Redesigned Explorer leans more on its rugged roots

DETROIT — From a starring role in Jurassic Park to an infamous tire recall, from king of the 1990s SUV boom to gas-guzzling pariah in the late 2000s, the Ford Explorer has weathered plenty of highs and lows over nearly three decades.

No other utility vehicle can match its 7.7 million U.S. sales. And few vehicles of any kind have undergone as much change in pursuit of fickle American consumers’ shifting tastes.

Ford considered killing the Explorer a decade ago, when its popularity plunged to the level of the Fiesta today, but instead suburbanized the rugged SUV into a front-wheel-drive, unibody crossover to maximize fuel economy.

Now, with utility sales stronger than ever, the Explorer is returning to a brawnier rear-wheel-drive platform and leveraging its roots as a go-anywhere, ready-for-adventure vehicle rather than a dime-a-dozen crossover.

“If there’s a heart and soul at Ford Motor Co., it’s this vehicle,” CEO Jim Hackett said during an elaborate unveiling last week that used computer-generated mountains, beaches and bridges projected inside the Detroit Lions’ football stadium to depict Explorers hauling families on thrilling road trips.

The 2020 Explorer is lighter, more powerful and more spacious than the outgoing model. Its arrival this summer could push the nameplate over 300,000 annual U.S. sales for the first time since 2004.

The Explorer, more so than the redesigned Escape due later in 2019, is a key piece of Ford’s business moving forward thanks to the hefty price tag — and profits — its top trims command.

“This is a pretty significant change for us, probably the most impactful change,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s product boss, said in an interview. “It’s very much like F series and Mustang; we really understand those customers well, and we keep continuously improving.”

Exterior styling is the top purchase consideration in the Explorer’s segment, Thai-Tang said. And Ford believes the new rwd platform allowed it to craft an athletic, appealing vehicle. The sixth-generation Explorer has shorter front overhangs, a more sculpted side profile and a sloping roofline that gives the appearance of a faster vehicle, designers say.

It has roughly the same dimensions of the outgoing model but more interior room. It 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,” said Bill Gubing, the Explorer’s chief program engineer. “Even the smallest features are designed from a customer perspective.”

The core of the Explorer team, including Gubing and Marketing Manager Craig Patterson, has been together for about a decade. They’ve used that time to do intense research, observing how customers live and inspecting their closets and refrigerators.

The results include adding user-friendly amenities such as a reversible floor that’s easy to clean after hauling kids’ mud-caked cleats and a feature that engineers call 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.

The team also added square cupholders (for kids’ juice boxes) and a ledge on the back of the second-row console to accommodate a tablet for third-row movie viewing.

“It doesn’t add any cost, per se,” Hackett said of the tablet rest, “but, my goodness, does it add value.”

The Explorer burst on the scene in 1990, the brainchild of Ford truck boss Bob Lutz and product planner Stephen Ross, to compete with the Jeep Cherokee. Ford sold more than 1 million units of the first generation alone, a period that included its role outrunning dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster film. U.S. Explorer sales topped 400,000 in 1996 and each year from 1998 through 2002 before tumbling — with the help of Firestone tire recalls and soaring gasoline prices — to a low of 52,190 in 2009.

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.

Over the years, Ford has offered Explorers with two doors, with a pickup bed and with free Eddie Bauer luggage. The new generation will introduce a hybrid variant as well as a high-performance ST version that replaces the Sport trim.

The 2020 Explorer will start at $33,860, including shipping, $400 more than today. Ford contends that customers are willing to pay higher prices for added content and capability. 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.

“We want to give customers a much better SUV than a Land Rover, but we don’t want to charge those kinds of prices,” Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, said at the Explorer reveal. “A Ford needs to be a smart financial choice.”

The base engine, a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, is paired with a 10-speed transmission. Upgrades include a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 and intelligent four-wheel drive.

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.

“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.”