When Ford announced it was giving up on cars not named Mustang in the U.S., its sporty four-doors like the Fiesta ST and Focus ST were done.
Instead, it has been busy adding high performance SUVs to the lineup to replace them under the ST name.
It started with the 2019 Ford Edge ST and new this year is the first Explorer ST, which leverages the large utility vehicle’s rear-drive-biased platform with the most powerful engine ever offered in the model.
It’s a 400 hp version of the Explorer’s 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 that also sends 415 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels in this application through a 10-speed transmission related to the Mustang’s.
The ST also has a firmer suspension compared to other Explorer models and beefier brakes that can be further enhanced with optional larger calipers and better pads that come with a set of 21-inch wheels and high performance tires.
The Explorer’s body already has a muscular, swept-back style that makes it look fast, and the ST adds a black grille and dark trim that gives it an even more menacing presence.
Inside, contrast stitching, embroidered logos and faux metallic dash trim help set the standard six-passenger cabin apart from other Explorers, but the 10.1-inch portrait-style infotainment system display upgrade is as tacked-on and sluggish as it is in all of them and provides a small parking camera view due to its orientation.
Overall, it’s not the fanciest place you’ll find in the three-row utility vehicle class, but the front two rows are comfortable and the third useful for small passengers or short trips. A second-row bench and massaging front seats are available, and the latter could be handy to have because this is a vehicle you might want to spend a lot of time driving.
The turbocharged power comes on strong as an electronically-enhanced rumble fills the cabin. Set to Sport mode, the transmission takes an aggressive set, holding on to gears high up the tachometer then downshifting early to provide engine braking as you slow down. Take it easy and it will return a surprisingly good 24 mpg on the highway.
The suspension is the ST’s party trick, however. The mainstream Explorer models I’ve driven have been on the soft and bouncy side, but the ST’s body control is astonishingly good. There’s very little roll in curves and if you spend enough time on a twisty mountain road can find yourself forgetting that you’re in an SUV that weighs nearly two and a half tons. And while I wouldn’t want to take one too far off-road, the ride remains compliant enough for pockmarked city streets. The ride and handling balance is as perfect as you could expect.
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It’s a tragedy that Ford doesn’t port this suspension setup to the rest of the Explorers. It’s like being in possession of more cowbell and not giving it to Bruce Dickinson when he has a fever. Of course, doing so might make it tougher to justify ST’s $55,985 starting price, which puts it between the Mustang GT and Mustang Shelby GT350.
It hasn’t been a hindrance. According to Ford, the ST has been accounting for roughly 20% of Explorer sales, despite costing over $20,000 more than the base model.
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There’s a well-founded rumor going around that the next-generation Mustang will be based on the Explorer’s platform. If the ST is anything to go by, that might not be a bad thing.
2020 Ford Explorer ST
Type: 6-passenger, 4-door, all-wheel-drive SUV
Base price: $55,985
As tested: $59,915
Engine: 3.0-liter turbocharged V6
Power: 400 hp, 415 lb-ft
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
MPG: 18 city, 24 hwy