Ford Motor Co., losing ground in the sport utility vehicle business it helped pioneer, is rolling out the first redesign of its bread-and-butter Explorer since President Obama was in his first term and the auto industry was recovering from a debilitating recession.
2020 Ford Explorer. What is different in new SUV?
This latest Ford Explorer—unveiled Wednesday by Executive Chairman Bill Ford at Ford Field, the stadium home to his family-owned football team, the Detroit Lions — lands as the auto industry may be heading into another downturn. It’s crucial the redesign is a hit as Ford defends its turf in a still-growing and lucrative segment and embarks on a costly, years-long restructuring.
“To really run on all cylinders, Ford needs to have its three most important vehicles — the F-150, Explorer and Escape — to be very strong and fresh,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with researcher Autotrader. “Everyone criticizes Ford for not focusing on future technology, but its biggest problem has been not having fresh products.”
Ford is pulling the wraps off Explorer ahead of next week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where it’s planning to detail broader cooperation with Volkswagen AG, according to people familiar with the matter. Widening the alliance, potentially to include joining forces on expensive development of electric and self-driving vehicles, would be consistent with Ford’s target to slash $25.5 billion in costs by 2022.
The new Explorer coming this summer returns to the model’s roots as a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, but it’s much leaner and more athletic looking than its gas-guzzling forebear of the 1990s.
Weighing in at about 200 pounds lighter than the 4,460-pound outgoing model, the Explorer will improve on gas mileage and be available as a hybrid. Shifting much of the propulsion system to the rear wheels also expands interior room. And safety technology that keeps the SUV in its lane and automatically brakes to avoid crashes will be standard.
Buyers will have their choice of three engines boasting as much as 400 horsepower, plus the option of adding a 10-inch, tablet-style touch screen. And the sticker will increase just $400, to a base price of about $32,765, according to the company.
But what took so long?
“It’s aged gracefully,” Craig Patterson, Ford’s SUV marketing manager, said in an interview. “It was doing so well, it wasn’t something that we needed to do. But at some point, you need to move to a new platform and get the most modern technology.”
Explorer sales slipped 3.5 percent last year, punctuated by a 22 percent December plunge. Rivals such as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Chevrolet Traverse all enjoyed double-digit gains, and each of those competing models have much fresher designs.
“Ford neglected the Escape and the Explorer,” Autotrader’s Krebs said. “Ford saw the trend of soaring SUV sales a long time ago, but they didn’t put their money there. It’s about time they do.”
The Explorer has historically been a big money maker for Ford. With a product line expanded to include higher-end and sportier versions, such as an ST edition, the model has the chance to bring in even more dough.
“We see the volume only growing,” Patterson said. “It has really good margins. It’s an important contributor to the bottom line for the company.”
The latest Explorer has come a long way since the tan and forest green Eddie Bauer edition helped define the concept of an SUV to American motorists nearly three decades ago. The new version comes with a 4G modem that can handle up to 10 digital devices at once and generates a Wi-Fi hot spot with a 50-foot radius. It offers at 14-speaker, 900-watt audio system and a 10-speed transmission with seven driving modes. The digital dashboard display can be personalized with imagery and instrument readouts for each driver.
Ford also has made the Explorer quieter by employing active-noise cancellation and thick acoustic glass, making it easier on parents to speak with children in the third row.
And there’s more room to stretch out, thanks to a longer wheel base that improves leg room and cargo capacity, which was a hit in consumer clinics, according to the company.
“Gone are the comments like, ‘It’s a big car, but it feels smaller inside,’” said Bill Gubing, the Explorer’s chief engineer.
Ford hopes all the enhancements will help Explorer seize a bigger share of the flourishing SUV market. And with all the advancements coming to the auto industry, Patterson says the company won’t wait almost another decade for the next redesign.
“If you wait 10 years on technology now,” Patterson said, “it might as well be 50 years.”