By on August 29, 2019

Barring the development of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, the slow march towards better fuel economy, especially in larger vehicles, has been just that: slow. Yet incremental improvements continue, and the latest large family vehicle to see a darker shade of green is Ford’s new-for-2020 Explorer.

Now bearing rear-drive architecture it shares with the Lincoln Aviator, the Explorer drives into its sixth generation with a hybrid and high-performance model in tow. The greenest of the bunch, unlike the Aviator, is not a plug-in proposition, so fuel economy gains are limited. It’s up to buyers to decide if the just-released EPA numbers are worth the extra coin.

In rear-drive guise, the 2020 Explorer Hybrid earns an EPA rating of 27 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 28 mpg combined. Contrast that with the 21 mpg/28 mpg/24 mpg figure applied to its gas-only sibling.

Available as a Limited model but not as an entry-level XLT, the Explorer Hybrid carries a 3.3-liter V6 mated to an electric motor and a 10-speed automatic, the same tranny carried by all 2020 Explorers. Power amounts to 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft of torque. Ditch the hybrid element, and a regular Explorer Limited fields a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder good for 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. So, on paper at least, the Explorer Hybrid packs a slight power edge, though its on-board battery (nestled below the rear seat) and larger engine may saddle it with a bit more weight.

We’ve yet to stage a 0-60 run between Explorer Limiteds of both stripes.

Add four-wheel drive to the equation and the hybrid model’s economy drops to 23 mpg city/26 mpg highway/25 mpg combined, versus the gas-only model’s 20/27/23 rating. Clearly, those who do the most city driving stand to benefit the most from the Explorer Hybrid’s assisted V6.

Despite not breaking the 30 mpg barrier, Ford’s pretty proud of its achievement, claiming the hybrid allows for a 500 miles of driving without stopping for gas while also offering the same towing capacity (5,000 pounds, when properly outfitted) as a 2019 3.5-liter Ecoboost model. Indeed, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of Explorers of yesteryear. A rear-drive 2000 Explorer equipped with Ford’s 4.0-liter V6 returned a miserable 16 mpg on the combined cycle (15 mpg when equipped with four-wheel drive).

A decade later, nothing had changed.

It’s worth noting that 10 years ago, a non-hybrid Escape didn’t come close to 28 mpg combined. A 2010 Focus matched the 2020 Explorer Hybrid’s combined economy. And while better available MPGs is always nice, would-be buyers will probably reach for the calculator before signing on. Starting at $52,780 after destination, an Explorer Limited Hybrid is not exactly a thrifty runabout, as its gas-electric powertrain adds $3,555 when compared to a Explorer Limited.

An all-wheel drive Toyota Highlander Hybrid is capable of garnering 1 extra mpg for less money, but it falls behind in both power and towing capacity. 1,500 pounds behind, when Ford’s Class III Tow Package enters the room.

[Images: Ford]

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23 Comments on “12 MPG in 10 Years: Ford Explorer Hybrid’s Fuel Economy Figures Come to Light...”

  • avatar

    It’s always baffling to me that auto writers who are normally sensitive to the slightest details of how vehicles drive always treat hybrid models as nothing more than a reason to do some fuel cost math. There are very good reasons to go hybrid that have nothing to do with fuel economy. Those include truly seamless stop/start, the ability to sit in your car with climate control on but without sitting in a cloud of your own exhaust, better brake life thanks to regen, and electric torque off the line.

    And the fuel cost math itself rarely focuses on the distinction between city driving, where the hybrid has a big advantage, and highway, where it has little or no advantage.

    On this car I know I’d rather have the hybrid than the 2.3T. I’d have to test drive it against the 3.0T.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah I’ve got hybrids because fact is straight hwy driving makes up a small portion of my overall driving. Sure I spend a lot of time on freeways, but all too frequently it includes very slow to stop and go portions.

      We’ll have to see how this system works and if it provides as seamless of stop and start as the previous Ford Hybrids.

    • 0 avatar
      Menar Fromarz

      Truth is, a hybrid isn’t the best for highway cruising, diesel is. All our hybrids were (IMHO) frustrating and not relaxing in long mountainous highway duty.
      On the other hand all our diesels (VW, Merc) are super at the city, fabulous in long distance.
      As for the new iterations such as the Ford here in question, I’m sure its nice, if a question mark as to its relative values.
      If modern vehicles didn’t weigh 9000 lbs, and NEED 450HP just to move their bulk, maybe the fuel efficiency realized would be compelling utilizing modern tech. Calling Colin Chapman…

      • 0 avatar

        Honestly my Highlander hybrid is an astonishingly good highway cruiser, even though the fuel economy on the highway is barely better than the gas version (I’m getting about 26 city, 30 highway). The ride is excellent, engine revs stay low except when passing or accelerating uphill, and the electric motors give a right-now shove when it’s time to pass, even at altitude.

        • 0 avatar
          Mike Beranek

          These are V6 hybrid engines and can do Interstate cruising without revving themselves to bits. But a 4-cyl hybrid in something with as much weight and windage as an Explorer would.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve owned both a Prius and a VW TDI at the same time, and we drove both between VA/MD, GA, and IL regularly.

        The VW was a driver’s car, and the Prius was an owner’s car. The Prius was a much better vehicle overall, though, due to the fact that it was $7k more reliable during the time we owned both.

        Since I own & drive cars, I found the Prius much more enjoyable, despite its lousy NVH in its later years. I enjoy cars that start every morning, AND shift into gear without drama.

  • avatar

    Ford is clearly not worried about maximizing MPG gains. If they were, this would’ve been a 4 cylinder hybrid. Same with the F150. When it switched to aluminum, some of the weight savings was offset by a beefier frame, allowing better payload and towing.

  • avatar

    I’m just waiting for people to chime in about how mpg targets are utterly impossible and we can’t possibly push automakers toward more fuel efficient vehicles.

    I mean, 2000 to 2010, zero improvement. 2010 to 2019, 12mpg gain. In a thirsty full size SUV. That speaks for itself.

  • avatar

    A $3K upcharge for the hybrid powertrain over the 2.3T isn’t too bad but it is still behind an $11K trim-level paywall.

    • 0 avatar

      Same game Toyota played at first with the last-gen Highlander. That hybrid started as Limited or Platinum only. A couple years later, when the novelty had worn off and production capacity increased, they started selling LE+ and XLE hybrids. Bet on a 2022 or 2023 Explorer XLT Hybrid.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    When you don’t put on a lot of miles per year, the cost diff for a hybrid drops off really fast. My wife bought a 2019 Infiniti QX50 on 1/1/2019. It now has 1600 miles mostly city driving. The trip odometer reports overall mileage of 23 mpg. We get close to 30 mpg on trips, but they are only about 10% of the total miles. So even if a theoretical hybrid of this vehicle existed, it would have to be the same price as the ICE only engine to make any difference to us. Another way to say this is all total operating costs are local.

    • 0 avatar

      Right. In the real world few people will ever get any of that $3500 back. Same with diesels. The extra cost and also the much more expensive diesel maintenance way more than cancels out any mpg advantage.

  • avatar

    I think an issue that is as big or bigger than fuel economy improvement would be revamping the EPA fuel economy tests to much more closely mimic real world and typical driving situations. Make it so automakers can’t game the system. I think alot of vehicles out there, especially ones with turbos, aren’t hitting the EPA numbers.

    Not only that, why not get real and stop giving certain vehicles a free pass because they have a tailgate. They are commuter vehicles now adopted by the masses and not deserving of special treatment.

  • avatar

    These numbers are awful. They couldn’t even break 30MPG. The real question is how much did Ford fudge these official numbers?

    3 MPG lost due to AWD. And the 2WD gets the same mileage as the Toyota Highlander AWD. Absolutely pathetic.

    Glad to see the “new” Explorer is just a gas guzzler.

  • avatar

    Never seen a hybrid get worse highway mpg than a gas version of the same vehicle. Don’t know what mpg figures the author was using, but I’m seeing mpg estimates of up to 30 city / 28 highway / 29 combined for a AWD Highlander. The Explorers city numbers are embarrassing.

    • 0 avatar

      There are 2 sets of numbers for Highlander Hybrid AWD the ones posted int he article are correct for the “standard” version while the LE Plus has the numbers you noted. No idea what the differences are between the versions.

      • 0 avatar

        No mechanical differences. The LE Plus’s improved numbers are attributable to lower curb weight (no two-piece hatch, many fewer power accessories) and marginally better aero (simpler front fascia).

    • 0 avatar

      This system appears to be a one-motor system, which will rely on the gas engine significantly more than the more complex two-motor systems (or three-motor, in the case of the Highlander) that you see in Toyotas and smaller Fords. It’ll drive more like a conventional car than the Highlander, but it won’t get the same fuel economy. It’s got a conventional automatic transmission and transfer case, whereas the Highlander system has no transfer case (the rear wheels are driven by their own independent electric motor) and a simple planetary gearset transferring power at the front.

      Worth noting that the next Highlander Hybrid is going decisively toward more fuel economy, swapping out the V6 for a four-cylinder gas motor and losing 400 pounds. It’s rumored to come in at 30 city/34 highway in all trim levels.

    • 0 avatar

      These aren’t econo-boxes. These are big, heavy cars. Until the automakers get serious about fuel economy instead of 1000 horsepower, these numbers are as good as they get.

  • avatar

    I am the target market for this thing.

    I have three kids, I live in the American Midwest, and I just started a job which effectively doubles our household income.

    I already own a minivan, but I travel about a 20-mile city-driving circuit each day, and I’d really like to be able to do that circuit 0 gasoline.

    Sustained highway MPG numbers are only going to me a few times a year when we drive to Chicago or go visit Grandma in GA/NC.

    For me, there are precisely three vehicles on Earth that would be enough of an upgrade over my gray minivan to be worth new-car money:

    1) Tesla Model X (270-mile AER, most awesome)

    2) Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid (30-mile AER, most kid-friendly space)

    3) Ford Explorer PHEV (25-mile AER, 5000lb towing)

    The problem is that a CPO Tesla Model X costs about the same as the new Ford/Chrysler vehicles — I saw one on for around $57k (which didn’t last long). I’m not buying anything anything this big about a year, and so the supply of off-lease CPO Model Xs will be even bigger when I’m ready to buy.

    You read that right: if I’m typical of the kind of dad who’s going to be buying this the Explorer PHEV (and I’m very glad it exists), it could be beat in the marketplace by used Teslas…

  • avatar

    A 48V (“full hybrid”) system makes more sense.

    Doesn’t require lugging around a heavy battery pack (which is reason even less keen on PHEVs) and the cost of entry is a lot less.

    Basically 60-70% of the fuel economy improvement for a fraction of the price.

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