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The 2020 Ford Explorer: This All-New SUV Will Help Save the Mustang

All the details on Ford’s new RWD three-row family hauler.

Not a moment too soon, the 2020 Ford Explorer makes its debut on a new, flexible longitudinal-engine, rear-wheel-drive based unibody platform that we first saw under Lincoln’s three-row Aviator.

We say it’s just in time because the Explorer—the outgoing front-drive-based model of which has been around since the 2011 model year—slid 3.5 percent in sales last year. But more important to enthusiasts like us, the new rear-drive-based platform makes the next Mustang feasible amidst the automaker’s cost-cutting reorganization efforts that will see it kill off almost every non-SUV in its lineup. Until the Aviator and new Explorer arrive in showrooms, the Mustang is the only unibody Ford or Lincoln product that’s not front-drive based.

The base engine for the 2020 Explorer is the familiar 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder, although with a 20-hp increase to an even 300 horses. Torque remains unchanged at 310 lb-ft. A 365-hp, 385-lb-ft 3.0-liter EcoBoost V-6 will be available in the top-trim Explorer Platinum, while both engines mate exclusively to a 10-speed automatic transmission. Maximum towing capacity is 5,600 pounds.

Using a metals cocktail that includes more high-strength steel than before and some aluminum panels, the new model is on average 200 pounds lighter than the old model, says Ford. About 25 percent of the structure is high-strength boron steel, says chief engineer Bill Gubing, and at the same time Ford is claiming best-in-class cargo space, headroom, and hip room. The second and third row seats can fold completely flat, with the second row having been redesigned for easy entry to the third row. There’s also a wider step pad for accessing the rearmost seats; it can also be used to access the roof rails. There are child-seat anchor points in all passenger seat positions from the middle row back.

The cargo compartment features covered storage, zippered cargo nets, and a reversible load floor with an easy-to-clean rubberized surface opposite the carpeted side, as well as a lip at its trailing edge intended to stop jars of sauce, apples, and other loose items from rolling out when the hatch is opened.

The 2020 Ford Explorer’s wheelbase grows by six inches from the current model’s 112.8, while overall length grows about 0.3 inch, to about 199 inches. The SUV will be available with all-wheel-drive or RWD throughout the mainstream trim level range, including base, XLT, Limited, and top-of-the-line Platinum. Hybrid and ST models are confirmed, too.The ’20 Explorer’s doors are thinner than the outgoing models’ to enhance elbow space, though overall width is essentially the same. Ford also emphasized the measures it took to make the new Explorer quiet inside, including the use of acoustic glass and active noise cancellation. A 14-speaker, 980-watt B&O audio system and a dual-panel moonroof will be available.

Some styling elements—especially the rear quarter-windows and, from some angles, the whole greenhouse—will look familiar to owners of the current model. From the driver’s seat or the second row, the new platform’s more capacious interior is obvious, though. The 2011–19 Ford Explorer’s Volvo-based D4 platform was distinct for its large body shell enveloping a tight-for-its-size interior. The designers and engineers reduced the depth of the instrument panel and heating/ventilation/air-conditioning system to help enhance interior roominess, as well.

Given the tallness inherent to an SUV, the increased dash-to-axle proportion usually bestowed by a longitudinal, rear-drive platform isn’t readily apparent, but the longer, flat hood is obvious, and the front overhang is notably short. This design is enhanced with a sharply creased horizontal character line running from front to back, below the beltline.

Ford plans to market the new Explorer as a more capable off-road vehicle for “adventurous” families, who will benefit from ground clearance of as much as 8.2 inches. AWD models get a new terrain management system, which includes Normal, Trail, Deep Snow/Sand, Slippery, Sport, Tow/Haul, and Eco settings, and an available reconfigurable digital display cluster changes with each different drive mode. A 10.1-inch capacitive touchscreen also is available, and uplevel interior options include heated and cooled eight-way front seats with five massage settings.

From a short test-sit of a Platinum trim level model, we can say the 2020 Ford Explorer has a clean, modern interior layout with good fit and finish and upscale-ish materials, though the tablet-style, portrait-orientation 10.1-inch display screen seems intrusive and prominent in a Tesla-wannabe manner, and some of the plastics, such as that used for the second-row cupholders between the captains’ chairs were average at best. Connectivity features include a wireless charging pad, four USB ports, a 110-volt outlet, three 12-volt sockets, a modem with 4G Wi-Fi, and updated Sync 3 with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The Explorer being Ford’s modern Country Squire family wagon, it will come with the usual head-spinning list of standard safety features, including automatic emergency braking, a blind-spot warning system, lane-keeping assist, automatic headlamps and high-beams and a rearview camera with its own washer. Optional safety features will include reverse brake assist, intelligent active cruise control with speed-limit sign recognition, active park assist version 2.0—which begs the question: How adventurous can you be if you can’t parallel park?—a 360-degree camera, a split-view front camera, and side-wind mitigation.

The 2020 Ford Explorer hits showrooms this summer, in time to claw back its lost sales and more, and a few years ahead of when we expect the Mustang to migrate to its platform.