New & Used Ford Explorer: In Depth
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Today's Ford Explorer is front-wheel-drive-based, with all-wheel drive available as an option. All Explorers use an automatic transmission. Despite the layout change, there is still a rivalry between the Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which has actually always used its own unibody, while other crossover models also come up in cross-shopping conversations, such as the Honda Pilot and three-row options like the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Toyota Highlander.
In its latest iteration, the Ford Explorer has moved away from its truck-based roots and become a large, comfortable, seven-seat family crossover utility with modern technology and a more carlike driving feel. The Explorer is one of the best-known SUV models in North America.
In its past, the Explorer was more directly related to Ford's small pickup trucks and was offered in many more versions—everything from a manual-shifted three-door to a V-8-powered quasi-pickup. Introduced for the 1991 model year, the Explorer was distantly related to the Bronco II that it replaced. Compared to that stubby, basic two-door, the Explorer was packaged and marketed much more successfully. It practically inaugurated the SUV era in America along with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and quickly became one of the best-selling, most recognizable and popular vehicles in the U.S. market, with annual sales approaching a half-million.
Those earliest Explorers were three-door and five-door wagons, and quite crude devices that drove like short-wheelbase compact pickups. In fact, there were still a few shared parts with the Ford Ranger truck. A shortened three-door Explorer Sport was offered through 2003, while a four-door Explorer Sport Trac with a small pickup bed was offered through the 2010 model year.
The first-generation Explorer came under fire in 2000 and 2001, when a number of rollover accidents—linked to underinflated or improperly specified Firestone tires—led to the model's recall and replacement of the tires. From that recall, and the hearings around it, grew the federal requirement for tire-pressure monitoring and also arguably sped the deployment of electronic stability control. It also severely hurt the Explorer's brand image, causing sales to plummet.
That happened despite the much-improved Explorer that emerged after a full redesign in the 2002 model year. Standard equipment now included an independent rear suspension, and a third-row seat became an option for the first time. In 2006, more safety features were added, and the exterior styling was smoothed over. Through this era, the Explorer's interior functionality also got better, with usable seating space for up to seven, and third-row seating that became easier to use. Still, Explorer sales never had quite recovered after the tire-separation issue, and buyers started to migrate to more carlike crossover vehicles like the Toyota Highlander.
That Explorer was a better-handling, more refined vehicle than its predecessor--and still is a good recommendation for its towing capacity for those that don't need a full-size SUV. The 4.6-liter V-8 is the engine you'll want in that case; the 4.0-liter V-6 isn't responsive or smooth or particularly powerful. It's not much more efficient either: Explorers equipped with V-8 engines typically get about the same real-world mileage as V-6 models from that era.
The new Explorer
Introduced for the 2011 model year, the current Explorer trades in some rock-climbing ability for more all-weather comfort and family practicality. Ditching the body-on-frame design, the car-based Explorer arrived with seven-seat capability, electronic assistance for its all-wheel-drive system, and a 3.5-liter V-6 engine teamed with a six-speed automatic. A turbocharged four-cylinder engine became an option for the 2012 model year, and delivers up to 28 mpg on the highway--some 25 percent better than any Explorer before it. For 2013, a turbocharged V-6 was added as a sort of V-8 replacement.
The latest Explorer is among our top-rated vehicles for families for its interior and fuel economy as well as for its carlike handling and good safety record. It gets the highest rating of 'good' from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) on all tests except the new and tougher small-overlap front crash, where it's rated 'marginal'--just one step above the lowest 'poor' rating. The NHTSA gives its highest five-star overall rating to 2013 through 2015 Explorers, though earlier models are somewhat lower rated.
The current Explorer also includes all the latest connectivity systems, including a navigation system with Sirius Travel Link and Sync, which uses Bluetooth to enable voice control of some vehicle systems. There's also MyFord Touch, a system that uses steering-wheel or voice controls to direct audio, navigation, and phone with a large LCD touchscreen to display the interface. It's been controversial, with some publications and customers pointing out glitches and difficulties in getting used to the system, but it is an option.
Ford brought back the Explorer Sport badge in 2013. Instead of a two-door variant like its predecessor with the same name, this version uses the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 from the latest Taurus SHO, making 350 hp here. It is paired with standard all-wheel drive and includes more standard features as well as suspension and steering improvements. Ford sees the turbocharged six as a replacement for the Explorer's previous V-8 models, making it the closest thing to a performance-oriented Explorer we're likely to see. Its 0–60 mph times are a full two seconds quicker than the standard V-6 Explorer, too--while towing remains as high as 5,000 pounds.
For 2015, Ford added an appearance package on XLT models that creates a look more like that of the Sport model. This way, buyers can opt for the sportier monochrome look without moving up to the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. The package includes a gray grille and mirror caps, black lower body cladding, and body-color door handles, among other visual changes.
A revised version of this Explorer goes on sale for the 2016 model year. The interior and exterior have been given a subtle once-over, with the exterior design now resembling a Land Rover's more than ever. The look is much more sophisticated, with finer details and a more cohesive front-end treatment. A Platinum model has been added at the top of the range, and there's a new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder available as well, bringing the available engines to three. Ford is also rolling out a replacement for MyFord Touch, dubbed Sync 3, which should make it into the revamped Explorer for the 2017 model year.