As old-fashioned, body-on-truck-frame SUVs go, the 2020 Ford Expedition is the best American version ever.
Built on the world's best-selling pickup, the F-150, Ford's answer to the Chevrolet Tahoe debuted in 1997 and was an immediate hit, offering a cavernous interior and the ability to tow large things. Riding on the pickup's architecture and mechanicals, the Expedition is also one of America's longest-lasting vehicles, frequently logging 200,000 miles or more.
With the fourth generation, introduced in 2018, Ford separated itself from its General Motors rivals with an architecture of high-strength boron steel frame supporting an aluminum body. The advantages of a lighter, stronger vehicle are manifest. They are safer, more fuel-efficient, and ride and handle better.
New engine sings sweetly
For 2020, Ford gave all Expeditions a 3.5-L Ecoboost V-6 tuned to crank out 375 hp and 470 lb.ft. of torque. It is a strong and smoother powerplant that with sport mode selected has some real pop, especially when accelerating from 40 to 80 mph.
The EPA estimates it will deliver 20 mpg in combined driving. We found that optimistic. In our 37-mile "Tour of Bowie" circuit, we got closer to 18. Sill that's a big boost from earlier generations.
One hears a lot of noise about the longevity of small-displacement, high-compression engines, and it reasonable to think that forcing more air through a smaller space might increase the rate of wear and create unique carbon buildup issues. The turbochargers themselves can be an expensive maintenance item.
In the case of Ford's Ecoboost series, however, we can find little data to support these arguments, especially those built after important upgrades to timing chains, turbos, and intake ports after 2017. Oil changes are, however, critical. Worn-out oil can damage the timing chain, guides, and sensors. Synthetic? Always with these engines.
A base Expedition can tow 6,600 lbs., 9,300 if you opt for the $1,570 heavy-duty tow package. An Expedition Max, a foot longer and 200 pounds heavier, can tow up to 9,000 pounds.
Smoother, not smooth
Since 2003, Expeditions have come with an independent rear suspension based on coil, not leaf, springs. The difference in ride quality is significant. After all, large families are the raison d'etre for vehicles in this category, and it would seem preferable to do something more than providing seatbelts to keep rear passengers' heads from hitting the roof.
On the interstate highway leg of the "Bowie Run," the Expedition was as smooth as a farm pond on a windless day. Around town and down our favorite Farm-to-Market road, however, we found it still had some of the boyish bounce that we find enjoyable in a pickup but concerning in a family vehicle.
The good news? We never felt tempted to break the speed limit.
In curves, steering feel is dead, as is butt feel. The latter is where we sense the entire vehicle's stability and turning response. Though it scores well in crash testing, and its height and mass make it feel safe, the numbers and feelings are misleading. As many lawsuits evidence, Expeditions have always been prone to rollovers. The latest model earns three stars out of five in rollover resistance. That improves to four of five if 4WD is added.
Profits first, safety second
We're not saying this is an unsafe vehicle, just that caution is a wise precaution, especially since Ford treats modern, life-saving, driver-assist technology like jewelry to be sold to the highest bidder. Chevy does the same thing.
Standard on all Expeditions is Ford Co-Pilot 360, which is made to sound like a complete driver-assist suite but is anything but.
Opt for the base XLT ($52,810) and you can buy splash guards for $269, a kayak rack for $589, but you cannot at any price get blind-spot monitoring, or lane-keep assist (which reduces rollovers by avoiding them). These things come standard on a $15,650 Toyota Yaris or a $32,000 Hyundai Palisade.
To get a full suite on an Expedition, you have to step up to $63,345 Limited and add a $2,555 package that includes a panoramic roof and voice navigation. At $73,000 and above, Ford makes those features standard.
At that point, you would be so much better off looking at a BMW X7 ($75,895) or Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class ($76,945). Hey, you're already paying $100 for an oil change. Might as well get something that does not feel plasticky inside and looks, feels, and drives like it is worth the money.
GM finally recognized its competitive disadvantage and is bringing multi-point rear suspensions to the all-new, 2021 Suburban. Still, the fundamental issue is that passenger vehicles and trucks are inherently at odds. Trucks ride on steel frames designed to tow and haul. Passenger vehicles blend large body parts and supporting components into chasses that provide strength, safety, and comfort.
Bunches of brilliant engineering have gone into masking these differences, such as magnetic ride control with four-corner adaptive suspension, but in the end, a truck is still a truck. In the marketplace now are superior, car-based, seven-passenger vehicles, like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, that are not quite as big, won't tow as much (5,000-8,000 lbs.) but ride and drive much better, are more sophisticated, are safer, come with 10-year warranties, and cost 30-40 percent less than the American behemoths.
That they also use less fuel does not seem to be a major issue for American buyers. No one can predict the future, but if the next election brings about a government intent on reducing carbon emissions, one can envision several scenarios where many people have in their driveways the automotive equivalent of dinosaurs, dropping value like beans falling from a ripped bag. If that happens, American automakers — who used to dominate the globe but now no longer build cars — will once again have put themselves a step behind the competition.
The gauges and switchgear in a 2020 Expedition are not much different from those in a 2010 model. I found them attractive then. On the other hand, drive down the road in a Palisade or Telluride, and it wraps itself around you. It keeps itself perfectly centered in its lane, stays an adjustable but safe distance behind the vehicle ahead, watches your blind spot, manages the bright lights, tells you not only if a passenger has a seatbelt off but which one, and even gives you the weather.
When you turn it off, it sets the parking brake and reminds you to check the back seat. Fully-loaded, it costs $13,000 less than the cheapest Expedition.
That's a proper family vehicle for the third decade of the 21st century.