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The 2020 Ford Explorer.

Petrina Gentile

The Ford Explorer has a rich history, dating back nearly 30 years. But how do you inject new life into a familiar old nameplate that’s facing more competition than ever before? Ford’s solution is simple: Build a broader lineup by adding an all-new hybrid and a high-performance sport technology model to the family.

The hybrid makes sense – after all, it is part of Ford’s massive US$11-billion restructuring plan to bring more electric vehicles and hybrids to the market. But an ST? Who really needs a high-performance three-row SUV?

“We have a very strong customer base with ST. The ST is superhot on the Edge [Ford’s mid-sized crossover SUV.] Itʼs well exceeding our internal targets,” says Ed Krenz, chief functional engineer of Ford Performance, the automakerʼs motorsport division. “Our customers are very vocal with our migration out of cars. They feel very passionately about the product. We believe there’s a customer that wants the exhilaration of driving in an SUV,” he adds.

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Krenz nailed it when it comes to the Explorer ST’s ride and handling. Itʼs dynamic, especially along the scenic Columbia River Gorge, nestled between Washington State and Oregon. Under the hood is a specially tuned 3.0-litre turbocharged Ecoboost V-6 engine that pumps out 400 hp and 415 lb-ft. of torque. With a top speed of 230 km/h, it’s the fastest Ford Explorer ever built.

The ST is the fastest Explorer Ford has ever built.

Petrina Gentile

Along the Gorge’s winding roads, the Explorer is composed, well balanced and quick. It can hit 100 km/h from zero in about 5.5 seconds – a pleasant surprise, given its hefty size and weight. A new 10-speed automatic shifts quickly and seamlessly. And a new rear-wheel-drive architecture makes it feel sportier behind the wheel. A flat-bottom steering wheel with palm grips and thumb rests emphasize its performance attributes. Turn a dial on the centre console to change the driving mode to sport for a more spirited drive. Other drive modes include trail, deep snow and sand, slippery, sport, tow/haul and eco.

While the ST might be for a niche buyer, the hybrid isn’t. Other than the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, competition is slim in this segment. At its heart is a 3.3-litre six-cylinder gas-electric hybrid generating 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque. It has a driving range of about 800 kilometres.

All new from the ground up, the hybrid has a specially designed liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery built into the Explorer chassis. The battery pack sits under the second-row seats to save cargo and passenger space while creating a more balanced centre of gravity. It’s able to tow up to 5,000 pounds (or 2,267 kilograms). Towing a 4,500-pound boat behind me, the hybrid struggled a few times on inclines, but for the most part, it’s a confident and capable hauler. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell I was towing a boat.

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The hybrid is an entirely capable hauler.

Petrina Gentile

Likewise, its off-road capabilities are impressive – although not that many owners are likely to take an Explorer off-road. Tested on a short loop in Stevenson, Wash., the hybrid drives easily through water a foot deep, and climbs and descends hills as if they were pavement. A hill-descent system also applies the brake and throttle as needed when you’re driving downhill. The driver doesn’t need to touch a pedal.

Another cool tech feature that requires little driver input is the new Active Park Assist 2.0 – it’s a parking aid that helps with parallel or perpendicular parking. I tested it on a closed course. It’s simple to use. When looking for a parking spot, press the “P” button on the centre console to engage the system. It’ll scan for a spot and when it finds one, it will alert you. Shift into neutral, release the brake, and press and hold the “P” button. The system takes over the steering, gas, braking and shifting, and automatically parks the vehicle in the parking spot. The driver doesn’t touch the steering wheel or pedal, or even shift a gear. It works like a charm, sliding into a tight spot between two other vehicles in less than a minute – much better than many competitors.

Active Park Assist 2.0 will automatically manoeuvre the Explorer into parallel or perpendicular parking spaces.

Petrina Gentile

The system isn’t standard on the base model – you have to move up the trim ladder to get it, but at least all Explorers get Ford’s Co-Pilot360, a package of bundled safety features that includes automatic high beams, a blind-spot-monitoring system with cross-traffic alert, a lane-keeping assist system that warns the driver if you unintentionally drift out of the lane and guides the car back in, and a precollision-assist system with pedestrian-detection and automatic emergency braking. Itʼs nice to see these tech features offered as standard equipment on all models.

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Tech specs

  • Base price: $45,199-$64,599
  • Engines: 2.3-litre turbocharged Ecoboost inline-four with 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque; a 3.0L turbocharged Ecoboost V-6 engine with 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque; a 3.3L 6-cylinder gas/electric hybrid with 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque (combined); ST trim gets a specially tuned 3L turbocharged V-6 with 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque
  • Transmission/Drive: 10-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km city and highway): 10.3 combined (I-4); 11.8 (V-6); hybrid N/A
  • Alternatives: Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Mazda CX-9, VW Atlas

Looks

The ST gets a slightly bolder look than the rest of the Explorer line.

Petrina Gentile

Unfortunately, the design isn’t a strong selling point. It isn’t a dramatic leap forward from the previous generation. In fact, it looks like the last version, retaining familiar traits such as blacked out A-pillars and D-pillars and body-coloured C-pillars. At least the ST gets a bolder look to make it stand out from the family; the hybrid falls under the radar with only a tiny hybrid decal at the rear to differentiate it from its siblings.

Interior

Adults can comfortably ride in the back row.

Petrina Gentile

The modern, spacious cabin features cool technology, including an available new 12.3-inch digital cluster and a 10-inch portrait-mounted touch screen that acts like a smartphone, so you can pinch and zoom as needed. The front seats are supportive, as are the second-row seats. All three rows have excellent headroom and legroom; even adults can sit in the back without feeling claustrophobic. New mechanisms on the second and third rows allow you to drop the seats easily and quickly.

Performance

The new ST is the fastest and most powerful Explorer ever built. It has a specially tuned 3-litre Ecoboost engine that pumps out 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. Okay – who really needs all that power in an SUV to take the kids to school or hockey practice? No one. But itʼs nice to have bragging rights and a sportier drive when doing mundane task. It adds a fun factor to an unassuming SUV and an uncommon touch that you can’t find on many competitors.

Technology

The Explorer has an impressive suite of technology and safety features.

Petrina Gentile

Two thumbs up for the impressive and abundant safety technology features, including Active Park Assist 2.0, automatic high beams, a precollision-assist system with pedestrian-detection and automatic emergency braking, and intelligent-adaptive cruise control, to name a few. Other cool tech features: A 4G LTE WiFi hotspot that lets you connect 10 devices to your car; a wireless charging pad, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Cargo

The Explorer's cargo space is impressive – even moreso with the seats folded down.

Petrina Gentile

Cargo space has increased; the Explorer now has 515 litres of space behind the third row. Drop those seats and it expands to 1,356 litres. When the seats are folded, it creates a long, flat cargo space that’s great for carrying longer and wider items in a pinch.

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The verdict: 8

The all-new Explorer is a comfortable, capable three-row SUV that gets an edge over the competition, thanks to a new fuel-efficient hybrid and a high-performance ST model added to the family.

The ST's surprising power gives it an edge on its three-row SUV rivals.

Petrina Gentile

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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