It’s bigger, longer, and more powerful. It has a stiffer body and a third row of seats. There’s more ground clearance and plenty of new safety features. But is that enough for the 2002 Ford Explorer to remain the nation’s best selling sport-utility vehicle?
When you’ve been number one for a full decade, selling a combined total of 3.5 million vehicles, you take a lot to risk refreshing a product like the Explorer. Indeed, the market has changed a lot since Ford’s popular, compact SUV first hit the road. There are roughly 40 sport-utes vying for the heart, mind and pocketbook of the American consumer, more than double the number of SUVs on the market when Explorer first appeared. And the segment is going to grow increasingly crowded, Ford officials acknowledge. By mid-decade, there could be as many as 70 true utes and SUV-like crossover vehicles, including Ford’s own new Escape.
So, when it came time to work up a replacement for the current-generation Explorer, the Ford team knew it couldn’t compromise any of the key details. They only had to look at what happened when the 1996 Taurus debuted. With a quirky design that compromised key features, such as interior space and rear seat access, sales all but collapsed. In a daylong background briefing, Ford designers, engineers and marketing managers made it clear they weren’t going to let that happen with the 2002 Explorer.
At first glance, you might not notice much difference with the ’02. The exterior lines are a little cleaner and more rounded. There’s less of a bulge over the rear seats, but on the styling front, Ford followed an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary path. But a closer look will nonetheless reveal some significant changes. The 2002 is two inches longer, and has a 2.5-inch wider stance. It’s got higher ground clearance for the small percentage of buyers who actually do go off-roading. Step-in height has been lowered about an inch. And to further improve ingress and egress, the doors are a bit wider.