Ford was hot off the rampant success of the Taurus sedan when it launched the first Explorer for the 1991 model year, but the new sixth-generation model arrives in a very different context. Ford has halted most car investment as a way to capitalize on the modern SUV boom, which includes the six- to seven-passenger 2020 Explorer. Hyundai, however, is pretty new to the three-row SUV game.
The Palisade isn't the first Hyundai-engineered three-row SUV; that designation goes to the Veracruz of the mid-2000s. From there, the Korean automaker's three-row offerings have consisted of little more than long-wheelbase versions of the smaller two-row Santa Fe. The Palisade was built as a three-row from the ground up—alongside the Kia Telluride—and aims squarely at segment stalwarts such as, you guessed it, the Ford Explorer.
We've driven both SUVs on the road, in the dirt, through the sand, and on the test track. Let's see how they stack up, shall we?
Powertrain: Engine, Transmission, and MPG
These SUVs make power in very different ways. Our base-engine Explorer tester gets its motivation from a turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. (Hybrid V-6 and twin-turbo V-6 options are also available.) It's paired with the 10-speed automatic that's become ubiquitous across Ford's lineup.
The Palisade changes gears with an eight-speed auto, and it only has one engine choice: a 3.8-liter naturally aspirated V-6 making 291 horses but only 262 lb-ft of twist, 48 lb-ft less than the Explorer. Torque is the real game-changer here. Not only does the Explorer's smaller turbocharged engine develop 18 percent more of the stuff, but it also does so without working as hard.
Neither engine provides neck-snapping acceleration, but remember, these are three-row people movers we're talking about. That being said, the Explorer's torque is low in the rev range, and its relatively intuitive 10-speed auto has plenty of ratios to keep the engine on boil. It's quicker to 60 mph by 0.3 second; the Explorer does the deed in 6.8 seconds, the Hyundai 7.1.
In the Palisade, passing maneuvers and highway merging require a heavy foot on the throttle and a downshift or two from the transmission. I enjoyed revving out Hyundai's V-6—there's a great noise and power changeover above 5,000 rpm—but not all buyers would. Both of these powertrains are just adequate.
Ford does have the fuel economy advantage here. The Explorer delivers an EPA-estimated 20/27 (rear-drive) or 21/28 (all-wheel drive) mpg city/highway compared with the Palisade's 19/24 (front-drive) or 19/26 (all-wheel drive) mpg. That's right: The more powerful engine uses less fuel.
Driving: On- and Off-Road
Our Palisade tester sends power to all four wheels, whereas our Explorer is rear-wheel drive. It's offered with AWD, and we asked for it, but unfortunately it was not to be. Driving sane speeds on a dry road, you're unlikely to notice a difference. Both cars exhibit safe, conservative understeer when pushed hard. The Hyundai's steering is a touch quicker, and its suspension mitigates head toss and gut jiggle better than the Ford's. It also felt noticeably more composed crossing over a pair of railroad tracks. Most editors preferred the Explorer's handling to the Palisade's, but the Hyundai's more leisurely driving experience feels better fitted to the segment.
The Palisade was surprisingly adept off-road, having few problems with our dusty obstacle course. It did get stopped a couple times, but backing up and powering back through was an easy solution. As for the Explorer, one editor got the rear-drive Explorer stuck in a sand pit, but Trail mode and traction control generally kept us in good shape. As for other AWD Explorer testers such as the ST and Hybrid, most editors found the SUVs handled our off-road course well.
Interior: Infotainment, Seating, and Features
These cars are closely matched in terms of mechanical bits and driving impressions, but this is where the Palisade really pulls away. The interior of the big three-row Hyundai in Limited trim is thoughtful, handsome, and executed on par with cars that cost $15,000 more.
"Near-luxury? You bet," features editor Scott Evans said of the Palisade. "The style, materials, and feature content are enough to go toe to toe with anything Buick or Acura can offer." I'll add Cadillac to his list. I'd much rather spend time in the Palisade's interior than that of the $73,000 Cadillac XT6 we tested.
The gauge cluster is fully digital. When you activate a turn signal in either direction, the digital gauge on the corresponding side of the screen displays a camera feed, showing what may be hiding in your blind spot. (It's sort of like Honda's LaneWatch except it doesn't take up the entire infotainment screen, and it works on both sides of the car, not just the passenger side.)
You select a gear by pressing one of four metallic buttons, which, unlike a traditional shifter, allows for storage space under the center console. Senior production editor Zach Gale is a huge fan of this kind of packaging wizardry. "On a test drive, you won't think much of it," he said, "but over time? Trust me." A similar space in our long-term Acura RDX has served him well.
Comfortable captain's chairs in the second row are heated and cooled. Grab handles ease passengers into the third row, but because the floor is a little high, folks with longer legs will get intimately familiar with their knees. Headroom is tight, too. If you do have kids in the way back, take advantage of the in-car intercom, which uses the Bluetooth microphones up front to amplify your voice through the speakers in the third row.
The Explorer's interior is a notable step down. It feels built to a price—driver and passengers will find themselves surrounded by black plastic. (Adding AWD to our XLT tester would have brought the as-tested price to about $2,000 below the Palisade.) There are some metallic trim pieces and detail stitching, but this is a significantly lower-quality cabin than the Hyundai's; our interior criticism unfortunately holds true with more expensive 2020 Explorers, too.
Paddle shifters mounted behind the wheel are thin plastic bits that wiggle in place. There's a center console hard-mounted to the floor between the second-row seats, and it, too, is black plastic. You have to step over it to get to the third row, where the bench is barely padded and headroom is comparable to the Palisade.
Up front, the Explorer's seats feel like they're constructed with a lot more padding than the seats in the Hyundai, but our editors were split on which thrones were more comfortable. An 8.0-inch touchscreen sits in the center of the Ford's dash. It's smaller and has a wider bezel than the Hyundai's 10.3-inch unit, but we'll note that Ford's latest version of Sync is the best yet. (ST and Platinum trims offer a 10.1-inch vertical touchscreen.)
Explore No More
If it wasn't clear by now, the Hyundai Palisade wins this comparison. The new Explorer should be lauded for its return to a rear-drive platform, and its powertrain is slightly better than that of its competitor, but a cost-cutting interior and lack of innovation through thoughtful user-friendly features hold it back.
Although it's not as efficient or as powerful as the Explorer, Hyundai's first fully baked entry into the three-row market should be considered a success.