CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
To an undiscerning eye, the 2020 Ford Explorer doesn't look all that different from its predecessor. Sure, there are sleeker headlights, a more aggressively tapered roofline and sculpted body sides, but there's nothing revolutionary about it. Beneath its skin, however, some big changes took place. Its new, rear-wheel-drive platform with a 6-inch longer wheelbase, for example, is a big departure from its previous front-drive architecture.
Under the hood, customers can select from three different engine options. The base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, and for families with a need for speed, there's also a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 400 horsepower in the performance-focused ST trim. Those looking for max fuel economy, though, will be most interested in Ford's Explorer Hybrid with a bladder-busting driving range of more than 500 miles.
The 2020 Explorer Hybrid is the first electrified drivetrain offered by Ford in its popular midsize SUV. It combines a naturally aspirated 3.3-liter V6, a 10-speed automatic transmission and a 35-kilowatt electric motor with a 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Total output punches in at 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque.
In standard rear-wheel-drive form, the Explorer Hybrid returns an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, bettering the base four-cylinder's 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Those living in areas where slick conditions are common will be able to option all-wheel-drive with a hit to efficiency, dropping fuel economy to 23 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. That said, an EPA-estimated driving range of more than 450 miles is still no joke, nor is a tow rating that betters the 2019 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's capabilities by 1,500 pounds, for a total of 5,000 pounds.
Out in the wild, the hybrid powertrain can get the Explorer (slowly) moving around parking lots and away from stops on pure electric power. Dipping even a little bit deeper into the right pedal vibrates the V6 engine to life to help get things moving at brisker pace. In the default Normal drive mode, power is acceptable to shove the SUV around town with ginger transmission shifts. Toggling to Sport mode -- my favorite -- livens matters up with better throttle response at tip in, pull throughout the rev range and quicker cog swaps.
With a 4,969-pound curb weight, the Explorer Hybrid is more than 600 pounds heftier than the base model, and it's apparent from a dynamic standpoint. The weight makes itself known when turning in for corners and under braking, though the suspension does an admirable job keeping body motions in check. Steering features a satisfying weight and is reasonably responsive to inputs.
The tuning for the regenerative brakes, however, needs some work. At the top of the pedal, brake force is light and doesn't progressively strengthen when applying more pressure -- until you reach a certain point, that is, where it abruptly bites down hard. This make smooth stops challenging.
Heading inside, the Explorer Hybrid is well-prepared to haul families and their associated stuff. With all hybrids based off the Limited trim level of the Explorer, there's a healthy list of creature comforts ready to coddle occupants, and surroundings are built from quality materials. In front, it's roomy with comfortable heated and cooled leather seats and a heated steering wheel, as well as tons of cubbies and cupholders throughout.
Second-row Explorer passengers also enjoy plenty of space and heated captain's chairs that flip and slide forward at the push of a button for easy access to the back row. The third row can accommodate a couple of kids, but adults will not want to be back there for an extended period of time.
When it comes to hauling cargo, the Explorer is set up for that, too. Behind the third row, there's 18.2 cubic feet of room and 47.9 cubic feet at your disposal after folding the rearmost seats down. Flipping the second row down opens up 87.8 cubes -- the same amount of space found in non-hybrid Explorers. The hybrid doesn't suffer any space penalties thanks to the liquid-cooled battery pack being built into the chassis below the second-row seats.
On the tech front, Sync 3 oversees infotainment features with an 8-inch touchscreen, embedded navigation, a nice-sounding 12-speaker B&O audio setup, a Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Sync isn't lightning-quick to switch between menus, but it's snappy enough and intuitive to work through.
To charge smart devices, a wireless charging pad also comes standard on the Limited, keeping my phone happily juiced, while anyone else riding with me can plug into the myriad 12-volt, USB-A and USB-C ports sprinkled throughout the cabin. Heck, there's even a 110-volt outlet with a three-prong plug in here.
For safety, every Explorer comes with Ford's Co-Pilot 360 driver assistance suite, bundling forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist. The Hybrid, though, comes standard with a 360-degree camera and Assist+ package, which adds full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-centering tech, speed limit sign recognition and evasive steering assist.
Building an Explorer Hybrid isn't too complex. Since Ford is only offering the hybrid powertrain on the Limited trim, the main decisions center around the drivetrain and a couple of big interior niceties. Beginning with the $52,280 base price tag, not including $1,195 for destination, I will spring for the $2,195 all-wheel-drive system to better cope with Midwest winters, and I'll also throw on the $325 roof-rail crossbars for the added flexibility of carrying stuff on the roof if needed.
All in, my Explorer Hybrid carries a $55,995 price tag. That's a tad more expensive than the $55,170 rear-wheel-drive test car, which arrived outfitted with an available panoramic roof, but not by much.
Like most things in life, adding hybrid efficiency to the 2020 Ford Explorer isn't free. Stepping into electrification from a Limited model with the base turbo I4 engine tacks on $4,150. That's steep, considering a comparably equipped Highlander Hybrid Limited starts at $46,000 with standard all-wheel-drive. That said, people in the market for midsize hybrid SUV with a supremely spacious interior packed to the brim with tech and extra towing might could make the Ford worth the extra cheddar.