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FIRST DRIVE: New Explorer ST makes driving an SUV pure fun

Explorer ST massaged by Ford Performance to be most powerful Explorer ever

Published: June 20, 2019, 2:00 AM
Updated: July 11, 2019, 6:07 PM

2020 Ford Explorer ST

STEVENSON, Washington – Big SUVs shouldn’t be this much fun, but Ford’s all-new 2020 Explorer ST is a blast.

2020 Ford Explorer ST

Typically, full-size utility vehicles are bulky, boxy boats with more emphasis on function than fun. They provide plenty of space to transport building materials from Home Depot, deliver a load of Timbits to soccer practice or haul a travel trailer and half the family’s worldly possessions on a holiday road trip – but a joy to drive? Not so much.

Ford has retained all the traditional attributes that have made the Explorer North America’s all-time best-selling SUV with its new-from-the-ground-up 2020 iteration, but it has added a new model that infuses a distinct fun-to-drive element as well. The Explorer ST has been massaged by the Ford Performance team and the result is the most powerful Explorer ever, boasting 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque, plus special handling and braking tweaks to match the specially-tuned 3.0-litre EcoBoost V-6’s enhanced output, which can launch the ST to 100 km/h in about six seconds. And, like all 2020 Explorer models sold in Canada, the ST comes with intelligent all-wheel drive with front axle disconnect as standard equipment.

Performance car precision

2020 Ford Explorer ST

After spending a couple of days driving the Explorer ST through the spectacular scenery of the Columbia River Gorge and adjacent hilly terrain, it was easy to forget I was hustling a 1,900-kilogram vehicle on the area’s twisty, 2-lane roads. The ST’s specially calibrated power-assisted steering was quick with decent feedback, the ride was definitely comfortable, while the handling was more like a performance sedan than a hefty SUV. Acceleration was never lacking, with the 10-speed automatic making the most efficient (and effective) use of the power produced by the turbocharged V-6. When one felt in a playful mood, switching to manual mode on the console-mounted gear selector knob let you play with the gears on your own, using the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel.

The fun factor becomes most apparent when Sport mode is engaged through the selectable drive mode dial, also mounted on the centre console. It steps up throttle response, which I initially found to be a tad touchy. (After a few minutes behind the wheel, however, it became much easier to modulate the gas pedal for smoother launches and that issue was gone.) Other changes initiated by the switch to Sport mode includes tighter steering response and different mapping for the transmission – it holds the gears longer before shifting, then makes the change in a crisper manner than in the Normal mode.

2020 Ford Explorer ST

The ST’s brakes are especially worth noting – while the standard ST-issue 4-wheel discs are more than adequate for normal use, two optional upgrades are available for drivers with more performance-oriented intentions: a Street Pack ($1,500), which also includes larger vented rotors, red-painted calipers with stainless steel pistons, larger brake pads and 21-inch aluminum wheels; and a Track Pack, which further upgrades the brake pads with heavier-duty metallic pads for serious track lapping sessions.

I had an opportunity to drive both the Street and Track packages and must say the brake response and feel was outstanding. While I never got near the ST’s top speed of 230 km/h, I did test the brakes on some long, twisty, downhill secondary roads. Despite repeated heavy use, there was never a hint of fade and engagement was quick with minimal pedal travel. The Street Pack option will be available when the 2020 Explorer arrives in showrooms in late summer, while the Track Pack will become available a few months later. (Note that the special Michelin Latitude Sport 3 summer tires that are included in the Track Pack for US-customers will not be offered in Canada – buyers here will get all-season tires.)

Living up to ST standards

2020 Ford Explorer ST

While the ST shares some components with the premium Platinum trim model, several chassis changes have been implemented by the Ford Performance engineers to deliver the ST’s sporty car-like dynamics. Stiffer front and rear springs and roll bars have been added and the valving on the dampers has been altered.

The upgrades made to this new Explorer model have ensured it lives up to the criteria for ST products, said Ford Performance chief functional engineer Ed Krenz, who has also overseen the development of such Ford Performance vehicles as the Shelby Mustang and Edge ST.

2020 Ford Explorer ST

“It was our job to ensure that this vehicle lived up to the standards of the ST products,” Krenz said. “The ST DNA had to executed to our requirements – it had to be fun to drive, deliver great performance and sustained capability.”

That sustained capability translates into a fundamental ST requirement: the vehicle must be capable of 10 minutes of continuous track use without showing any signs of brake fade, engine performance issues or cooling problems. This standard demonstrates the Explorer ST is more than a SUV with some special badging.

“We designed it from the beginning to be an ST and there’s no mistaking its ST DNA,” Krenz added, “but it also delivers more functionality, which is important to many consumers as they move on in life.”

Practicality meets fun

2020 Ford Explorer ST

While drivers may have enjoyed sporty rides like a Mustang GT or Shelby, they’re now needing more practical, functional vehicles as their responsibilities and lifestyles change.  That doesn’t mean, however, that they have abandoned the desire to have a vehicle that meets those new needs yet is still fun to drive, Krenz explained. That’s where an ST product fits the bill.

In fact, Krenz and Ford may have hit a promising niche with their growing ST lineup. Sales of the Edge ST crossover, launched last fall as the first utility vehicle warmed over by the Ford Performance crew, are well exceeding the company’s expectations. In Canada, while specific numbers aren’t offered, Ford does say it has sold twice as many Edge STs as it had anticipated. Obviously, the hope is that the new Explorer ST will duplicate those kinds of sales numbers.

In addition to the mechanical changes, the 2020 ST has some visual differences that make it stand out from other models in the Explorer lineup. Up front, the mesh grille is blacked out and the Explorer name, also in black, stretches across the hood and rear liftgate. There are also lower bodyside details, roof-rack side rails and skid plate elements.

Space to stretch out

2020 Ford Explorer ST

In the spacious cabin, which was impressively quiet during our drives, there’s a 12.3-inch all-digital instrument cluster, a heated, flat-bottomed steering wheel embossed with an ST logo and special floor mats. The leather-trimmed sport bucket seats feature silver accent stitching and the ST logo embossed into the seatback. There is one nit to pick here – I found the seats comfortable, but when the driving pace picked up it would have been nice to have a bit more side bolstering. I found myself sliding side to side, especially while riding in the passenger’s seat, when the driver started tapping into the ST’s handling potential. Such a great handling vehicle needs higher performance seats.

The seating features offered in the other Explorer models are included in the ST, including three rows of seating that accommodate up to six occupants. The third-row bench is easily accessible, thanks to the second-row captain’s chairs that readily flip and slide forward. The third-row bench is reasonably comfortable and there’s actually leg room, thanks to the fore/aft sliding adjustment on the mid-row seats. Note to the DIY crowd, the width of the cargo bed between the wheelhouses is 48.1 inches, so 4x8 sheets of plywood will just fit flat.

Other standard features on the Explorer ST include a Class III trailer tow package (towing capacity is 2,540 kg) and a cargo management system, as well as Ford’s new Active Park Assist 2.0, a driver-assist parking system that takes control of the steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal and gear shifter during parallel and perpendicular parking maneuvers with a simple touch of a button.

Models for all needs

2020 Ford Explorer ST

In addition to the performance-oriented ST, Explorer offers four other models for 2020, including a new hybrid. The lineup starts with the XLT AWD ($45,199) and Limited AWD ($52,199). The Limited HEV (hybrid) AWD starts at $57,199. The ST AWD ($59,099) and premium Platinum AWD ($64,599) top off the price walk. (The destination/delivery fee for all models is $1,850.)

The XLT and Limited come with a 2.3-litre EcoBoost 4-cylinder (300 hp/310 ft-lb of torque) paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission, while the ST and Platinum share a turbocharged 3.0-litre V-6 and 10-speed automatic. Output in the Platinum model is 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, compared to the higher-tuned ST’s 400 horses and 415 torques.

2020 Ford Explorer ST

The hybrid model is powered by a 3.3-litre naturally aspirated V-6 and a new 10-speed modular hybrid transmission that generates a combined system output of 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque. The hybrid also has a new, specially designed, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery that’s built into the chassis below the second-row seats, helping preserve cargo and passenger space.

Fuel economy ratings for all-wheel drive Explorers fitted with the 2.3-litre engine are 11.6 L/100 km in city driving, 8.7 on the highway and 10.3 combined. The 3.0 V-6 is rated at 13.3 city, 9.8 highway and 11.8 combined. Ratings for the hybrid Explorer are not yet available.