Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer charts new ground again

By Jim Bray
July 17, 2021

Ford's Explorer came back with a mostly all-new generation for 2020, and if you're a traditionalist – or a hooner – you might like what it has to offer.

That's because the new generation Explorer has returned to its roots, as a rear-wheel drive model that can send torque to the front wheels when it's needed. That's as opposed to the last couple of Explorers that were front-drive-based but could send torque to the rear wheels if necessary.

"Who cares?", you may say. "What difference does it make?", you may say.

Click on the image to open a slideshow.

Well, if you aren't an enthusiast, it may make little difference, especially if you've been told over and over over the years that front wheel drive is better for traction because the engine's weight is right over the front wheels.

Fair enough. But there are definite advantages to rear wheel drive as well.
According to AutoSimple.com:

  • * "During dry conditions, rear-wheel drive improves handling due to "load transfer" in acceleration and more even weight distribution.
  • * Rear-wheel drive tends to have less costly maintenance since there aren't as many parts packed into a small space. Front-wheel drive repairs and maintenance may cost more since they have to remove more parts for workable access.
  • * You won't experience "torque steer", the tendency that FWD vehicles have to veer to the right or left during acceleration.
  • * Towing large loads is easier since the wheels doing the pulling are located closer to the load. Also, steering is much easier since the back wheels are providing the power while the front wheels do the work of steering.
  • * While drifting is not recommended for most drivers, it is easier to drift with RWD than FWD or 4WD/AWD."

Drifting? Well, rear wheel drive is generally more fun, in these days where doing hand brake turns is more difficult because manufactures are dumping traditional hand brakes in favour of electronic ones that are pretty well useless when it comes to having any fun in snowy parking lots.

I could tell the difference between FWD-based Explorers and the new RWD-based one almost as soon as I drove away from the dealership at which it was stored. You feel it push you along, rather than pull you, and it felt really good! Not that the last Explorer sucked in that way! Sure, I love RWD – and in AWD modes I daresay you may not feel much difference, depending on how much torque the vehicle sends to the other axle – but the rear drive just felt more right, more capable.

This was an easy call for me because I've spent many an hour in the previous generation of Ford Explorer: for about a year and a half, I worked one day a week as a shuttle driver for an area Ford dealer. And as good as that vehicle was, this new one drives better.

That's in two-wheel drive mode. My week with the new Explorer saw bare and dry roads, so I didn't have a chance to try out all the various other drive modes, but Ford traditionally does these modes very well, so I'm confident the new Explorer is at least as good in this department as the old one.  

Of course, many if not most Explorer buyers are interested in things other than sliding around, or racing, or just carving some apices. Fortunately, there's lot of other stuff to like about the Explorer, including Ford's latest version of SYNC, which in my never humble opinion is one of the best, one of the easiest to use.

I just wish it were a lot quicker to react. Even here, however, it's still one of the better interfaces.

Ford's sample 2021 Explorer wore the XLT trim and all-wheel drive (defaulting to rear wheel drive, of course, when the traction is ducky-poo) and it was a pretty nicely turned-out unit, though as is common with Ford products I had trouble finding a perfect driving position despite the tilt/telescope steering wheel and power seats. I think my bum just isn't Ford seat material…

This version of the Explorer, which carries a base price of $45,549, not counting options, gets its motivation from an EcoBoost four-cylinder turbo engine. I drove it a week before my time with Honda's new Pilot, which comes with a V6, and thought the Ford's get up and go was superior. Not substantially, but enough to be noticeable.

Ford's all-wheel drive sample also came standard with a laundry list of features, including (from the vehicle's window sticker):

  • AUTO HIGH BEAMS
  • LED TAILLAMPS
  • MIRRORS, DUAL POWER HEATED
  • PRIVACY GLASS, REAR
  • ROOF RAILS
  • AM/FM STEREO
  • GLOVE BOX, LOCKING
  • OUTSIDE TEMP & COMPASS
  • POWERPOINTS, FRT/REAR 12V
  • POWER DRIVER SEAT, POWER PASSENGER SEATS, HEATED FRONT
  • TILT/TELESCOPING LEATHER-WRAPPED STEERING WHEEL
  • A/C, TRI-ZONE ELECTRONIC
  • BLIS (Blind spot monitor) W/CROSS TRAFFIC
  • ELEC PWR ASSIST STEERING
  • HILL START ASSIST
  • LANE KEEPING SYSTEM
  • MYKEY
  • PRE-COLLISION ASSIST W/AEB
  • REMOTE KEYLESS ENTRY
  • REVERSE CAMERA SYSTEM, REVERSE SENSING SYSTEM
  • SYNC 3

Good stuff, most of which is pretty standard, but it's still nice to see them included.

I wasn't particularly impressed with access to and the size/comfort of the third row of seats. It's not really any worse than some competitors, but it's a lot worse than some, too, such as the Honda Pilot and the Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride twins.

Ford's sample also came with the $1,500 Equipment Group 202A, which added remote starting, which is particularly handy when it's cold outside, and eight-way power adjustment for the driver's seat. It still wouldn't give me an optimal position, though.

There were more options, too, including a lovely, twin panel moonroof, trailer tow package, heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, navigation, "evasive" steering assist (I guess it avoids your inputs?), XLT Sport Appearance package, along with 20-inch wheels with P255/55R20 tires. And more…

All these extras bring the price to $53,199, which is pretty competitive in this niche. On the other hand, the Telluride, equipped well and with a V-6, can be had for $54,695 and it's a nicer vehicle. Ditto for the Mazda CX-9, whose nearly top-line Signature Edition lists for $54,076. It also has a turbo four, but I like it better than the one in the Explorer.

If you want an Explorer with a V-6, you can get one by stepping up a trim level or two. The higher end Platinum edition, for example, gets you a three-litre turbo V-6, which I imagine is a lot more interesting (and more thirsty, I daresay). And you can get a hybrid if you want.

Any of the engines get their power to the wheels via a 10-speed automatic transmission and, as usual with such high geared trannies, it concentrates on gas saving at the expense of driving feel. So, it upshifts as quickly as it can if you don't specifically press it onward, keeping the revs low so the Powers that Be can smugly feel happy that they're saving the world.

Meanwhile, when you need to exploit an on ramp or pull out to pass (or just tromp on the gas with wild abandon), it has to drop down so many gears that it takes a lot longer than it should before you get any useable power.

This isn't just a Ford thing; more companies all the time are adding extra "gears" to their transmissions in search of an internal combustion engine that burns no gas at all. It sucks.

Ford's new Explorer's return to rear wheel drive is a nice step in the evolution of this mainstream three row SUV. The rest of the vehicle is also an evolutionary step forward from the previous version and is overall a pleasant and efficient vehicle in this market niche. I don't think it's the best of the ones I've driven in this segment, but Ford fans – and undoubtedly quite a few others – should find it quite compelling and satisfying.

Copyright 2021 Jim Bray
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