Which is great, but there’s actually an even more efficient Explorer: the Hybrid. It pairs a 3.3-liter naturally aspirated V6 with an electric motor, which is integrated with its 10-speed automatic. Total system output is a robust 318 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque, which blows away the 240-horsepower 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the only other hybrid three-row, non-luxury crossover.
The lithium-ion battery pack resides below the passenger-side second-row seat, neatly packaged between the frame and exhaust. Placing it in the middle of the vehicle is beneficial for weight distribution, while also maintaining the same cargo capacity as the gas-only models. In previous Ford hybrids, including the C-Max and Fusion, the batteries took up a good deal of room in the trunk.
Ford has not released fuel economy data for the 2020 Explorer Hybrid, which is a shame, since we can only go by the indicated fuel economy. The display showed a rather underwhelming 23.1 mpg during a drive route mostly consisting of winding rural roads and some interstate. Reports from other journalists on the first drive event indicated similar fuel economy.
For context, the current Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets 29 mpg combined. (Toyota says the updated 2020 Highlander Hybrid will improve to 33 mpg, thanks to improvements to the electric motors and transaxle.) Since we didn’t drive a Highlander Hybrid on the same route as our Explorer Hybrid, we can’t draw any definitive conclusions. However, it seems that the Explorer Hybrid won’t be the fuel economy champ in this segment of two.
The Explorer Hybrid’s tradeoff — reduced fuel economy in exchange for a massive horsepower advantage — represents a more rounded approach than the miserly Highlander Hybrid. The Explorer’s acceleration is clearly superior; merging onto the interstate is dispatched with an ease that the current Highlander and its Atkinson cycle four-cylinder just can’t match. It’s also quieter, as Ford’s use of a 10-speed automatic to run through gears eliminates the loud droning of Toyota’s electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. Having a V6 instead of an inline-four also helps in that regard.
And the Explorer Hybrid is quieter in normal driving. The gas engine is very quiet when it kicks on, and there’s no excessive vibration. The electric motor also seems to be able to carry more of the burden for a longer period of time. Unlike some hybrids with unnatural control feel, the Explorer’s throttle response is perfectly normal, as are the brakes. Basically, the Hybrid’s powertrain doesn’t draw much attention to itself, which is a big plus.
It can also do something few past hybrids have been able to accomplish: towing. The Explorer Hybrid boasts a stunning 5,000-pound towing capacity – certain gas-only, V6-powered competitors can theoretically match that, but only with certain options selected. The Highlander Hybrid maxes out at 3,500 pounds. Plus, none of the above can match the Hybrid’s deep well of electric torque that just pulls and pulls without the 10-speed automatic needing to go on a constant gear-hunting expedition. In fact, the Hybrid makes more torque at lower revs than the base Explorer’s 2.3-liter engine – its slight penalty in maximum towing capacity (5,000 vs 5,300) is the result of it weighing more. It ultimately feels stronger.
That 4,969-pound curb weight is very noticeable when behind the wheel, though. Not only does the Hybrid feel like a heavyweight compared to a rear-drive Explorer XLT, there’s a sense of road-crushing solidity not unlike high-end luxury models like an Audi Q7. That’s not a terrible thing when it comes to ride quality — the highway ride was excellent despite the Hybrid wearing standard 20-inch wheels — but it does dull some of the athleticism inherent with the new Explorer’s rear-wheel-drive platform. That said, the 2019 Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum is 100 pounds less and no one has ever claimed it to be a rewarding vehicle to drive.
In terms of styling, virtually nothing distinguishes the Explorer Hybrid from a regular Explorer Limited apart from a little badge on the tailgate. The same goes for the interior, but since you can only get the Hybrid as a Limited trim level, not available with the configurable 12.3-inch digital instrument panel (which is a shame) and 10.1-inch vertically oriented touchscreen (which is less so) that comes with the Explorer’s platform trim. There’s no cheaper base model, either. This trim strategy echoes what Toyota did initially with the Highlander Hybrid, offering it in higher trims only. Eventually, Toyota bowed to demand and offered cheaper trims. It would be nice if Ford followed suit.
As it is, the 2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid starts at $53,375, which represents a $3,555 price premium over the comparable 2.3-liter Explorer Limited. Again, we don’t have an official EPA estimate to calculate a payback time (or just how much less gas it’ll burn and therefore CO2 it’ll emit), but given that premium, it seems like it would be lengthy. Still, the Hybrid provides enough extra drivability and capability to represent some added value. It feels more powerful than the 2.3-liter, and its reliance on the electric motor makes it smoother and quieter when accelerating as well. Its interior space, feature content, performance and general driving experience also exceed that of the Highlander Hybrid AWD, albeit the current lame duck version, which costs $50,075 in its most comparably equipped Limited Platinum version. Of course, you can also pick up a base version for $38,810.
Given the mystery about fuel economy, the Explorer Hybrid’s value is certainly questionable. It offers strong performance with none of the typical hybrid downsides, but economy is such an outsized factor in hybrid purchases that it’s hard to get a full picture of the Explorer Hybrid’s appeal. More to the point, even if it drives great, if it’s only going to get 23 mpg in mixed driving, it doesn’t seem like the eco-minded folks the Explorer Hybrid needs to entice are even going to pay attention.