Arguably the catalyst igniting the SUV boom of the 1990’s, Ford’s Explorer is credited with bringing the compact sport utility vehicle into mainstream prominence. Introduced in 1990, as a 1991 model, the Ford Explorer was based on the Ranger line of small pickup trucks, replacing the more utilitarian Bronco II in Ford’s lineup.
An overnight sensation, the Explorer introduced style to a generation of family car drivers who were bored with minivans and wouldn’t be caught dead, OK, wait, would ONLY be caught dead in a station wagon (AKA a hearse).
But we digress.
Basically, the Explorer was a really good answer to a question a lot of people didn’t realize they’d been asking. But once they did, they flocked to the Explorer in droves, causing nearly every other mainstream manufacturer to build (or contract) a version of this vehicle.
There have been four generations of the Explorer offered since its introduction. Ford Motor Company vehicles based on the Explorer over the years include Mazda Navajo, Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator.
We cover Explorer model years 1995 to 2011 in this article.
Ford Explorer: 1995 – 2001
By 1995, Ford realized it had a hit with the Explorer and recognized why. As a result, GEN2 Explorers experienced considerable refinement over their GEN1 relatives. Benefiting from all-new exterior and interior styling, as well as suspension changes, the GEN2 Explorer marked the model’s first shift toward mimicking cars more than trucks.
There were two engines available to GEN2 Explorer buyers, albeit only after the 1996 model year. MY’95 saw the redesigned Explorer introduced with the same 170-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6as its immediate predecessor. For ’96, Ford offered a 205-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 as well. Transmission choices with the V6 were a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The V8 was offered only with the four-speed automatic. For ’97, power output of the V8 was increased to 215. Both engines could be had with either rear- or four-wheel drive.
Two models were offered at launch, the Explorer Sport (two doors) and the Explorer (four-doors). The Explorer Sport Trac debuted during this generation in 2001, ironically taking the Explorer concept full circle. Explorer was derived from the Ford Ranger pickup truck in 1990 to give car buyers the utility of a truck in an enclosed vehicle. By 2001, the Sport Trac was offered to give truck buyers the cachet of the ultra-popular SUV, while maintaining the utility of a pickup truck.
GEN2 Explorer was also embroiled in a major controversy resulting from a large spate of rollover incidents — ostensibly related to a combination of tire failure and the rear suspension design.
Ford Explorer: 2002 – 2005
A complete redesign for the 2002 model year moved the Explorer even farther away from the truck on which it was originally based. Emphasis was placed on making the GEN3 Explorer still more carlike in an effort to expand its already amazing popularity.
Taking advantage of its larger size, a third row seat was offered to improve its passenger count (to seven) and a fully independent suspension system was incorporated to improve its ride and handling on the road. By then, Ford engineers recognized more Explorers were being used on the street than in the dirt. Another impetus for the switch to an indy rear suspension setup was the spate of rollover incidents involving previous generation Explorers.
Three engines powered this iteration of the Explorer; a 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6, a 240-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 and a 203-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 carried over from the previous generation Explorer to power the Sport model, as it remained unchanged until it was killed in 2003. Transmissions were five-speed manual and automatic, although the manual was killed in 2003 as well. Every version of this iteration of the Explorer was offered with two- or four-wheel drive.
This was the last generation of the Explorer to offer the two-door Explorer Sport.
Ford Explorer: 2006 – 2010
Some call the 2006 Explorer a refresh, others call it a rework — either way the 2006 Explorer is considerably more refined than the 2005 model preceding it. A concerted effort was made by Ford to make it quieter. The frame and suspension were also reworked to improve ride and handling. The ’06 model is slightly larger than the ’05, as Ford introduced a car-based crossover — the Ford Freestyle — during this period, to slot in between the Explorer and the smaller Ford Escape.
Two engines were available for GEN3 Explorers, a 210-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 and a 292-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8. Transmission choices were a five-speed automatic with the V6 and a six-speed automatic with the V8. Rear- and four-wheel drive were available with both engines.
Power folding rear seats, tire pressure monitoring and electronic stability control were all offered as standard equipment. Among the options were power retractable running boards to ease ingress and egress.
Ironically, while the Explorer was derived from a pickup truck and went on to define a genre of automobile, there was also a pickup truck version of the Explorer, called Sport Trac. After killing it in 2005, Ford introduced a new version of the Sport Trac in ’07, based on the ’06 Explorer. It ran through the 2010 model year.
Safety-minded Explorer shoppers might take particular interest in ’08 models and later, as side curtain airbags became standard equipment then — along with the capless fuel tank. Microsoft’s SYNC system was added to the Explorer for 2009, bringing with it voice control for the nav system, audio sources and cellular phones. For ’09, the nav system was also given the ability to seek gas prices and report on traffic flow.
Ford Explorer: 2011 –
The Explorer was completely redesigned for the 2011 model year and represents the most civilized iteration of the model ever offered. Features like keyless entry and start, remote start, a power liftgate, and power adjustable pedals readily signal this to be the most carlike Explorer ever.
Introduced during a time when the enthusiasm for sport utility vehicles has waned considerably, this generation of the Explorer is working hard to hold on to the core group of loyal SUV buyers while simultaneously trying to entice car lovers. As such, the personal technology quotient is taken to an extreme level, with features like smart cruise control, self-parking, HD radio, and on and on and on.
As proof, consider this; for the first time in its history, Explorer is now offered with front-wheel drive.
Ford Explorer: Summary
The SUV boom has come full circle, and so has its primary catalyst. From a truck based body-on-frame vehicle to a front-wheel drive unibody “tall car”, the rise and fall of the SUV in America can be tracked simply by charting the changes in Ford’s Explorer over the years.
All in all, Explorers have proven to be both durable and reliable. Still though, there have been some recalls over the years. An Internet search for “Ford Explorer recall”, incorporating your model year of interest, will get you all the information you need to make sure the one you buy has been duly updated.
And, as always, make sure you subject any used car you seriously intend to purchase to a thorough inspection by a trusted professional mechanic — one well versed in your vehicle of choice.