Ford Motor is seeking to broaden the appeal of the venerable Explorer by better listening to the customers who have made it the nation’s best-selling utility vehicle all time.
The automaker says Explorer buyers asked for more interior space, towing capability and performance. The sixth-generation Explorer, introduced late Wednesday ahead of the Detroit auto show, will deliver on those customer wishes, Ford says.
The 2020 vehicle, on sale this summer, was redesigned on a new rear-wheel-drive, unibody platform that gives it sportier styling and what Ford engineers describe as better handling. The seven-passenger crossover can tow up to 5,600 pounds—600 more than the outgoing version—and has best-in-class second- and third-row headroom, Ford claims.
“We built it around the way people use the car,” Bill Gubing, the Explorer’s chief program engineer, said at a briefing ahead of Wednesday’s reveal. “Even the smallest features are designed from a customer perspective.”
The 2020 Explorer will be more expensive than the current version, but Ford contends that customers are willing to pay the higher prices for more content and capability. It starts at $33,860, including shipping, $400 more than the 2019 Explorer, but the base model includes more than a dozen new standard features, including a power liftgate, Ford Co-Pilot360 suite of driver assist technology and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The base engine, a 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-four, is expected to get 300 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a 10-speed transmission. Buyers can upgrade to a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 on the high-end Platinum trim that’s expected to get 365 hp and 380 pound-feet of torque. Intelligent four-wheel drive is available.
Ford also plans to offer a hybrid Explorer and a high-performance ST version, which replaces the Sport trim. Ford has not yet released details on those variants.
“It’s our broadest-ever lineup,” said Craig Patterson, Ford’s marketing manager for the Explorer. “We’re expanding what the role of the SUV is.”
The Explorer, first sold as a 1991 model with a starting price of less than $18,000, has been one of Ford’s most successful nameplates and last year trailed only the F-series pickup and Escape crossover in the brand’s U.S. sales. The automaker has sold 7.7 million Explorers in the U.S. since its launch, the most of any utility.
Now, Ford is looking to cash in on the rapidly growing millennial demographic: 20- and 30-somethings who are getting married, having kids and looking for larger vehicles.
The interior of the 2020 model is quieter and includes more head and hip room. Second- and third-row seats fold flat and can accommodate a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood, which wouldn’t fit in the outgoing version.
Ford says the 2020 Explorer gains 6.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, a reversible floor that’s easy to clean after hauling kids’ mud-caked cleats and a feature that engineers have dubbed the “apple catcher”—a lip on the rear floor that’s meant to stop wine bottles or spaghetti sauce jars from rolling out of the back when the liftgate opens.
Every seating position in the second and third rows has child-seat anchors, and retractable second-row sunshades are optional.
An 8-inch touch screen is standard, and there is an optional 10.1-inch screen in a portrait configuration—taller than it is wide—which is a first for Ford.
In addition to its standard driver-assist technology, including a lane-keeping system and automatic emergency braking, the 2020 Explorer is the first North American nameplate to offer the automaker’s second generation of Ford’s active park assist. The feature, standard on the Platinum trim, allows drivers to parallel or perpendicular park by pressing and holding a button.
Previously, the driver had to hold the steering wheel and control the braking and acceleration.
“We obsessed about what Explorer customers need and want,” Gubing said. “We met with customer groups, pored through Internet forums and dissected social media posts to determine what they love about today’s Explorer and understand their pain points. Then we found ways to improve it across the board.”
U.S. sales of the Explorer fell 3.5 percent to 261,571 last year, partly because of the impending redesign. But the vehicle still outsold its primary rivals, the Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse, in a segment that grew 11 percent.
The Explorer was last overhauled for the 2011 model year, when it shed its truck-based mechanicals and adopted Ford’s front-wheel-drive, unibody platform that underlies the Ford Taurus sedan and Flex crossover.
This story is from Crain’s sister publication Automotive News.