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2003 Ford Explorer

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Base trim shown


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Rear-wheel drive



5 trims

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2003 Ford Explorer review: Our expert's take

By Editors

It’s a rather daunting task to review the Ford Explorer – it’s not just that it’s the world’s best-selling sport-utility vehicle, but that there are so darn many to choose from. On the site I counted 34 variants of the 4-door SUV, to say nothing of the 2-door and pickup permutations that fill out the list. (And then, of course, there are the variants offered with a Mountaineer label at Lincoln-Mercury stores.)

The Explorer is the one that really fueled the SUV craze. I can recall that when it first went on sale in 1990, some people thought Ford was crazy spending a fortune to design it and outfit the plant in Louisville.

But it clicked, and the biggest problem Ford had was meeting demand. A plant in St. Louis now shoulders some of the load.

The Explorer was essentially reinvented for the 2002 model year. Most importantly, the wheelbase was lengthened and the track, or distance between the wheels that share an axle, was increased, too. Both of these should lead to increased stability, important in the wake of the Firestone debacle, though they’d be an impediment to serious rock bashing.

The 2003 changes accordingly are few and mostly cosmetic. The Eddie Bauer series returns for those who want one so pretty they’ll never take it into the woods, and there’s a new series called the NBX, the macho street brawler of the family.

Let’s all groan together: NBX is supposed to represent “No Boundaries Experience”. Get those guys some reality pills. Its heart, Ford says, is the Yakima LoadWarrior cargo basket, a useful contraption for carrying wet and filthy stuff atop the vehicle instead of inside. It also has two-tone black front and rear bumpers and black side moldings, wheel lips and step bars. The only performance enhancement is the substitution of 17-inch BFGoodrich’s tough-looking Rugged Trail tires for the Michelin or Goodyear all-seasons which are wrapped around 16-inch wheels on the other series.

Explorers can be 2-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive, with either a V-6 or the optional V-8 engine. All come with a 5-speed automatic transmission. (I note here that the 2-door and pickup versions still use the old Ranger pickup platform.)

The one furnished for examination was a Limited, the most expensive of the many choices. Its base price with all-wheel drive and V-8 engine is $34,085. The cheapest of the new Explorers is the XLS series, which starts at $24,977, with 6-cylinder engine and 2-wheel drive. The Limited is of course a lot fancier inside than its cheaper colleagues, but even with leather and fake gray wood trim, it’s hardly opulent.

The Explorer can be equipped with what’s whimsically called third-row seating. For an extra $670 you get a perch even a kid might laugh at. To access it, you must tumble a second-row-seat (thankfully they’re divided 40-20-40) flat and then over. I didn’t find that fun the first time I tried it and doubt that it would be more fun in the long run. If you don ‘t absolutely, positively NEED the extra mini-seats, you’ll have instead 46 cubic feet of cargo room aft. Stowing all of the second-row seats opens up a total of 88 cubic feet.

As long as we’re discussing stats, you might want to know that the weakest member of the family (6-cylinder with the standard Class II towing package) can tow 3,280 pounds. With a Class III/IV setup and a V-8, you can have as much as 7,160 pounds shadowing you down the highway.

The V-6 engine produces 210 hp at 5,100 rpm, with torque peaking at 254 foot-pounds at 3,700. Moving up to the V-8 costs $800. It confers a 13 percent improvement in horsepower (239 at 3,750) and an 11 percent bump in torque (282 at 4,000).

Engine choice is a no-brainer if you mean to drag anything serious or even haul five adults on a regular basis. But if like most folks you use your Explorer for commuting with just one or two aboard, the V-6 should do fine.

With merely a somewhat outsized driver, the V-8 easily broke the tires’ contact with the pavement in 0-60 burnouts even with 4WD activated. For light-duty service, you’d be better saving the 800 bucks and perhaps enjoying slightly better fuel economy. The EPA ratings on a 4×4 Explorer with the V-8 are 14 mpg city, 17 highway.

For once, driving fairly sensibly on hilly Indiana back roads – with a detour to the gravel pit – I somehow managed to beat the EPA and eke 19.3 miles from each gallon. Moderate speeds and a rather high overdrive fifth gear no doubt helped. In top, you get about 30 mph for every 1,000 revs on the tachometer.

Ford hedges a bit on fuel requirements, saying it needs “at least” 87 octane. For towing, I’d go with 91.

The V-8 is impressively smooth at idle – the equal of many luxury cars. It runs out to its redline with the brio one expects from a multi-valve, overhead cam powerplant, but in so doing it reveals the need for a lot more firewall insulation. The intake and mechanical noises become quite raucous under heavy demands. Otherwise, the cabin is moderately quiet.

Perhaps because it came with the heavy-duty towing package, ride quality of the Explorer was only fair. It let annoying amounts of road shock reach the driver, and I’m talking mere expansion joints and the like. This is not the sort of thing that a full load would help, either.

Handling was fairly good, although I thought the power steering was way too quick and a bit light for an SUV.

The standard tires are 235/70/16s. Pity they don’t offer 17 or even 18-inch wheels on this 4,500-pound transporter. Despite its all-wheel-drive mechanism, the tester felt somewhat squirrelly and the tires squealed early and often when we tried some slaloms.

The transfer-case manipulation is via three buttons mounted to the right of the radio stack. All-wheel-drive is the default, with 4×4 High and 4×4 Low available with the push of a button.

The brakes were gratifyingly competent. Discs front and rear, they produced surprisingly good stopping distances and the pedal feel was lovely – easily modulated though firm. Antilock is standard, and it was quiet and effective. If for some reason you’re worried about rollovers, Ford offers what it styles a “safety canopy” as an option. This is what others refer to as side-curtain air bags which extend to the second row. Ford has armed them with a sensor-computer monitor that, in addition to responding to side impacts, also predicts when the rate of roll exceeds the vehicle’s limits and inflates the bags in anticipation of the crash. That bit of peace of mind costs $495. Ford also offers, for $795, its AdvanceTrac stability system, which, like those on luxury cars, can apply braking to one wheel if it’s getting ahead of its partner. This happens when the driver orders more turning force than can be delivered. Seems to me it’d be pretty silly to drive any SUV that hard.

The National Highway Tra ffic Safety Administration awarded the Explorer its top, 5-star rating for driver protection in a 30-mph frontal impact. The passenger protection was rated four stars. The side-impact scores, NHTSA says, are still under review. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the new Explorer a best pick in its class. It garnered maximal “good” ratings in every category but one, and that – right leg protection – was “acceptable”. Their test is more rigorous, involving a 40-mph crash into an offset barrier. Alas, the big tough truck is a wuss in terms of bumper damage. In IIHS’s four 5-mph barrier crashes it sustained an average $1,358 worth of damage, putting it about mid-pack in the mid-sized utility category.

The test machine’s bottom-line suggested price, with freight, was $38,130. In addition to the items I mentioned earlier, it had running boards and an auxiliary climate control system. Payments at that price would be $773, if you laid down 20 percent, got a 10 percent deal and wrote 48 checks. Edmunds, which surveys transaction prices nationwide, says most folks are wangling $2,400 discounts on Limiteds, and the factory is providing some incentives (cut-rate financing, rebates) in many areas.

Consumer reviews

Rating breakdown (out of 5):
  • Comfort 4.5
  • Interior 4.2
  • Performance 4.4
  • Value 4.3
  • Exterior 4.4
  • Reliability 4.2
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Most recent consumer reviews


Best bang for the buck, 21 years later still going

2024: Owned the Explorer for 21 years now still going strong, 235,000 kms, original paint job, some rust is just starting to peek out in a few scant places, but overall it's in very good shape. Third set of new tires just went on last year, so have to keep it for a few more years. Been coast to coast in Canada with it. Tows my 18 foot sailboat 2000 lbs just fine, my dump trailer and power boat. Lots of room inside, have filled it 110% moving our kids and all their gear to university, also has two hidden floor storage spaces for safety gear and stowing stuff like different ball size tow hitches. Owned it twice as long as my Dodge Caravan. Love the 4 wheel drive in winter and at the boat launches, never ever used winter tires on it, and we get piles of snow up here.

Rating breakdown (out of 5):
  • Comfort 5.0
  • Interior 5.0
  • Performance 5.0
  • Value 5.0
  • Exterior 5.0
  • Reliability 5.0
  • Purchased a New car
  • Used for Transporting family
  • Does recommend this car
1 person out of 1 found this review helpful. Did you?
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Very dependable truck, comfortable and smooth ride

Liked this truck, has numerous usb ports, nice A/C system, very nice in dash 6 disc player, good sound, strong V-8 engine, full size towing package, along with midget pedals, a good looking SUV even put chrome trim on it. Would even sell to a friend if any were interested. Actually slepted inside for almost a year, nice room in the back, selling it because I no longer need a vehicle this size.

Rating breakdown (out of 5):
  • Comfort 5.0
  • Interior 5.0
  • Performance 4.0
  • Value 4.0
  • Exterior 4.0
  • Reliability 5.0
  • Purchased a Used car
  • Used for Commuting
  • Does recommend this car
22 people out of 22 found this review helpful. Did you?
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Best SUV ever owned.

Love the 4.6L. Very durable. Comfortable. Carries 7 people. Bought 2008. Over 12 yrs replaced common xxxxxxwith this model: Window master switch/slave switch, both fr/rr AC/heater switches, intake manifold, R. valve cover w/ add oil neck. Gets 19 mpg still. I never used the 4x4. Have replaced fuel injectors, starter, radiator,struts, both CV joints which is all usual for a truck w over 260,000 miles. Performed upper intake clean out recently. I Need to replace the cat/converter. Clear coat starting to wear off in certain areas. Other than that, paint still good. Drive train holds up well. Holds alignment well, replaced regular items like tires, brakes, oil and filters at Ford suggested intervals.

Rating breakdown (out of 5):
  • Comfort 4.0
  • Interior 3.0
  • Performance 4.0
  • Value 5.0
  • Exterior 3.0
  • Reliability 5.0
  • Purchased a Used car
  • Used for Commuting
  • Does recommend this car
14 people out of 14 found this review helpful. Did you?
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Based on the 2003 Ford Explorer base trim.
Nhtsa rollover rating


New car and Certified Pre-Owned programs by Ford Blue Advantage Blue
New car program benefits
36 months/36,000 miles
60 months/unlimited distance
36 months/36,000 miles
Roadside assistance
36 months/36,000 miles
Certified Pre-Owned program benefits
Maximum age/mileage
Fords and many non-Ford vehicles up to 10 years old with less than 150,000 miles
Basic warranty terms
90-Day/4,000-Mile (whichever comes first) Comprehensive Limited Warranty
Dealer certification required
139-point inspection
Roadside assistance
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