Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: August 17, 2020
Sporty SUVs are all the rage, and it seems like a simple formula. Take your bread and butter SUV, pop in a bigger engine, tune it to make more power, stiffen the dampers, add a body kit, and garnish it with some fancy badges. As a matter of fact, put those badges everywhere. Door sills, pedals, I mean everywhere. It seems easy enough, no? But pulling it off and striking that fine line between domestic comfort and spirited driving takes some engineering magic.
The latest to try their hand is the Ford Explorer ST. Want to blend in with the cops? This is your SUV. Want to outrun the cops? Grab the ST. It follows the formula to the tee. Ford took their 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6, plopped it into the Explorer, and tuned it to produce 35 more horsepower and 35 more lb-ft of torque for a grand total of 400 hp and 415 lb-ft, enough to launch it from 0-100 km/h in around five seconds. The dampers have been stiffened to reduce body roll. It gets a more aggressive body kit. And yes, ST badges are everywhere.
Does it drive any good, though? In a nutshell, the Explorer ST is more deserving of the ST badge than the Edge ST, which we found utterly lacking in both driving dynamics and road appeal. But the spiced up Explorer still remains an underwhelming drive, hits way off the bullseye as a balanced and engaging family hauler, and simply fails to be more than the sum of its parts.
The 2020 Explorer rides on a brand-new rear-wheel drive platform, allowing for better packaging and better weight distribution. The V6 engine with a duet of turbos has been mounted longitudinally instead of transversely, and though all these aspects should make it handle better on paper, there’s another number on the spec sheet: 2,250 kg. This is not a lightweight. Not even a middleweight. It’s a heavyweight by nature, and handles like one. The only way they could instill any sort of sportiness into the ST was by stiffening the dampers. But they’ve stiffened them to excess, resulting in an overly brittle ride that becomes rough and unbearable over bumps and pockmarked roads. It does little to disguise the car’s mass either. On smooth pavement, it does ride better and demonstrates a more soft-edged side than I expected, even with its beefy 21-inch wheels, but since when are roads ever pristine and perfect?
The Explorer doesn’t groove the way you expect an ST to. Perhaps we have been spoiled by the Fiesta and Focus variants, and what the ST badge has come to represent. Push too hard and it will understeer until kingdom come. Don’t think that just because it has a RWD platform that it can drift. There are too many lipids in this body. And not the good kind. The brake and gas pedal are a bit pokey as well, leaving speed modulation down to how well you can feather your right foot. Safe to say, if you prioritize comfort over any sort of performance, look for the Explorer Limited instead. We get it, it’s tough to make an SUV handle well. You can’t fight physics. Tinkering with a sedan like what they did with the Fusion Sport made more sense, but we all know how that story went down.
The sole transmission choice is a 10-speed automatic, and it isn’t a very polished companion. Though it offers fluid shifts when left alone in Normal driving mode, hit Sport and it transitions from being behind-the-scenes to in-your-face. The shifts are less than gentle, jerking you forward as the gearbox struggles to keep up with the spikey torque loads. Furthermore, the steering is too light and artificially boosted, lacks any feedback, and though pleasantly low-effort, you just can’t confidently place the car where you want. The thickly padded BMW-like steering wheel doesn't heighten any sense of steering feel either.
We wish we had good things to say about the ST but it’s a struggle. At least it sounds quite nice under wide open throttle, even if most of the bass and grunt is fake and piped through the cabin speakers. The V6 grows louder in volume the harder you push, but Ford should take note that a car doesn’t have to be loud in order to have character. Can’t blame them entirely, though. Turbochargers ruin everything acoustically. And they’re not the most fuel efficient source of propulsion either. We averaged 11.7 L/100km on the highway, with city driving in the mix pushing it to a measly 13.8 L/100km.
The Explorer’s new front grill isn’t exactly flattering, but whoever designed it obviously did us a favour, as it helps us distinguish cops better on the road. But the rear end is visually pleasing and does carry some distinctive lines. One area where the Explorer largely impresses however, especially over the Dodge Durango and Subaru Ascent, is with the interior. With clean surfaces, a functional layout that remains ergonomically sound, and plush leather seats, it’s a major upgrade from the dated Edge. Be that as it may, plastic is still the name of the game here, and don’t expect panel fitment or gaps to be up to German standards. Those saying that these build quality faults are expected at this price point obviously haven’t been in a Volkswagen Atlas. Still, Ford undoubtedly had to leave some breathing room for the Lincoln Aviator.
The new vertically-positioned 10.1-inch touchscreen takes up a sizable chunk of dashboard real estate, reminding us of the RAM 1500 Limited that also has its screen oriented in portrait mode. Though rewarding to use with a clean interface and quick responses, I still prefer a horizontal widescreen instead. Televisions aren’t mounted vertically for a reason, and my brain keeps telling me to turn it sideways. Force of habit, I guess. Luckily, it’s optional as part of the $1,500 Premium Technology Package, and by opting out, you can get the standard and larger 12.3-inch screen instead. You do lose out on the massaging seats and Bang and Olufsen sound system. A small sacrifice for a better user experience in my opinion.
One of the biggest draws of the Explorer ST is its roomy third-row seats. Ingress is made simple with an electric button mounted next to the second row’s headrests that folds the seatback, but the seat bottom still requires a manual slide forward. Once back there, the high floor forces my knees up to my chest but space is generous enough for my six-foot figure to find no complaints, even on lengthier journeys.
If the Explorer ST came in under $45,000, there would be value to be found and would change the dynamic of this review. But it actually starts at an eye-watering $59,099 and with all the bells and whistles, our test vehicle swelled up to $65,000 before taxes and fees. That’s a lot of money, and while it might be a bargain when viewed as a performance SUV, an actual performance SUV it is not. When it comes to three-row SUVs with a taste for speed, the Explorer ST is a welcome competitor. After all, the more the merrier. But that ST badge has been diluted by aiming to be two things at once. Some automakers can pull it off well and strike a fine balance between civil and sport duties. We’re thinking Dodge Durango SRT, BMW X5 M50i, and Mercedes-AMG GLE 53. The Explorer ST has these benchmarks in mind, aims, and misses. Soften up those dampers or add an air-suspension, polish that 10-speed, take away some unnecessary and expensive features like the 360-degree camera to lower the price, and get rid of that ST badge. Call it a Sport model instead. Maybe then, Ford just might have something worth looking into.
Model: 2020 Ford Explorer ST
Paint Type: Rapid Red ($450)
Base Price: $59,099
Price as Tested: $64,599
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,063 / 2,004 / 1,782
Curb weight (kg): 2,254
Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo EcoBoost V6
Horsepower: 400 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 415 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 13.8
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 13.3 / 9.8 / 11.8