Ford Motor Co. unveiled the sixth generation of its venerable Explorer SUV in Detroit on Wednesday night, as it looks to keep pace with changing consumer preferences and advances in technology.
The 2020 Explorer, revealed at Ford Field in advance of the North American Auto Show in Detroit next week, switches back to a rear-wheel-drive architecture, a move that improves the styling as well as towing and off-road capability.
The SUV has a leaner, more athletic appearance, with a graceful sloping roofline that offers a hint of the Land Rover Velar, but is larger. Sculpted body lines stretch from the front wheel well to the tailgate. It has a wide front with an aggressive chain-mesh grille.
It is 200 pounds lighter than the current model, thanks to the use of more aluminum and high-strength steel. It’s also faster and has more passenger and cargo space.
Better gas mileage, longer range
Ford improved the three-row SUV’s fuel economy, giving it “more range on a single tank of fuel than ever before,”said Jim Farley, the automaker’s executive vice president. Ford, however, has not provided fuel economy ratings for the SUV’s different engine configurations.
Other changes include two new Explorer variants: a hybrid version and the ST performance model. The standard engine will be Ford’s 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. It will deliver up to 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. There’s also an optional 3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost V6 projected to produce 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque when using 93-octane gas. That would make it the most powerful Explorer ever.
All trims of the 2020 Explorer will come standard with Ford’s CoPilot360 system, a suite of driver’s assistance technology that includes automatic emergency braking and blind-spot alerts that work when towing a trailer or boat. Also included is a lane-keeping function, a rear-view camera with a self-cleaning lens and automatic headlights and high beams. Side wind-mitigation technology keeps the SUV steady in gusts, and a braking system triggers following a collision to stop any resulting momentum.
Each of the three rows has adjustable climate control. The vehicle also includes extra hidden cargo space.
“Every little part has been rethought with the customer in demand,” said Craig Patterson, marketing manager in charge of SUVs for Ford.
Examples include a lip on the rear cargo mat meant to prevent loose articles from tumbling out when the tailgate lifts. Ford split four USB ports among first two rows, including two in the new USB-C format. There also is a conventional 110-volt wall socket. The base model has an 8-inch touch screen in the center console, while the top trim level has an optional Tesla-esque portrait-oriented, 10.1-inch screen. Both are capacitive LED touch screens, like a tablet, and come with pinch-to-zoom capability.
More towing capability
The new Explorer tows up to 5,600 pounds, a 12 percent increase over the current generation. Its terrain-management settings allow drivers to better navigate differing road conditions that include icy pavement, deep snow and dirt trails.
Although the new Explorer will come with more features and better performance, Ford is keeping the starting price on the base model almost level, projecting an increase of just $400 over the current $32,365 MSRP. The extra standard content over the current model includes the new 2.3-liter engine with 10-speed automatic transmission and rotary gear shift dial, CoPilot360 system, a power liftgate and redesigned seats.
Farley said the 2020 Explorer represents a value purchase in the three-row SUV segment and competes well with Range Rover but for far less money.
But the price of the hybrid and upper trim levels could be considerably higher, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Automotive. “I’m not sure where the top end will be.”
“And with financing getting more expensive, changing affordability, we will see how consumers react,” she said.
From the start Ford is marketing the new model as an adventure vehicle for families.
“Our families deserve to spend less time looking at screens and more time seeing America together,” said Bill Ford, the automaker’s executive chairman. “We are losing the close connection with nature and the outdoors that we once had.”
The automaker also is looking for the Explorer to signal the direction in which its design and equipment plans are headed in future vehicles as it retools its lineup.
“This Explorer is the pace car for a whole new utility lineup,” Farley said. “We will be rolling out our highest-volume (SUVs), and it starts with this vehicle.”
The Explorer is one of Ford’s best-known nameplates. The automaker has sold 7.7 million since its 1990 introduction. But it no longer dominates the lineup as it has in prior years. Explorer sales peaked in 2000 at 445,157 vehicles, when the SUV accounted for 13.1 percent of Ford sales.
The company sold 261,571 Explorers last year, narrowly trailing Ford’s smaller Escape, which posted sales of 272,228 and was the automaker’s best-selling vehicle after the F-Series pickup truck line.
The original model offered many of the creature comforts of a sedan — including designer themes such as the Eddie Bauer edition — but with a toughness that performed well in the snow and occasional off-road venture. It also provided interior space rivaling that found in a minivan.
“The first Explorer was the first SUV really designed around daily family consumer needs rather than vocational or off-road duties,” said Ed Kim, an analyst with automotive consulting firm AutoPacific. “It paved the way for the crossover that would dominate the market years later.”
Despite a safety scare involving Firestone tires on the vehicles, it turned into a sales behemoth and spawned the SUV revolution. Larger, high-standing vehicles such as SUVs, crossover and pickup trucks now account for nearly 70 percent of light-vehicle sales in the U.S.
Buyers are shunning sedans because larger SUVs can typically carry more people and gear comfortably. Additionally, safety technology like Ford is packing into the new Explorer – forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking, backup camera, blind-spot alert and other driver assistance systems – make larger vehicles easier to maneuver.
Over time the Explorer morphed into a big, three-row crossover, and it remains one of the top sellers in that segment.
“Millennials are having families now, and those young families need roomy three-row crossover SUV products,” AutoPacific’s Kim said.
Sales expected to grow
While the overall light-vehicle market is expected to decline in the coming years, volume for the Explorer’s segment will rise to well over 1.9 million units in 2023 from almost 1.8 million last year, according to AutoPacific.
“The new Explorer makes Ford competitive in that segment again,” IHS’ Brinley said. “It doesn’t bring much new that isn’t already in the industry, but it looks terrific, and adding the hybrid powertrain is going to be a good move.”
The vehicle has played an important role in the development of the U.S. auto market, Brinley said. “It is the defining ‘we can go anywhere vehicle.’ ”
“This explorer will continue to hold that place,” she said.
The Explorer lineup now features standard, XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, ST and Platinum models and will go on sale this summer.