2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid first drive review: A new kind of Explorer

When the Ford Explorer launched some 30 years ago, it was an instant hit. Since then, more than 8 million Explorers have found happy homes, and this totally redesigned, sixth-gen 2020 Explorer should only further the SUV's appeal, especially for those looking for the extra practicality and efficiency of a hybrid.

The Explorer might not look all that different than its predecessor, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The new model enhances the old one's look with a slightly more tapered roofline, nicely sculpted body sides, and a longer wheelbase with shorter front and rear overhangs. Sleeker headlights and redesigned fog lights spruce up the front fascia, though the Explorer's rump looks largely the same as before.

The big change for 2020 is actually underneath the Explorer's skin. The longer wheelbase comes courtesy of a new, rear-wheel-drive platform, which is a big departure from the front-drive architecture normally used for midsize crossovers. The rear-drive platform not only makes the Explorer a little better to drive, with better overall handling, it means the SUV can tow a maximum of 5,600 pounds.

The Explorer's base engine is a 2.3-liter, turbocharged, EcoBoost I4 making 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. Stepping up from there, you'll find a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 with a more robust 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet. The ST gets a higher-output version of that 3.0-liter engine, with 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet -- stay tuned for a separate review of this model later. Finally, we get to the brand-new Explorer Hybrid, which is the version I'm testing for the sake of this first drive.

Electrified, not electric

Under the hood, the Explorer Hybrid has a 3.3-liter, naturally aspirated V6, complemented by a 1.5-kilowatt-hour battery and 35-kilowatt electric motor. The Hybrid delivers a total of 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque, and buyers can spec the electrified powertrain with either rear- or all-wheel drive. A 10-speed automatic transmission handles shifting duties.

The Explorer Hybrid doesn't allow me to choose when it uses electric power, and it just operates in its most efficient mode all the time. It relies on battery-only power at parking lot speeds, the engine kicking in when you're up and moving on the road. The Explorer Hybrid certainly doesn't leap off the line, but it gets up to speed quickly enough, and offers ample power for cruising and passing along the open highways of my test route.

The Explorer Hybrid represents a whole new model for Ford.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The Hybrid doesn't struggle on a steep, winding, uphill climb, either. The 10-speed transmission doesn't hunt for gears, and will happily skip a cog or two when needed. On the way down, the Hybrid's regenerative brakes don't feel all that different from the Explorer's standard stoppers, with progressive pedal response and no grabby tendencies.

Neither Ford or the EPA have official fuel economy data for the 2020 Explorer Hybrid yet, though the automaker says the electrified SUV should be able to travel about 500 miles between fill-ups. The Explorer has an 18-gallon fuel tank, so my quick math estimates a 27- or 28-mpg rating.

While the powertrain itself dictates how much of the battery's energy is used at any time, drivers can select between Normal, Sport and Eco modes to adjust things like throttle tip in, transmission shift points and steering feel. Furthermore, a Slippery mode improves traction in slick conditions, and a Trail, Deep Snow and Sand modes help the Explorer get through tougher terrain. Finally, there's a Tow/Haul drive mode that keeps the transmission in a higher gear for more power when dragging a trailer. It's also worth noting that while non-hybrid Explorer models can tow as much as the aforementioned 5,600 pounds, the Hybrid is limited to 5,000. Still, that's a fair bit more than a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which is only rated to tow 3,500 pounds.

Just fine in the dirt

The redesigned Explorer's shorter overhangs make it more agile off road, with a 20-degree approach angle to better help it get up and over obstacles. The Hybrid can ford up to 18 inches of water, and the available hill-descent control keeps the Explorer nice and steady on a 45-degree slope (though the system is pretty noisy). The Explorer isn't a serious off-roader, but it's nice to know plenty of capability is baked in, for those who like a good off-the-beaten-path adventure.

Standard on my all-wheel-drive Hybrid tester are Michelin's trick new SelfSeal tires. These rollers come with a cured, natural rubber inside the tire, which works as a sealant to fill most tread punctures and can help slow down leaks. Unlike some run-flat tires, which have a very stiff sidewall, the SelfSeal tires don't compromise on traction or ride quality. Even with large, 20-inch wheels, the Hybrid doesn't crash over potholes and offers a compliant ride. And hey, if you do gash the sidewall on a huge rock, the Explorer still comes with a spare tire.

Every Explorer comes with Ford's Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance suite, which bundles things like blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist. The Hybrid, though, comes standard with the Assist+ pack, which adds adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech, speed limit sign recognition and evasive steering assist.

The gasoline-electric powertrain is only available on the Explorer Limited trim, so it comes with standard equipment like LED headlights and taillights, rain-sensing wipers, heated and cooled front seats, heated captain's chairs in the second row and power-folding third row seats. Speaking of which, the second-row seats fold up quickly for easy access to the third row, though the way-back is kind of tight for passengers. Fold the seats down and you'll find nearly 88 cubic feet of cargo space and a big enough area to haul four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood.

Overall, the interior isn't hugely different from before, with the exception of the optional, 10.1-inch, portrait-oriented infotainment display. My Limited Hybrid model, however, has the standard, 8-inch screen along with embedded navigation, a Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A wireless charging pad is also standard on this trim, and there are myriad 12-volt, USB-A and USB-C ports scattered throughout the cabin.

An optional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster is an optional bit of tech, with a function called the Calm Screen, which only displays a small amount of information in order to reduce distraction. Think of it as a modern take on Saab's old Night Panel function.

In general, the 2020 Ford Explorer represents a nice improvement over its predecessor. It's not a massive leap forward in any way, but that's because the fifth-gen model was already decent and well-liked by consumers. If I can register any complaint, it's that the hybrid drivetrain is pretty loud, even with the Explorer's active noise-cancellation tech.

The Hybrid is pretty expensive, too: $52,280 to start or $57,975 all loaded up like the one you see here, including $1,095 for destination. Yes, it's based on the Limited trim, but keep in mind the aforementioned Highlander Hybrid starts around $37,000. Heck, even the three-row Lexus RX 450h is cheaper.

Originally published June 18, 2:00 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:00 a.m.: Replaced an incorrect value for the Explorer Hybrid's battery capacity.
Update, July 5: Adds tech check video.

It's pretty, but it's pricey, too.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

However, you can save a few bucks by opting for the base XLT model, starting at $36,395. A non-hybrid Limited trim starts at $48,130 while the Platinum jumps up to $58,250. New for 2020 is an ST variant for those go-fast families, starting at $54,740.

Still, I have no doubt the Explorer -- and its Hybrid variant -- will be well received by SUV-hungry shoppers. It looks great and packs up all the tech buyers in this segment want, while offering better driving dynamics and even more off-road and hauling capability. The Ford Explorer was already a solid offering in the midsize SUV space, and this 2020 model only improves on those attributes.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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