new Explorer has taller bodywork and squatter side glass, making it look longer, lower and sleeker than the previous model despite being slightly taller in reality.
The interior’s styling is well done, too, again without being overly flashy, though some of the trim and plastics give a cheap appearance.
People choose large SUVs like the Explorer for their practicality, and Ford has ensured theirs is useful in many utilitarian roles. In addition to its people-hauling abilities, the Explorer is cavernous with the rear and second-row seats folded, swallowing nearly 2,500 L worth of stuff. Compared to most of the Explorer’s competitors, which top out around 2,268 kg (5,000 lb) of capacity, those equipped with the 3.0L EcoBoost engine are rated for a decent max tow rating 2,540 kg (5,600 lb) – although this falls well-short of the Dodge Durango’s 3,266 kg rating.
The Ford Explorer ST is a very well equipped vehicle, and with its performance capabilities is in a class of very few. It’s nearly $60,000 cost may seem steep for a non-premium brand SUV, but given its impressive combination of power, style, and content levels, the Explorer in ST trim makes a pretty compelling case to forego many premium brands. Its option packages are also very reasonably priced meaning that a fully loaded Explorer ST can undercut its competition by a fair margin.
There are plenty of great choices in the three-row SUV realm, particularly from a luxury standpoint. But for one with the performance chops of the Explorer ST, the choices are very few. Ford has done a great job offering up a handsome, well-equipped, and genuinely impressive large sport ute that compromises very little on the practicality front. Buyers looking for a little excitement with their family vehicle should give the Explorer ST a careful look.
|Peak Horsepower||400 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||415 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||13.3/9.8/11.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||516 / 1,357 / 2,487 behind 3rd/2nd/1st row|
|Model Tested||2020 Ford Explorer ST|
|Price as Tested||$66,449|
$5,400 – Floor liners, $200; Twin Panel Moonroof, $1,750; Premium Technology Package, $1,500; ST Street Pack, $1,500, Rapid Red Paint, $450