Fords reworked Explorer sport utility vehicle went on sale in February 2001 as a 2002 model, and it was enlarged from compact to midsize dimensions. The Explorer serves as a corporate twin to the Mercury Mountaineer. The newest Explorer took up where its popular predecessor left off, with some significant improvements and a fresh look as part of what Ford called a ground-up redesign. In its current form, the Explorer remains a hot item, with 415,921 units sold during 2001, according to Automotive News.
Responding to earlier complaints about ride quality, engineers devised an innovative independent rear suspension described as a porthole-in-frame design. Instead of having half-shafts that reach over or under the vehicles frame, the shafts in the current Explorer poke right through holes that are drilled into the frame. In addition to a refined ride, this configuration allowed a lower step-in height in the new version. The floor pan has also been dropped by 7 inches. As a bonus, additional space is now available for the installation of an optional third-row seat. This modification allows a seven-passenger capacity.
Fords AdvanceTrac electronic stability system became available during the 2002 model year. For 2003, a new DVD rear-seat entertainment system with a 7-inch drop-down screen is optional. An all-new NBX package features a Yakima LoadWarrior cargo basket. Eddie Bauer editions get 17-inch tires rather than the standard 16-inchers. A chrome grille and black door handles go on the Explorer XLT.
Four-door Explorers come with either rear-wheel drive (RWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). Four trim levels are offered: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited plus Sport versions of the XLS and XLT. Ford also continues to offer a two-door Explorer Sport model that is based on the 1995 design.
Even though its dimensions didnt change much with the 2002 redesign, the current Explorer looks larger than its predecessors. Some styling touches, such as a brawny front end, are supposed to hark back to the original Explorer that debuted as a 1991 model. Good-size door openings coupled with the reduced step-in height make entry and exit easier on the new model.
The Explorer is built on a 113.8-inch wheelbase, and it measures 189.5 inches long overall thats 2 inches shorter than Chevrolets midsize TrailBlazer. It stands 71.4 inches high to the top of its roof rack, and ground clearance is 8.5 inches. The Explorers bumpers were lowered by 2 inches to make it roughly compatible with a midsize sedan in the event of a minor collision.
Seating for five occupants in the Explorer is standard, but a third-row seat that allows for a seven-passenger capacity may be installed as an option. Standard XLS equipment includes a SecuriLock passive anti-theft system, a rear wiper/washer with defroster, remote keyless entry, roof rails, cruise control, illuminated entry, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. The XLT takes you up a notch, and it comes with a CD player, cargo shade, overhead console, aluminum wheels, lighted vanity mirrors and an outside temperature/compass display.
The Eddie Bauer and Limited models include dual-zone automatic temperature control, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, an in-dash six-CD changer, heated leather bucket seats, fog lamps and heated mirrors. Adjustable pedals are standard in the Eddie Bauer and Limited editions and optional in the XLS and XLT. Options include the third-row seat, a power moonroof and running boards. Cargo volume in the five-passenger Explorer totals 88 cubic feet with the rear seat folded forward.
Under the Hood
The Explorer may be equipped with either a V-6 or V-8 engine. A 4.0-liter V-6 develops 210 horsepower, and the optional 4.6-liter all-aluminum V-8 produces 239 hp. Both engines mate with a five-speed-automatic transmission. Explorers may have RWD or ControlTrac 4WD.
Antilock brakes are standard. Side curtain-type airbags that protect front- and second-row occupants are optional in all models, and these models may be augmented by a Safety Canopy system that adds rollover sensors to detect the vehicles speed and roll rate. After the Safety Canopy has been deployed, it remains inflated for up to 6 seconds. Fords AdvanceTrac system combines traction control with electronic stability control. A Reverse Sensing System that detects obstacles while backing up is also offered as an option.
Ford engineers attempted to improve the Explorers ride, and they succeeded. Unlike the prior-generation 2001 Explorer, which was quite trucky in nature, its current replacement comes across as more refined and carlike; it yields a pleasant and somewhat gentler ride. The suspension doesnt qualify as cushiony, but it produces a ride experience thats suitable for a modern, if still truck-based, SUV.
The Explorers performance is clearly adequate with V-6 power, but it falls short of vigorous. Acceleration isnt quite overpowering with the V-8, but its decidedly stronger. Shifts from the automatic transmission are noticeable, but the result isnt particularly bothersome. A moderate drone during acceleration reveals the vehicles truck origin.
The Explorer is easy to drive, and it maneuvers adeptly and handles capably enough. It is stable in tight curves, but the SUV might not instill the kind of confidence that some drivers prefer when traveling at higher speeds. It does meet SUV expectations throughout. The Explorers interior space is abundant in both the front and rear, but the moonroof cuts a bit into the drivers headroom. The reduced step-in height makes a noticeable difference in the ease of entry.
The latest Explorer is highly appealing and likely to continue its popularity in the SUV category. It faces a lot of competition from GM and other automakers. Offering a third-row seat and safety innovations should help, and the independent rear suspension makes a noticeable difference. Because the Explorer doesnt stand markedly above its competitors in other respects, volume sales may not be as easy to capture as in the past, especially as new and redesigned rivals hit the market.