Automotive Analysis: The Fifth Generation Ford Explorer Succeeded Because Its Good Looks Were Backed Up By Compelling Features. Can The Sixth Generation Follow Suit?

Sophie Turner is far from the greatest actress in Hollywood. Don’t take my word for it: In a 2017 interview, Turner confessed that her popularity on social media contributed to the studio’s decision to cast her as X-Men’s Jean Grey over a much more talented actress (rumored to be either Saoirse Ronan or Chloe Grace Moretz, depending on who you believe). Turner’s work on the massively popular Game of Thrones no doubt inspired millions of people to follow her on sites like Instagram and Twitter. There is another reason too. On an attractiveness scale of 1-10, Turner is an 11.

The Ford Explorer, like Turner, does well when given good material. Ford blessed the three row crossover with good looks in 2011 and the design improved further when it was refreshed for the 2016 model year. It wasn’t the most capable vehicle in the segment, nor was is it the most reliable. But it remained popular because it resonated with buyers. The question is, can the 2020 redesign do the same?

When the fifth generation Explorer debuted for the 2011 model year, the model was at the lowest point in its history. The SUV that once sold nearly half a million units per year in the 90s could only convince about 52,000 car buyers to pick one up in 2009. Three row crossovers had sprung up like weeds during the 2000s and Ford had several of them during this time period, which probably didn’t help things. But with the introduction of the D4 Explorer, sales rebounded, with the nameplate experiencing a more than fifty percent jump in sales between 2010 and 2011. The 2016 refresh buoyed sales too, as 2015 saw the Explorer gain 40,000 additional customers over the prior year. For the past several years, the Ford has remained the top seller in the fiercely competitive three row crossover segment, with the Toyota Highlander nipping at its heels (or beating it altogether, depending on how you view the Police Interceptor Utility).

What contributed to the Explorer’s success? Name recognition is probably part of it. The Explorer also received generally positive reviews until recently, when its advanced age became impossible to ignore. Some of its competitors also botched their redesigns. Visually, the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder went from boxy yet svelte to bloated and ungainly in one generation. They’re still solid performers for their respective brands, but neither model has increased their market share like the Explorer did during the same time period. It’s also possible that Mountaineer owners buoyed the Explorer by sticking with Ford despite the demise of Mercury. And let’s not forget that Lincoln lacked an attractive three row crossover until very recently. Explorer sales did increase around the time of the 2016 refresh, after all. That nip and tuck saw the addition of the Platinum trim too, which no doubt appealed to more affluent customers.

Visually, the 2020 model splits the difference between the fifth generation’s two front end designs. The new Explorer’s exterior appearance won’t scare away customers. So what will? Bad press might. Or not. The Explorer still sold incredibly well after the Firestone tire debacle. Numerous reports about carbon monoxide issues affecting fifth gen Explorers hasn’t dented sales either. Ford’s troubled launch of the 2020 Explorer and Lincoln Aviator is also generating headlines (come back later today for more on that development). That may very well impact sales of the Explorer and contribute to it losing the top spot to the Toyota Highlander. There are several other reasons why the sixth gen Explorer may not reach the sales heights of its predecessors.

When the fifth generation Explorer debuted in early 2010s, the three row crossover segment lacked entries from Subaru and Volkswagen. That’s no longer the case today. By all accounts, those two vehicles are selling well. But neither of them have captivated the automotive intelligentsia the way the new Korean models have. The Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride aren’t radically different than anything else in the segment. They’re even based off the same platform that underpinned their predecessors. What makes them so praiseworthy? Their looks and their presentation.

The Korean siblings are largely similar but posses enough differences that sufficiently prevent them from being labeled as badge engineered models. It’s actually pretty easy for automakers to avoid that derogatory term. All they need to do is develop completely different exterior and interiors for the vehicles in question. The 2020 Ford Explorer and 2020 Lincoln Aviator aren’t being labeled as examples of badge engineering and neither will the Korean three rows. But the Koreans did something few expected. Ford has been putting out competitive crossovers for about ten years now, with some exceptions. Hyundai and Kia have done the same, although their products played it safe and remained competent, but not particularly compelling vehicles.

Until recently. The Kona injected some much needed energy into the subcompact crossover segment. And the Stinger presents a compelling alternative to similarly priced front wheel drive sedans. The new Korean three rows offer the illusion of luxury for a mainstream price. On the outside, both the Palisade and Telluride punch above their weight. On the inside, they do the same, at least when it comes to aesthetics.

Materials quality is exactly what you’d expect from a non-luxury three row. That hasn’t stopped numerous publications from claiming they set a new benchmark for the segment. They don’t. The Mazda CX-9 is the quality benchmark. But it’s easy to understand why those reviewers were fooled. The duo successfully copied what luxury automakers are putting into their vehicles these days. Kia borrowed the center stack from Mazda while inserting Jaguar-like grab handles into their cabin. The Palisade’s interior brings to mind all the late model Mercedes products that present their driver’s cockpit and infotainment screens as a single piece unit.

By contrast, the 2020 Explorer’s interior is…perfectly cromulent. It’s aesthetically unique and it contains a very nice LCD instrument setup in the driver’s cockpit, but it looks exactly like something you’d expect from a modern, mainstream three row. I’m almost certain that when I get the chance to sit in one, I’ll find its material quality to be on par with the new Korean siblings. What I won’t find is a cabin as “luxurious” as them.

What does this all mean? Hard to say. The Explorer has brushed off negative press and middling reviews for almost twenty years now. It’s the type of utility vehicle we’ve come to expect from the Blue Oval. It might succeed on the merits of being a somewhat unique entry in the segment, one of that boasts some very robust powertrains. Or it could cede market share to the multitude of newer competitors that have sprung up in recent years. By doubling down on what Ford thinks buyers want from an Explorer, they either made a smart decision or bungled their chances at retaining a sizable chunk of the segment. This might play out similarly to how customers responded to the fourth gen Explorer. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the 2006-2010 Explorer. It looked good, was decently reliable, and did not ignite any scandal regarding its handling or its tires. But the three-row segment quickly cemented around car based crossovers, which offered exactly what customers wanted without the fuel economy penalty or rougher ride of a body-on-frame SUV.

Ten years ago Ford successfully resurrected the Explorer by improving upon the formula established by the first generation Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. The end result was a spacious vehicle with a premium appearance inside and out. For 2019 the Koreans borrowed that recipe to create their own compelling family haulers. It’s possible that the 2020 Explorer’s rear-wheel drive architecture and performance chops will prevent the model from losing ground. But there’s an equally credible scenario: That Ford ruined its chance to maintain sales leadership by straying too far from the established paradigm. Either way, the competition is as fierce as ever.

There’s an old saying on the internet: In order to be successful, just follow two steps. Step 1: Be attractive. Step 2: Don’t be unattractive. Sophie Turner did not need to rely on her good looks to make Sansa Stark a compelling character. But her sex appeal, social media following, and her time spent on Game of Thrones will no doubt impact her career going forward. With any luck, she can leverage her skills and continue to land high profile work over her more talented counterparts. In a similar manner, Ford rebuilt the Explorer’s reputation in part by making it look good, but its attractiveness was backed up by compelling features too. The sixth generation Explorer clearly inherited a decent legacy, possibly enough to withstand its initial teething issues. But there are plenty of other good looking three row crossovers on the market now, and that will certainly complicate things.