All hail the return of the rear-wheel-drive Ford Explorer


When the Ford Explorer moved to a front- or all-wheel-drive crossover platform in 2011, fans of old-school truck-like SUVs shed a tear as one more ladder-frame vehicle bit the dust. Not that anyone else seemed to mind: Sales doubled that year and kept climbing to the Explorer’s modern sales peak of 238,056 in 2017 (a record 445,017 units were sold in 2000). Now, with the 2020 model riding on an all-new, rear- or all-wheel-drive platform, enthusiasts and soccer moms alike can once again unify under the same banner.

The Explorer uses Ford’s new CD6 platform and shares many underpinnings with the 2020 Lincoln Aviator. This new modular unibody architecture is also rumored to underpin the next generation Mustang. But let’s get back to the three-row SUV. The switch to rear-drive upsets the conventional wisdom that front-wheel-drive is more space-efficient, mostly due to the advances in packaging in the new car. And, probably more significant, towing capacity is up as much as 600 pounds, to a maximum of 5300 pounds.

Base price of the 2020 Explorer holds nearly steady at $33,860, just $400 more than the outgoing model.

New models, new engine

2020 Ford Explorer Limited in the woods
2020 Ford Explorer Limited Ford

The Explorer Sport is no more, replaced by an ST model. Official information for that and the Explorer Hybrid will be available early next week. The rest of the Explorer lineup features two engines: A turbocharged 2.3-liter four and a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6. The base 2.3 engine carries over from the previous model but now with 300 horsepower, a 10-hp boost. The Ecoboost 3.0-liter, new to the Explorer and standard on the Platinum model, comes with 365 hp and 380 pound-feet of torque. All Explorer engines are paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission, controlled by a rotary shift dial on the center console

Bigger and better inside

2020 Ford Explorer Platinum interior
2020 Ford Explorer Platinum Ford

With the outgoing Explorer dating back to 2011, and based on a less-than-ideal platform, Ford was able to make significant improvements in the interior space. The company claims best in class cargo space, first- and second-row hip room, and second-row head room. At a press preview event I climbed back into the third row, and my long-torso 5-foot-9-inch frame fit with headroom to spare, something not often the case. The second row also features a wide step just inside the door to ease entry and help access cargo on the roof.

In our limited time poking around the new Explorer, the interior looks and feels nice. Platinum trim features a vertical touchscreen and second-row window shades. All version come with a reversible rear floor panel: Flip it over to put messy items on a rugged plastic surface and keep the carpet clean.

All the technology

2020 Ford Explorer Limited front 3/4 driving
2020 Ford Explorer Limited Ford

What Ford calls Copilot 360 is standard on all Explorer models, and including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot warning, lane-keeping assist, a reverse backup camera (with a washer nozzle to keep the view clear), and automatic high beams. An available adaptive cruise control system adds automatic speed limit recognition, to help you avoid accidentally screaming through a school zone. (And if you prefer full control, you can switch off both the adaptive and speed limit functions.)

There’s also an updated active parking feature, which now works without any driver input. The new Active Park Assist 2.0 takes control of the throttle and brake to automatically park in parallel and perpendicular space, and to pull out of perpendicular spots. Once the system is active, the driver merely holds a finger on the activation button.

2020 Ford Explorer Platinum entertainment center
2020 Ford Explorer Platinum Ford

One last headline item among a long list of features is Ford’s Terrain Management System, first used on the F-150 Raptor. It features seven different calibrations for the powertrain and traction control depending on the driving situation, such as snow, trails, or towing.

Coming summer 2019

2020 Ford Explorer Limited rear 3/4
2020 Ford Explorer Limited Ford

Did we mention that the 2020 Ford Explorer now comes in rear-wheel-drive? That means that even for a large, lumbering three-row SUV the Explorer should be pretty fun to drive. And if that’s not your priority, you can bask in the luxury of massaging front seats and convenience like child seat anchors in all five aft seat positions. Like we said, enthusiasts and soccer moms are hereby united once more.

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