Ever since Sir Alec Issigonis launched his miraculous Mini, popular wisdom holds that a sideways engine and front drive is the surest-fire way to maximize interior volume in a given footprint. But Bill Gubing, chief project engineer for the 2020 Ford Explorer, claims that switching away from transverse front-drive architecture to a longitudinal rear-drive setup allowed his team to unlock additional interior space in the new Explorer.
It turns out the real problem with the old Explorer’s architecture, which traces its roots all the way back to the 1998 Volvo S80, was that it started out as a low-ground-clearance sedan. That means the entire drivetrain went up as the body was raised to provide the SUV ride height. Then, as the vehicle size and mass increased on the journey from flagship sedan to three-row crossover (and to meet evolving crash standards like small-overlap frontal), providing sufficient structure and crumple space kept adding to the front overhang.
By starting from scratch to design a three-row SUV architecture employing the latest and greatest techniques and materials, like the high-pressure die-cast aluminum front strut towers and hydroformed, curved front crash rails, helped shave 200 pounds from the vehicle. Eliminating the requirement for the front-wheel driveshafts to be positioned behind the engine allowed the entire powertrain to be positioned lower in the vehicle (and in a frontal crash, it can ride down and back under the occupants). All of this allowed the front wheels to move forward by much of the 6-inch wheelbase stretch, getting the wheelwells out of the interior. It also reduced the amount of crush space required in front of the engine, further enhancing the popular “wheels-to-the-corners” look and allowing the hood to come down to improve forward visibility. This configuration also opened up some space beside the engine for the HVAC equipment to move into, freeing up even more interior space.
The old Explorer’s sedan roots positioned the front seat occupants too far inboard so that the driver could sit behind the sedan-optimized steering wheel position—too close to the center console and too far away from the door armrests. The new one places the people, steering wheel, and console where they belong.
Ford hasn’t released full specs yet, but we’re told to expect best-in-class levels of cargo space and rear head- and hiproom. We are also promised that 4-foot-wide sheet goods will fit through the hatch and on the cargo floor. Eureka!