The Ford Explorer is one of those full-size SUVs that have just always been around. At least it sure seems that way. While nowhere near as old as the Chevy Suburban (nothing is as old as a Suburban. Literally, it is the oldest continually made vehicle in the world), the Explorer has been in production since the 1991 model year. It’s also helped define what it means to be a modern SUV. Others have come and gone, but the Ford Explorer remains. Enter the Toyota Highlander. While we love to joke that the Highlander is named after an immortal warrior that absorbs the power of its vanquished foes, it realistically takes on the name of the Scottish Highlands. What does a Japanese SUV have to do with a northern region in Scotland? No clue, but it is one of the best selling SUVs in the United States, so regardless of its name origin, it is doing something right. But how do these two SUVs stack up against one another? The best way is to put the 2020 Ford Explorer vs 2020 Toyota Highlander; the winner takes all (this is starting to sound more and more like the Highlander series).
This is worth noting before moving forward. The Ford Explorer was originally built on a truck chassis. It shared many of the same features as the Ford Ranger of the early 1990s. This continued for the first twenty years of the SUV’s existence. That all changed though with the fifth generation of the SUV. Ford shifted its production to share the same unibody chassis of the Ford Taurus. Once this switch was made, the Ford Explorer took the final step from full-fledged SUV to a crossover (essentially using a car frame while combining it with an SUV body).
The Toyota Highlander, on the other hand, was always built with a car unibody in mind. From day one, the Highlander was built using the Camry platform. So in the early years of the Highlander, it very much was creating the crossover segment of SUVs. Once the Explorer, one of the best selling SUVs in the United States, made the switch, it solidified the crossover segment. So, while at one point in time it was a full-size SUV vs a midsize “crossover” SUV, it is now a midsize crossover vs midsize crossover.
With that out of the way, how does the price of these two SUVs line up? Well, the entry MSRP of the 2020 Ford Explorer is $32,765, while the Platinum (top tier) trim has a starting MSRP of $58,250. As for the 2020 Toyota Highlander, the base “L” trim starts at $34,600 while the top-tier Platinum runs at $46,850 (while the Hybrid Platinum runs at $48,250. The Ford Explorer Hybrid model is part of the Limited trim, so it comparing the two spec-wise doesn’t completely line up).
Engine and Fuel Economy
Let’s get into the good stuff here. The base 2020 Ford Explorer comes ready to tango with a 2.3L I4 Turbo that produces 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Those are some solid numbers for a base engine. The base Toyota Highlander uses a larger 3.5L V6. However, it isn’t a turbocharged engine and ends up giving you 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. So it falls a bit flat with the larger yet less efficient base engine.
Fuel economy ends up about the same. The Ford averages 21 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highway while the base Highlander nets 21 MPG in the city and 29 MPG on the highway. You’d expect that with an engine that is 15 horsepower and 47 lb-ft of torque less.
But what about the top-tier engine? If the smaller engine is the undercard, how does the main event of the night battle out? The upgraded engine on the 2020 Ford Explorer is a 3.0L V6 Twin Turbo that produces 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque. A pretty solid first punch by Ford. And the Toyota Highlander? Well, that’s it. The Highlander doesn’t have an upgraded engine. Outside of the hybrid offering, the 3.5L V6 is as good as it gets.
That means if you were to spring for a Platinum on either vehicle, the Ford would give you 365 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque, while the Highlander would give you 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. Basically, not even in the same ballpark. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg for Ford. While the Platinum is the top trim if you decide to go with the ST trim (which costs less than the Platinum), the horsepower goes to 400, and the torque hits 415 lb-ft.
Towing and Cargo
Okay, so Ford obliterated Toyota with regards to its engine. But how about towing and cargo? These are larger midsize SUVs, so you will want some decent to solid numbers here.
The 2020 Ford Explorer offers up a max towing capacity of 5,600 pounds. The Highlander maxes out at 5,000 pounds. It is a bit surprising Ford doesn’t win by more, given the fact it has a trim that gives over 150 more lb-ft of torque. But in reality, there’s only so much you can do with a car unibody chassis.
Alright. So the Highlander is really taking a beating here. Can available cargo space at least give it a win? For the 2020 Ford Explorer, it comes with 18.2 cubic feet of cargo space if all of the seats are in the upright position. This number jumps to 47.9 cubic feet of space if the rear seat is folded down, and then up to 87.8 cubic feet of cargo space if the back two rows are folded down. As for the Highlander? Cargo space when all the seats are up, is at 16 cubic feet. A full 2.2 cubic feet less than the Explorer. It does move up to 48.4 cubic feet, which is actually 0.5 cubic feet more than the Ford. When all three seats are folded down, it hits 84.3 cubic feet, which puts its net cubic feet behind the Ford Explorer by 3.5 feet.
We’re running out of comparison points here. Toyota is known as the king of hybrid technology. So how do the two match up? Ford’s Limited Explorer hybrid offers a 3.3L Hybrid engine that produces 27 MPG in the city and 29 on the highway. It can also tow up to 5,000 pounds. The Highlander Platinum hybrid does finally do something right with an estimated fuel economy of 35 MPG in the city and 34 MPG on the highway. The 2.5L I4 hybrid engine. But towing takes a major drive to 3,500 pounds (1,500 pounds less than the Ford Explorer hybrid)
Okay, So Which SUV Would You Buy?
We’ve been through the performance numbers. These are the specs that make an SUV an actual sport utility vehicle. Ford has a far superior engine. Fuel economy is nearly identical, the Explorer tows more. It has more cargo space. Please, tell us, why would you get a Highlander? Is there a shade of paint that is nicer? Maybe it has a sexier wheel well? We don’t know. But what are your thoughts? Realistically, which of the two SUVs would you buy?