Have you made peace with the fact that Ford makes high-performance SUVs with ST badges now? We hadn't, at least not after driving the company's first effort, the disappointing Edge ST, which turned out to be a mildly warmed-over Edge Sport with little added performance benefit. But the new 2020 Ford Explorer ST is a different animal, and it's good enough to start changing our minds.
Compared with the Edge ST, the Explorer ST comes much closer to earning its badge thanks to a chassis that can actually put power to the ground. As we detailed in our review of the new 2020 Explorer, this sixth-generation SUV switches to a completely new unibody platform with a longitudinally mounted engine and a rear-wheel-drive bias. While this new architecture serves to make the base Explorer more comfortable and pleasant to drive, in the case of the ST it gives this large three-row SUV some legit performance cred.
Real Performance SUV
The ST's specs on their own are impressive enough: a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 is standard, with 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque (35 horses and 65 lb-ft more than the old Explorer Sport) routed through a 10-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive. Beefier suspension and brake components are on offer from Police Interceptor versions of the Explorer, and a set of sticky 21-inch Michelin Latitude Sport 3 summer tires (taken from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin, ironically) are a stand-alone $2500 option. (But if you really want the summer tires, just go to TireRack.com because a set purchased there costs less than $1500.)
We came away stirred by the Explorer's athleticism after driving ST models with both the optional Michelin summer rubber and the 21-inch Pirelli all-season tires that are included as part of a performance package (20-inch wheels standard). The V-6 sounds throaty, and its throttle response is strong. In Sport mode, the 10-speed automatic transmission provides well-timed downshifts during hard cornering. The lack of body roll is surprising given the ST's considerable heft, and it grips tenaciously for a vehicle this big.
Put simply, the Explorer ST goes, sounds, stops, and sticks like a true performance SUV. As in the base Explorer, the ST's steering is sometimes a weak spot. It's overly heavy at lower speeds but does at least feel meaty and satisfying when you push the car hard on a challenging road. The fact that the Explorer responds as well as it does to this kind of spirited driving, though, makes it clear that this is a far more capable machine than the previous-generation Explorer Sport, which had a powerful twin-turbo V-6 but proved unwieldy and ponderous when the road got twisty.
Still Family-Friendly Inside
While we'd caution against exploring the limits of the ST's handling with a full load of kids on board, the Explorer ST remains just as practical inside as its less powerful siblings. A six-passenger setup with second-row captain's chairs is standard, but Ford says a three-place second-row bench will be available in a few months for $495. The ST also is generously equipped for its starting price of $55,835, with features such as heated and cooled front seats, parking assist, and a 360-degree camera view. Key options include a $995 technology package with massaging seats, an upgraded audio system, and a vertically oriented 10.1-inch touchscreen; $995 and $1595 performance packages with 21-inch wheels and upgraded brakes; and a $1695 panoramic sunroof.
You might balk at the idea of a $60K-plus Ford Explorer, but given the ST's combination of space and pace, it's not an entirely unreasonable sum. Few other three-row SUVs offer this level of fun while also remaining practical, and the ones that do-such as the SRT version of the Dodge Durango-cost considerably more. While we won't be fully convinced until we get the new ST to the test track, our introductory experience makes us think maybe Ford is on to something with this whole ST SUV thing.
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