*Spoiler Alert*- The 2020 Kia Telluride Wins!

Ford Explorer vs. Hyundai Palisade vs. Kia Telluride: Finding the No-Compromise Crossover

2020 Ford Explorer vs 2020 Hyundai Palisade vs 2020 Kia Telluride comparison test 6

"Next time you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, take a look at the inevitable SUV out your left window, and then your right. Odds are that massive seven-seat family SUV has just one frustrated, exhausted, hard-working mom or dad behind the wheel.

I've always sympathized with those drivers. I can only imagine that these Toyota Highlanders and Honda Pilots were purchased with the intent on pleasing the entire family on wonderful road trips. Instead, they're stuck. Alone. In traffic. In SUVs that, frankly, aren't known for being particularly wonderful to drive. Thankfully the new 2020 Ford Explorer, 2020 Hyundai Palisade, and 2020 Kia Telluride intend to fix that.

You don't compromise for your family, and the new Explorer, Palisade, and Telluride are designed around the same idea. Up to seven seats? Check. Stylish designs? Check. Around 300 horsepower and performance potential to put a smile on the driver's face? Check and check.

These three newest seven-seat three-row SUVs aim to please everyone from Mom and Dad down to the dog, but over two weeks of testing the Explorer, Palisade, and Telluride, we set out to find which does it best.

But first, let's talk numbers

I'm always a fan of getting the tedium out of the way first, so let's take a quick look at how the Ford, Hyundai, and Kia are similar and different. For starters, all three are large, three-row SUVs with available all-wheel drive, similar sticker prices, and similar fuel economy figures.

The cheapest of the three is the Explorer XLT, which starts at $37,770, but as equipped for this test, it costs $43,415. (It's worth mentioning that our tester had two-wheel drive as opposed to all-wheel drive like the Hyundai and Kia; you can add another $2,000 to the Explorer to account for all-wheel drive.)

The two Korean-branded SUVs have higher starting prices than the Ford, but not by much. The Telluride SX is the cheaper of the two, starting at $44,535 and stickering for $46,860 as tested. Our Palisade Limited tester starts at $47,445 and stickers for $47,605.

Hyundai and Kia have more in common than just similar starting prices. Much like Ford used to sell Mercury- and Lincoln-branded Explorers (and actually does once again with the new Lincoln Aviator), the Palisade and Telluride are essentially identical under the skin. Both SUVs are powered by the same 3.8-liter V-6 producing 291 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque, and both drive the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission (or all four wheels when equipped with all-wheel drive, as these two are). Both have second-row captain's chairs and a third-row bench for a total of seven seats, though squeezing a child in the third row's middle seat can probably be classified as cruel and unusual punishment.

The new Ford is the odd one out. The previous Explorer was front-drive based and available with a variety of V-6s (among other engine options); the new Explorer, however, melds the DNA of the original 1990s Jurassic Park-era Explorer with the family- (and cop)-friendly previous generation, which was the best-selling SUV in its segment. Unlike the Telluride or Palisade, the Explorer rides on an expensive new rear-drive platform that promises both a better driving experience than the Hyundai and Kia and a more capable towing platform for campers, boats, or your mouthy teenager (I've been told this thought crossed my parents' minds multiple times).

The Explorer also has a smaller but more powerful engine than the Telluride or Palisade. Its 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 (shared with the Ford Ranger and Mustang) is good for 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. It also gets paired with a quick-shifting 10-speed automatic, which, if you're keeping score, is two better than the Hyundai or Kia. Our Explorer, as- equipped with second-row captain's chairs, seats six; an available second-row bench allows seating for up to seven.

Report from the front

Despite its undersized engine, the Ford Explorer really packs a punch from the driver's seat. The little four-pot has a lot of car to move, but it does so well. I wouldn't use the word "fast" to describe the Ford, but it's certainly quick enough for a family hauler. The turbocharged engine doesn't suffer from any noticeable lag, and it makes a ton of torque right off the line, providing smooth, strong, sustained acceleration. Thanks to relatively quick shifts from the 10-speed automatic, the 2.3-liter engine is nearly always in its powerband, helping make passing slow traffic—at least with just a driver on board—stress free. The automatic is relatively smooth in operation, though some editors complained of the occasional rough shift.

The Ford handles pretty decently, too, though we were expecting something a bit sportier given its rear-drive platform. Steering is overboosted and vague, but the Explorer is nevertheless easy to point through bends thanks to its composed chassis and responsive throttle and brakes. Ride quality is soft, and body roll is well managed, though harsher impacts will introduce some gut jiggle into the cabin.

The Palisade is the polar opposite of the Explorer—soft, sleepy, and laid back. "This car is wayyyy relaxed," associate online editor Stefan Ogbac said. Features editor Scott Evans added that Hyundai draws "a fine line between three-row crossover and minivan."

The biggest differentiator between the Palisade and Explorer, as far as the drive experience is concerned, is the former's lack of torque. Although test numbers—which I'll get to in a sec—reveal the Hyundai to be nearly as quick as the Ford, it feels significantly slower from behind the wheel. Relatively aggressive throttle mapping and quick, smart upshifts and downshifts from the Palisade's eight-speed automatic do what they can to help, but there's little masking the fact that most of the Hyundai's power comes on north of 4,000 rpm on the tach—an area few drivers are likely to explore.

Whereas the Explorer has a pseudo-sportiness to it, piloting the Hyundai through bends and down rough roads is a more relaxed affair. Steering is surprisingly quick but vague for such a large vehicle, but the Palisade nevertheless feels as ponderous as its namesake on tight back roads. "You never feel like the Palisade shrinks on you; it always drives as big as it looks," Ogbac said.

Despite the lack of any sporty pretense in the Palisade, its ride can be surprisingly firm and even flinty at times, transmitting much of the harsher impacts the tires absorb into the cabin.

The Telluride, unsurprisingly, shares a lot of its drive qualities with the Hyundai. The biggest potential offender is its powertrain. Like the Palisade's, it makes all of its power up high. As Bob Lutz, the stereotypical car guy's favorite auto exec, is supposed to have said, "Americans buy horsepower but drive torque." The torquey Ford will undoubtedly feel like it has more get up and go than either of the two South Koreans despite its smaller engine.

The Kia differentiates itself from the Hyundai in its ride and handling balance. Whereas the Palisade is more on the minivan end of the spectrum, the Telluride, like the Explorer, feels much more like an old-school SUV. Thanks to a different set of tires and unique suspension tune, the Telluride is much more manageable—and even slightly enjoyable—to drive on a good back road. "The Telluride takes a set really well," associate online editor Duncan Brady said. "There's not a ton of body roll for a big car, but it does start to wallow a bit in quick transitions."

After our road evaluations, we hooked our test gear up to the three SUVs to capture objective data. As we figured, the Explorer is the quickest of our trio. It zips from 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.6 mph. The Palisade's and Telluride's 7.1- and 7.2-second respective 0-60 times are well behind the Ford's, but both make up ground in the quarter mile once their engines are finally making power. The Hyundai was again slightly quicker, crossing the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.1 mph; the Telluride needed 15.4 seconds to cross the quarter mile at 90.5 mph.

It's mostly the same story in our braking and handling tests. The Ford out-brakes the Hyundai and Kia in our 60-0 mph braking test, needing 121 feet to the Palisade's 129 feet and Telluride's 126 feet. It also completed our figure-eight lap quickest, its 27.7 seconds at 0.64 g average besting the Palisade's 28.3 seconds at 0.63 g and Telluride's 28.7 seconds at 0.62 g.

In the fuel economy race, the Ford also bests the South Koreans on mpg. The Hyundai and Kia both make 19/24/21 mpg city/highway/combined to our Explorer's 21/28/24 mpg. Even when leveling the playing field by adding all-wheel drive, the Ford still comes out ahead at 20/27/23 mpg.

The story of these three family SUVs changes dramatically, though, once we take the rest of the family into consideration.

Battle of the back seats

Compared to its relatively impressive performance on the road, the Explorer's cabin is, in a word, disappointing. Fit, finish, and material quality are all not only toward the bottom of its class at its $43,415 as-tested price but also toward the bottom of the next lowest class: Dollar Car Rental­-spec plastics, cheap leather, and mismatched colors (which is quite difficult to do when your overall interior color scheme is black). There are even exposed wires—which our fingers found after grabbing our phones out of the very handy cubby beneath the infotainment display. It would be fair to say that the Explorer XLT is a trim level lower than the Palisade Limited and Telluride SX in the model hierarchy, but we also spent some time in an equal Explorer Hybrid Limited. Despite the slightly higher-quality leather, it wasn't much nicer than the XLT—and it's significantly more expensive, with prices starting around $55,000.

Although the Ford's interior quality is incredibly disappointing, it's not all bad. The new digital instrument cluster is clean, crisp, and easy to read, and Ford's latest iteration of its Sync infotainment system is pretty easy to use and compatible with Apple CarPlay. Both the first and second rows of the Explorer's cabin are adult friendly, with soft, comfortable seats with good leg-, knee-, and headroom, though larger-bodied adults might find the seats a bit narrow.

The Explorer's third row is easily accessed either by sliding the second-row captain's chairs forward with the pull of a lever or by stomping over the poorly placed (and fixed) console in the aisle between the two seats. Teenagers and adults will find their knees in their chests in the cramped third row, but head- and shoulder room are acceptable for the Ford's size.

Swapping into the Telluride or Palisade after the Ford is like walking out of a Motel 6 and into a Four Seasons. The design, fit and finish, and overall quality are an order of magnitude better than the Explorer's, and they'd shame many luxury automakers, too.

The Hyundai is arguably the more luxurious of the two. Its modernist cabin features a floating center console with a push-button shifter, a sharp digital instrument cluster, and a massive, easy-to-read (and more important, use) infotainment system mounted in the driver's sightline.

Although the Palisade may be the more luxurious of the two Koreans, the Telluride is the more successful design. With beautiful contrasting leathers and woods, two beefy grab handles by the center console, and high-resolution displays, the Telluride somehow nails both old-school and modern vibes in one fell swoop. "Alluring yet simple design meets cutting-edge tech," Ogbac said.

As far as comfort and functionality go, the Telluride and Palisade are nearly one and the same. Both have park-bench-hard seats compared to the Ford's Casper-like thrones, but both offer plenty of space in the first two rows. The big differentiator in the Kia and Hyundai's middle rows is the locations of their cupholders, USB outlets, and HVAC controls; of the two, we prefer the Telluride, as its cupholders are better located on the back of the center console, and the HVAC controls are roof-mounted and easier to reach.

With the press of a button, the second row easily slides forward to reveal a third row that's tight on space, especially considering you have to step up into the back. "My head touches the ceiling in the third row, and the floor is really high, so my knees are in my chest," Brady said. Both Hyundai and Kia have a middle seat in the third row, but we can't imagine anything human-shaped fitting in it.

The Verdict

After an exhausting evaluation, it was pretty clear to us that one SUV of the three best balanced driving performance and enjoyment with room for the family and feel-good touches that all would appreciate.

Despite our general agreement that the 2020 Ford Explorer is pretty great to drive, it's far from the best balanced of the three SUVs. It has a lot going for it; in a class full of sleepy crossovers, the Explorer is powerful, efficient, and relatively fun to drive. It's roomy and comfortable, too, provided you don't need to use the third row. That being said, the value proposition simply isn't there—especially compared with the other two contenders. The Explorer's interior is a recipe for buyer's remorse, particularly considering how much further your dollar goes with the other two. The Explorer puts up a valiant fight but still finds itself in third place.

Second place, then, goes to the Hyundai Palisade. We love the Palisade's interior; not only is it remarkably roomy, but the attention to detail in both design and quality result in a properly luxurious cabin that shames any Cadillac cabin (and most Lexus and Acura interiors, too) from the past decade. Still, although we don't mind spending time in the Palisade's passenger seats, we wouldn't go out of our way to drive the Hyundai. Its flinty ride, sometimes ponderous handling, and lack of torque make it less enjoyable to drive; as some of its rivals have shown, big three-row SUVs don't need to drive like it.

That leaves first place to the Kia Telluride. The Telluride makes few compromises. From behind the wheel, it makes up for its lack in oomph with good ride quality and engaging handling, and those in back will love its second-row comfort. All, ultimately, will enjoy the exceptionally well-appointed cabin, quality, and most important, value, that the Kia brings to the table. So next time you look over in traffic and see a Kia Telluride, save the sympathy—there's no need to feel bad."

-Christian SeabaughWordsWes AllisonPhotos

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