The winter sunrise creates a brilliant red horizon — the kind of sky that sailors lament. Their old adage about “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” proved more than fortuitous on this day, as we launched the Ford Explorer ST from central Hancock County westward to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Curiously, home (only 20 minutes from the Maine coast) is farther north than Bethel, Gorham, N.H., and Franconia Notch, yet the elevation change brought every winter weather situation one could expect as snow, freezing rain, sleet and plain rain attacked the path of the Explorer. For no other reason than this type of poor weather travel, is perhaps central to why so many drivers embrace vehicles like this Ford.
Now on its sixth generation since the 1990 debut of the four-door Explorer, Ford has, in some ways, returned to its roots. This new unibody design rides on a rear-drive oriented chassis — like the original. A turbo-four provides base power, a significant 300-hp (more than the original’s V-8) while two optional versions of a 3.0-liter turbo V-6 create 365 hp, or, 400 hp in our hot-rodded twin turbo ST. With stiffer suspension settings, tighter steering, larger tires, wheels and brakes, think Police Interceptor Explorer without the blue lights and you’ll be close.
And that brings up the different styling for the ST, the sportiest Explorer ever. Wearing blacked out trim, blacked-out front fascia, quad tailpipes and 21-inch wheels shod with Pirelli Scorpion Zero performance tires, this Explorer corners with attitude, accelerates with authority and shunts other vehicles out of the passing lane once they peer at that ominous, almost official-looking grille.
On three occasions, viewers leered at the ST and actually paraded all the way around the big SUV to see what it said on the rear — I guess, because they didn’t ask or otherwise state what they were doing, yet seemed satisfied to what it looks like or says out back. The bright red brake calipers, those honking exhausts and 21-inch wheels all suggest that this is not your normal grocery-getter Explorer.
The change to a rear drive bias means the Explorer exits the front-drive oriented full-size crossover segment that is populated with the latest Korean wagons — the Telluride and Palisade, as well as Traverse, Pilot, Highlander, Pathfinder and Ascent. The only domestic, mainstream rear-drive crossover of similar size (and mission) is the Dodge Durango. In ST trim, Ford thinks it has a rival for the SRT Durango.
Explorer fans might find the ST more sport than they are accustomed to. The steering is taut, the suspension is great at all cornering exercises, but this sporty chassis is less than supple on the tortured two-tracks that populate the east-west corridor that gets one across Maine and New Hampshire. You will, however, have plenty of punch to pass the myriad logging trucks, tankers, chip trailers and other commercial vehicles filling Route 2 and the connector roads, and you will be awed by the graceful, purposeful handling of this 5,400-pound, six-passenger family hauler.
Explorer fans will find a workable interior featuring the latest Sync3 hardware, lots of safety gear, but more notably — more space. The doors still wrap around the thresholds, excellent, plus the three rows all have more room. The almost-flat floor is gone, though; that drive-shaft for the rear wheels creates a larger hump. The options as well as the standard equipment list is more extensive. Loved the power tilt/telescoping steering column, the premium Bang & Olufsen audio, 360-degree camera system, active park assist and the voice-activated navigation.
The rotary shifter is sort of meh, and the monochromatic interior on ST trim doesn’t generate a lot of visual flare.
Interestingly, the tow rating — one of the primary advantages to rear drive — only gives the latest Explorer a 10 percent gain in towing ability.
Base Explorer XLT pricing starts at $37,770, rising to $49,225 for Limited, $55,835 for ST and $59,345 for Platinum. A hybrid model arrives later this year, starting at $53,375. The Lincoln Aviator is a sister vehicle to this Explorer.
Fuel economy for the base turbo-four is a respectable 18/27 mpg, while the hybrid model is projected to be 29/27 mpg. Despite the smooth and refined work of the 10-speed automatic, the lure of 400 horses, plus some lengthy highway stints, placed the ST’s 1,100-mile average at 21.5 mpg — right in the hunt for the EPA projections of 17/23 mpg.
The majority of drivers won’t even recognize the difference between front- and rear-drive Explorers — the AWD engages so effortlessly, you can’t even tell on slippery surfaces. They might not even note the styling changes, as modest embellishments suggest that Explorer owners didn’t want a new look.
All Explorer owners will like the updated interior, while enthusiast drivers will really like the sportier dynamics of the new Explorer ST.