The introduction of the Explorer moved the vehicle line from two-door to being primarily four-door. It’s a successor to the Ford Bronco II which was a two-door SUV and basically a smaller version of the Ford Bronco. The Bronco II utilized a Ford Ranger truck chassis and was similar in size to the Ranger. In comparison, the original Bronco, which continued to be manufactured through 1996, was based around the full-size F-150 truck.
For the purists, Ford kept a two-door version of the Explorer called the Explorer Sport. The carmaker sold both the two-door and the four-door version of the Explorer platform under a number of different companies. Ford and Mazda had a longstanding partnership from 1974 to 2015 and for a brief period between 1991 and 1994, Mazda sold the Explorer under its own brand as the Mazda Navajo.
Within the Ford Motor Company are other divisions of the company—Mercury and Lincoln. Mercury was considered a step up from Ford brand vehicles, but not as luxurious as Lincoln vehicles. The Mercury line was eventually discontinued in 2010. Before it’s closure though, the Ford Explorer sold under the Mercury brand as the Mercury Mountaineer beginning in 1997. It had premium features, above what was offered by the Ford Explorer Limited, but was not as luxurious as the Lincoln Aviator.
The Ford Explorer is not only favored by civilians, but by law enforcement as well. Beginning in 2012, the Ford Explorer was equipped specifically for law enforcement agencies across the United States and named the Ford Police Interceptor Utility. The Police Interceptor Utility featured a stronger motor and standard all-wheel drive as well as law enforcement-specific equipment. These versions were not available to the public.
Ford even redesigned the Explorer for a brief time from 2001-2010 and sold it as a midsize truck called the Ford Explorer Sport Trac. The Sport Trac was essentially an Explorer front end and cab, but with a truck bed instead of an SUV-style rear cargo area and hatch. Although it shared the chassis of the Explorer, the Sport Trac had a longer wheelbase. Like a true truck, the Sport Trac offered four-wheel drive as an option.
Let’s take a look at the specific Explorer generations:
First Generation Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer stepped onto the market in 1990 and was the first four-door SUV sold by Ford. The goal was to compete with the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and the Jeep Cherokee. This first generation of the Explorer borrowed many parts from the Ford Ranger including the chassis, powertrain, bumper, headlights, grille and wheels. It was available in either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive configurations. Trim levels included XL, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited. Five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions were paired with a 4.0 liter V6 motor.
Second Generation Ford Explorer
The second generation Ford Explorer debuted for the 1995 model year. It became a significantly different vehicle at this point. Ford wanted to set the Explorer apart from the Ranger, so the exterior now featured mainly model-specific parts. The only parts that carried over from the previous generation were the roof and doors. The Explorer’s size remained the same. However, the chassis underwent modification for improved handling characteristics. The powertrain options expanded with the addition of a 5.9 liter V8 motor and a five-speed automatic transmission. A trim level for the two-door version was also introduced briefly, called the Expedition. This trim level only lasted the 1995 model year because Ford then used it the next year when they introduced a new model called the Ford Explorer.
Third Generation Ford Explorer
In 2002 Ford turned its attention towards international markets. Ford ditched the Ranger truck chassis and redesigned the Explorer on an entirely new body-on-frame platform, which included four-wheel independent suspension. These updates, along with a more powerful V8 motor, helped the Explorer compete in European markets where there was an emphasis on high-performance drivability.
The five-door SUV also received a total redesign both inside and out. The overall dimensions of the Explorer remained mostly unchanged. However, a lower floor added approximately ten square-feet of cargo capacity and correspondingly allowed for a lower rear-cargo loading height and taller rear hatch.
Fourth Generation Ford Explorer
Ford introduced a new frame for the Explorer again in 2006 with claims of increased strength. Modern amenities were aplenty with this new generation, such as power-folding third-row seats, a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), and electronic stability control (ESC), which all came standard. Optional features included power running boards and satellite navigation with voice control. The 4.0L V6 motor did not gain any power for the second generation in a row. However, the 4.6L V8 got a bump in power again, putting it just shy of 300 horsepower.
Fifth Generation Ford Explorer
The fifth and current generation Ford Explorer, launching in 2011, now utilized unibody construction. Ford also swapped rear-wheel drive for front-wheel drive, and four-wheel drive (4WD) for all-wheel drive (AWD). These changes categorized the Explorer as more of a crossover and less as an actual SUV. The AWD system featured a computer-controlled locking differential, terrain management selection, hill descent control, and hill assist control. These features helped the Explorer retain light off-road capabilities.
The Explorer was originally released with just one motor option—the 3.5L V6. A 2.0L single-turbo Ecoboost motor which provided better fuel efficiency became available shortly thereafter. 3.5L and 2.3L Ecoboost motors became available in later years.
Many style updates were made to this generation to help create a sleek look. These standard features included a “floating roof” created by blacked-out pillars, stepped headlights and tail lights, and a three-bar grille design, which Ford continues to carry. Interior and technology features, not all of which were standard, included keyless entry, remote start, heated and cooled front seats, HID (high-intensity discharge) headlights, LED tail lights, and an extensive infotainment system. Notably, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded The Ford Explorer an overall five-star rating for 2013-present model years.
There was plenty of technology built into the windshield as well for Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) features such as adaptive cruise control, active park assist, acoustic and solar tinted glass, and rain-sensing wipers.