STEVENSON, Washington—Ford Performance chief engineer Carl Widmann brought a Shelby Mustang GT350 to John McElroy’s “Autoline After Hours” studio a few weeks ago when I was a guest on the show, but exciting as that was, I couldn’t help but ask him about the 2020 Ford Explorer ST that I was about to drive for the first time. What could his team possibly do for a big, three-row SUV? “It’s about driver connectedness, a more emotional driving experience than maybe a base vehicle in that model lineup would be,” he responded.
The appearance part of that equation is easy. Black out the grille, badging, and trim for the windows, liftgate, and lower body; install black perforated leather seats with white stitching; and fit optional black-painted 21-inch wheels wearing 275/45 Michelin Latitude Sport tires. But what about the chassis? Surely the steering couldn’t be too quick on such a tall vehicle with a relatively high center of gravity, and you don’t want a harsh ride. No, he told me, but the steering could be linear and progressive in nature, so it’s not as quick as, say, that GT350’s on Cup 2 tires, but it could match the emotion, the attitude. Helping in that mission is a 400-hp, twin-turbo V-6 mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission.
Fair enough. Widmann’s Ford Performance had the advantage of building upon the Explorer’s new longitudinal-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform and all the dynamic benefits such bones provide. Of course, that is offset by more than two tons of vehicle mass taking up nearly 200 inches of overall length. So for the ’20 Explorer ST, the front springs are 10 percent stiffer and the rear springs are between eight and nine percent stiffer, Ford says. It has a 35-mm front anti-roll bar, with a 22-mm piece in the back; both are hollow and larger in diameter than on other Explorers, and there are unique jounce bumpers. Splurging for the ST gets you special calibrations for the power steering and transmission; for example, the paddle shifters command faster shifts when the ST is in its Sport mode—there are seven adjustable chassis modes—versus in other Explorer models. An optional ST brake package adds larger rotors, unique calipers, and metallic high-performance brake pads.
So, how does it work? The upgraded jounce bumpers helped. There’s slight bit of wallow coming off a jounce in an Explorer Platinum, but not in the Explorer ST. The steering is just quick enough for a five-foot, eight-inch tall wagon, though the difference is marginal. The transmission upshifts quickly enough, and responds to paddle-actuated shifts in much the same manner, although the system will not let you hold a gear at redline. It upshifts itself, actually doing so a few hundred revs short of the 3.0-liter turbo V-6’s 6,500-rpm redline. Best to forget the paddles and let the Sport setting find the shift points, then.
The 2020 Ford Explorer ST comes standard with intelligent all-wheel drive, meaning it can disconnect the front wheels when unneeded for efficiency benefits, and like all other trim levels features Normal, Sport, Trail, Slippery, Tow/Haul, Eco, and Deep Sand/Snow chassis modes. The drive modes determine the level of AWD intervention. There’s no separate switch between rear- and all-wheel drive. In the ST, the Sport mode has been calibrated to hold gears longer and add weight to the steering. Chassis engineers managed to avoid the pitfalls of a too-stiff suspension to overcome the SUV’s size and heft, though the big wheels’ unsprung weight transmits through the steering wheel and also create a fair amount of road noise. The latter is not excessive, but it’s more obvious than on other Explorers.
Mostly, the highest-performing version of this new family SUV feels like you’re driving the sporty, slightly more naughty version of something more anodyne. A floored throttle pedal gives you a quick, linear launch as in the 365-hp Platinum, but then the ST kicks with an afterburner jump as it upshifts through second and third. Limited in what Ford Performance can do with the ride-and-handling balance, the ST ultimately is, like the other 2020 Explorers, a highway family vacation hauler. The performance flavor is mostly derived from the quick and powerful engine, and the sporty trim.
Even enthusiasts will want to weigh the advantages of the ST versus the more luxurious Platinum, which has a base price $3,810 higher but includes the $1,695 moonroof as standard equipment. It also has a nicer interior, with two-tone seats and a stitched, leather-covered dash. It depends on how much contrast in mission you can accept in your fleet if your new family hauler is garaged next to a sports car.
Ford says the Explorer’s new rear-drive platform was designed as a dedicated SUV architecture, and the automaker has made the most out of it for this model, especially with its handsome styling. But the dynamic advantages simply get lost in a vehicle of this size. There’s no real way to feel the RWD bias on a curvy mountain road without going hellaciously quick, and its sheer size—and maybe your self-preservation instincts—mean you’re never truly going to toss this SUV in or out of a corner very fast.
For some time, the word was that the new Explorer (as well as its Lincoln Aviator relative) adopted on this platform to put volume into a rear-wheel-drive replacement for the transverse-engine Continental, but then that Conti replacement was cancelled. And the next Ford Mustang, which is to migrate to this platform, has been delayed; the current pony will gallop through at least the middle of the next decade. Meanwhile, the next two-row midsize Ford Edge and Lincoln Nautilus will migrate to this architecture, and if you’re going to become an empty nester in the next couple of years, a RWD-based Edge ST might be worth waiting for.
2020 Ford Explorer ST Specifications
|ON SALE||Late summer|
|ENGINES||3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6; 400 hp @ 5500 rpm, 415 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||18/24 mpg|
|L x W x H||198.8 x 78.9 x 69.9-70.2 in|
|0–60 MPH||5.5 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||143 mph (mfr)|