Ford may have started the transition of its ST sub brand with the Edge ST, but the 2020 Ford Explorer ST completes that transition from spunky hot hatches to performance crossovers. The 2019 model year was the last for the Fiesta ST, so we bid adieu to the little cars, and say hello to our considerably quicker SUV overlords. Ford’s history of ST-branded cars isn’t eons long, so while we lament the loss of the small performance cars that started it, attaching the badge to an SUV isn’t sacrilege.
For the Explorer ST, Ford dropped in a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 that produces 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. Ford claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds and a top speed of 143 mph. That’s quick, but it’s still no monster like the Durango SRT is. Specially-tuned firmer dampers and springs are fitted to the ST, and since our tester was equipped with the $995 ST Street Pack, we also got performance brakes and 21-inch aluminum wheels. Much of the ST’s appeal comes in its modified appearance, too. We noticed the red ST badges right away, one on the unique black mesh grille and the other on the liftgate — those are the same locations as STs before it. You get quad exhaust tips, different side molding and more black trim throughout to give the Explorer a sportier curbside character. On the inside, all STs are generously equipped with a ton of standard features, but you also get a special ST steering wheel, leather sport buckets and contrast stitching on various interior parts.
Buying an Explorer ST isn’t cheap. Ours had a base price of $55,835, but after $4,080 worth of options, the sticker read $59,915. The panoramic sunroof made the biggest dent at $1,695. Then the ST Street Pack and Premium Technology packages both went for $995 — the tech package added multicontour massaging seats, the 10.1-inch infotainment screen and the premium Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder: It’s quick, sure, but it doesn’t feel nearly as raucous as the Durango SRT, which is understandable given the Hemi’s 75-horsepower advantage. Still, the Explorer isn't quite as pulse-raising as I expected. Temper your expectations, though, and there’s a lot to love, particularly in the handling department. It has a confident stance that you can feel underneath you as you head down the road. It turns into corners with relative gusto and well-controlled body roll. By comparison, it makes my memory of the SRT under cornering loads seem a bit doughy — granted, while I’ve tested the Durango at the track, I don’t have the same experience with the Explorer for a proper comparison. Put that on my to-do list.
If you’re worried that the stiffer suspension and big wheels will make for a punishing ride, fear not. Yes, there’s a bit more chatter that makes its way through the chassis, but it’s more modest than I expected. It was still a comfortable ride on our perennially corroding roads, and I wouldn’t hesitate to accept the ST’s road manners in a daily driver. One last thing I took notice of is the ST’s twitchiness on the highway. Even with the lane centering on, it takes a bit of a heavy hand to keep it tracking true at 70 miles per hour.
Associate Editor Byron Hurd: I love this thing. Full stop. John's right: It's not as in-your-face as a 6.4-liter Durango or Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it's plenty quick, and despite FCA's commendable efforts to keep its old SUVs current, the Explorer just feels leaps and bounds ahead in the tech department.
From the "ST" puddle lamps in the side mirrors, to the start-up and shut-down animations in the digital cluster, the Explorer ST is awash in little "Hey, neat!" features that you can show off to friends and family.
Conveniently, since it's a family car, you can load all of them into the back and let them experience the gut-punching torque offered by its 400-horsepower twin-turbocharged V6. Then you can treat your front passenger to a "Full Recovery" seat massage. Seriously, what's not to love about this thing?
Where I think Ford really hit the sweet spot with the Explorer ST was in balancing comfort, content and sportiness. The ST is Ford's top dog, and while it's never going to be competitive with the likes of a BMW X5 M or Mercedes-AMG GLE 63, it offers a mix of luxury and performance that could reasonably be compared to the lesser German offerings.
I'm not saying Ford offers all the trappings of Europe's luxury SUVs at an American price. It is, however, a solid three-row performance SUV that delivers a lot of bang for the buck.
Associate Editor Joel Stocksdale: Echoing what the others have said, the Explorer ST is an excellent driving crossover. The steering and handling are especially impressive. It feels very neutral in corners; the steering is linear, well-weighted and even provides some feedback. And it rides well in every drive mode without sacrificing handling. And of course that twin-turbo V6 has impressive power that pulls and pulls at every rpm, though it doesn't sound particularly invigorating.
There are two things that really bother me though, and keep me from handing a decisive victory to it over the Durango SRT. The first is the infotainment and instrument cluster. Either Ford hasn't optimized the software, or the hardware running it all isn't powerful enough. It takes a long time for everything in the cluster and infotainment screen to boot up when first started. It also takes longer to switch between displays when changing drive modes, and things often load in a jerky fashion. The frame rate for dials and meters on the gauge cluster isn't as silky smooth as in other vehicles. It's a shame, because the graphics and design of the instrument panel are very stylish, but when it's not running smoothly and quickly, it loses all its polish. And this is an especially big problem when the Durango SRT has the ever quick, crisp and stylish Uconnect system and dash displays.
The other thing that bothers me is the 10-speed transmission. When everything's running fine, it shifts smoothly and quickly enough. But all too often, it's busy shifting through multiple gears trying to reach the right one, or occasionally having a rough shift. It's frustrating when the Durango SRT has the spectacular ZF 8-speed that has smart shift logic, and shifts fast and smooth almost all the time.
As a whole, though, the Explorer ST is a blast to drive. Picking it or the Dodge would be difficult. The Explorer is the clear champion in regards to steering, handling, ride quality and fuel economy, but the Dodge has a much better transmission and infotainment, plus it has the lovely Hemi rumble.
Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore: ST trim does a nice job of showing off the design of the latest-gen Explorer. The angled beltline, the thinner headlights and the new fenders all work together to give the Explorer a much more modern look. There’s a ton of these SUVs on the roads of Michigan, and the difference between the two generations is stark. Admittedly, I didn’t think Ford went far enough when I first saw the new Explorer ahead of the 2019 Detroit Auto Show. But after looking at them for more than a year on the road, I think this design is modern, crisp and aggressive. It’s not easy to do that with an SUV without becoming cartoonish, but the 2020 Explorer pulls it off.
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