The 2020 Ford Explorer ST has no V-8, but plenty of muscle

2020 Ford Explorer ST driving

Its quarter panels are still under the tarp, but the wind has blown the tattered cover from the front half of the Chevelle. It’s a ‘67 with rally wheels and SS badges.

There’s good car spotting on the Washington State side of the Columbia River, and the yard art continues as we push the new 400-hp 2020 Ford Explorer ST along the region’s rural mountain roads. After the next series of tight bends and a few short straights, we spot a square-body Chevy hidden in the trees quickly followed by a rusting ’68 fastback Mustang and a used-up Ramcharger.

Picking up the pace, we press on in search of more treasure, and begin to explore the limits of Ford’s new high-performance SUV, which is packing a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6, optional 21-inch summer tires and an all-new rear-wheel-drive chassis it’ll share with the Lincoln Aviator. Ford says the all-wheel drive six-seater will hit 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. That’s quicker than the Focus ST hot hatch and the more powerful SVT Raptor, which shares its 10-speed automatic transmission.

First introduced in 1991, the midsize Ford Explorer used a ladder-type frame from the company’s pickups until 2010. Then it went front-wheel drive, sharing its architecture with the Ford Flex. Along the way, it became America’s best-selling SUV of all time.

New bones, new threads

2020 Ford Explorer ST front quarter
Ford

With this redesign, the sixth generation of the Explorer is the first with rear-wheel and unibody construction, so its layout is now similar to SUVs from Germany like the BMW X5 and Mercedes GLE. It also has a lower center of gravity than before, while ground clearance is up about an inch.

Although its looks longer, lower, wider, and more muscular than its predecessor, its dimensions are almost identical, with one exception. Ford has increased the wheelbase 6.3 inches, pushing the front wheels forward for better balance. Under the large aluminum hood, most of the V-6 sits beneath the SUV’s cowl.

“The engine placement is radically rearward,” says Ed Krenz, Ford Performance chief functional engineer. “We were able to push the front wheels forward and the engine back relative to the prior generation.”

As a result, just 51.3 percent of the Explorer ST’s 4701 pounds are over its front tires, and that balance can be felt on the road. It understeers at the limit, but it’s very mild, just enough to let you know you’re approaching its extent of adhesion.

An Explorer for all appetites

2020 Ford Explorer ST in the mountains
Ford

Base, XLT, and Limited models still get the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder rated at 300 hp, so they’re plenty quick, and there’s a 318-hp Hybrid model with a naturally aspirated 3.3-liter V-6—a modular hybrid version of the 10-speed with a small battery pack. These models are rear-wheel drive, but the all-wheel drive system is offered. At just 4345 pounds, a rear-wheel drive base model, with its 310 lb-ft of torque, won’t be very far behind an ST at the drag strip.  

Starting at about $56,000, the ST replaces the Sport in the Explorer’s extensive list of available trims, and it shares quite a bit with the top-of-the-line Platinum model, which gets a 365-hp version of the boosted 3.0-liter. The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 that powered the Sport, and is still used in the Raptor and Expedition, is no longer offered.

You won’t miss it. With 415 lb-ft of torque, the ST has plenty of skedaddle off the line and it pulls hard to 6000 rpm, which is when the 10-speed usually clicks off another gear. It isn’t holy-moly fast, but it’s quick enough to push you back in the seat and hold you there. The transmission does have a manual mode, although it still upshifts itself at six grand at wide open throttle.

In Sport mode, the steering and throttle response tighten and the transmission holds gears longer and shifts quicker, but the changes are subtle. There are also more engine sounds in the cabin, which are “enhanced” artificially in the ST and Platinum models.

No V-8

2020 Ford Explorer ST front
Ford

With the Explorer’s new rear-drive chassis, some enthusiasts were hoping for a return to V-8 power. An Explorer ST powered by the Mustang GT’s 5.0-liter Coyote and/or the supercharged 700+ hp 5.2-liter from the new Shelby GT500 would create a firebreather that could take on Dodge’s 392 Hemi-powered Durango SRT and the Hellcat-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“They don’t drop in,” Krenz says of the company’s two double-overhead-cam V-8s. “We never close the door on exploring those kinds of options, but no, we’re not looking into that.” Hmmm, we know a door slam when we hear one.

More than muscle

2020 Ford Explorer ST front 3/4
Ford

Instead of Germany’s Nürburgring, the Explorer ST’s dynamics were developed

on Virginia International Raceway and Michigan’s Grattan Raceway. Engineers stiffened its suspension with 10 percent more front spring rate and an eight percent increase in the rear. They’ve also added 1.5mm thicker sway bars, so there’s a total of nine percent more roll stiffness than there is in the Platinum.

Body control is excellent and there’s very little roll, but some may find its ride to be a bit too firm around town. We prefer the Platinum’s more refined compliance, but its suspension gets a bit floppy when you’re pushing it around, while the ST stays composed. The Platinum offers just as much grip as the ST; it’s just not as stable or fun to drive at the limit.

Both models also get the same standard all-wheel-drive system, which always sends more than 50 percent of the engine’s power to the rear tires, and they share brakes, which are easily cooked on a hard downhill run.

To fix this problem, Ford’s engineers have created two dealer-installed upgrades. The $995 ST Street Pack adds larger rotors, more aggressive brake pads, red-painted calipers, and a set of all-season Pirelli Scorpion Zeros, which are also optional on the Platinum, and measure 275/45R21. Standard rubber on all models is a set of 20-inch all-seasons.

For $1595, the High Performance Package adds the rotors, even more aggressive brake pads, and a set of Michelin summer tires, which have noticeably more grip than the Pirellis.

A mixed bag inside

2020 Ford Explorer ST interior
Ford

Unfortunately, the ST’s seats are also shared with the Platinum and they aren’t up to the g-loads generated by the summer tires. They can feel spongy and their bolsters aren’t aggressive enough to hold you in place. Ford Performance says the ST is “track ready,” and it may be, but its seats aren’t even close.

Otherwise, the interior space, functionality, and features are competitive for the class. Driver visibility is greatly improved thanks to a slightly higher seating position, thinner A-pillars, and a lower hoodline. There’s also a thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, although its flat bottom seems kinda hokey.

Every ST gets a big 10.1-inch infotainment touchscreen with navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and onboard Wi-Fi. We also like its digital 12.3-inch gauge cluster that reconfigures itself as you click through the SUV’s four available driving modes: Tow, Sport, Eco, and Normal. Ford says the standard third row offers more room than before. But don’t expect too much—it’s still a kid zone.

Ford’s Co-Pilot360 suite of driver aids is also standard, along with a Class III Trailer Tow Package, trailer sway control, and a 5600-pound max tow rating. Although that’s 600 more than the previous Explorer, it’s 2100 pounds less than the Durango SRT.

Ready to carry the torch

2020 Ford Explorer ST profile
Ford

After a few hours of hard driving, it’s clear the new Explorer ST is an impressive piece. It isn’t just Ford’s quickest and best performing SUV ever; pull the Mustang and the GT supercar from the mix, and this is the brand’s best-performing model.

Now let’s go back and look at that Chevelle.