New & Used Ford Explorer: In Depth
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The Ford Explorer is one of the best-known SUV models in North America. In its latest iteration, it's moved away from its truck-based roots--dating back to 1991--and become a large, comfortable, seven-seat family crossover utility vehicle with modern technology and a more car-like driving feel.
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 frame-rail 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.
Today, it comes with either front- or all-wheel drive, paired with a standard automatic transmission. The competitor most frequently cited is the Explorer's long-time archrival, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, although the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander are actually closer matches than the somewhat smaller Jeep.
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 a 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.
The Ford Explorer Sport was new in the 2013 model year. It's not a two-door version of the crossover, as the name was used in the past. Instead, it's a twin-turbocharged, six-cylinder-powered version of the Explorer with lots of luxury features. It could almost be considered an Explorer "SHO," but it's positioned more as a replacement for the old V-8 versions.
With Ford's turbocharged EcoBoost V-6, the Ford Explorer Sport is outfitted with a 350-horsepower six-cylinder engine and standard all-wheel drive, as well as suspension and steering improvements, 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.
The Explorer hasn't always been a crossover vehicle. In its past, it was more directly related to Ford's pickup trucks, and was offered in many more versions, everything from a manual-shifted two-door to a V-8-powered five-seater. When it was introduced in the 1991 model year, the Explorer was distantly related to the Bronco II that it replaced--but far more so than the Bronco, the Explorer was packaged and marketed right. It practically inaugurated the SUV era in America, 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 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 two-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 sub-optimal design of the first-generation Explorer's suspension played out in 2000 and 2001, when when a number of rollover accidents—linked to underinflated or improperly specified Firestone tires—led to the Explorer's recall. That recall, and the hearings around it, led to the requirement for tire-pressure monitoring and also arguably sped the deployment of electronic stability control. It also severely hurt the Explorer's brand image, and caused 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 especially 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, as buyers started to migrate to more carlike crossover vehicles like the Toyota Highlander.
The Explorer still was a much more refined and stable vehicle, and used Explorers from these models years are good recommendations for those who need to tow but are conscious about vehicle size. But definitely go for the 292-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8; the 4.0-liter Cologne V-6 never was a particularly smooth or responsive engine, so the V-8 carries our recommendation. Additionally, Explorers equipped with V-8 engines typically get about the same real-world mileage as V-6 models from that era.