2002 Ford Explorer XLT Road Test
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2002 Ford Explorer XLT Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2002 Ford Explorer SUV

(4.0L V6 5-speed Automatic)
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Pity the midsize SUV buyer looking to purchase a powerful, reliable, comfortable, stable and attractive vehicle at a reasonable price today. Not because there are no SUVs that fit this description, but because one of the best offerings out there, the Ford Explorer, has been overlooked by many of this segment's buyers for all the wrong reasons.

Completely redesigned for 2002, the all-new Explorer boasts an independent rear suspension, increased interior space, an improved all-wheel-drive system, an available third-row seat, refined engine offerings and an attractive shell. We knew a redesigned model was destined for the long-term fleet, so we went looking online for a four-wheel-drive version with a V8. We also wanted some specific optional features, like side curtain airbags, third-row seat, power adjustable pedals, a reverse sensing system and leather seats. Stepping up to an Eddie Bauer Edition will get you many of these items as standard equipment, but we wanted to keep our Explorer's price around $30,000 versus the $35,000 required to get into an Eddie Bauer version (before adding the optional V8).

We immediately noticed that by making a V8 and four-wheel drive a requirement for our test vehicle, we cut our options down by about 90 percent. Surfing through local dealer inventories at FordDirect.com confirmed that Southern California Ford dealers don't see much demand for powerful Explorers that can go off-road. To be honest, we weren't too surprised by this.

Eventually we located a 2002 XLT with the 4.6-liter V8 engine and four-wheel drive at Joe MacPherson Ford in Orange County. In addition to meeting our basic requirements, this Explorer had the third-row seat, running boards, auxiliary climate controls, leather seats and the trailer tow package, which includes a Class III/IV hitch and 3.73 rear axle ratio. Regrettably, it was missing the side curtain airbags, power adjustable pedals and reverse sensing system, but after a few weeks of searching for a V8/four-wheel-drive version that wasn't black or white (bad colors for photography), we decided this Mineral Gray Clearcoat Metallic Explorer XLT with Medium Parchment interior was close enough.

Joe MacPherson Ford's efforts to get us the Explorer for just over $29,500 (thanks, in part, to a $2,000 factory rebate) and to offer us a reasonable interest rate and delivery in Santa Monica sealed the deal. With the paperwork signed, the vehicle was brought to our offices, where a sales associate explained every feature to us.

After a month behind the wheel, Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer and his wife, Stacie, have become quite familiar with Ford's newest SUV. "This one feels bigger than the previous version," Karl noted after only a few days. "That's weird, because it also feels far more stable and confident than last year's model. Obviously, Ford wanted to increase the Explorer's interior room and functionality while keeping the vehicle from feeling too truck-like. In my opinion, it succeeded on both fronts."

Stacie agreed, noting that "it still feels truckish, but it has confident handling and powerful acceleration. It was also pretty easy to drive in heavy traffic and to park in snug spaces."

Spending the previous month in our new long-term 2002 Altima left the Brauers craving luxury items that the Explorer didn't have. "I wish it had the HomeLink feature and two-position seat memory," Karl wrote in the logbook after having to adjust the driver seat position from his wife's settings for the umpteenth time. "My suggestion to new car and truck buyers is to either get a vehicle with seat memory or make sure you marry someone with similar physical dimensions." Karl also pined for an in-dash CD changer, which is an available option in the 2002 Explorer. "Even better, give me a system that can read MP3s on CD-Rs," Karl quipped. That feature isn't available for the Explorer, though corporate cousin Mazda offered it in the company's appropriately named 2001 Protegé MP3 economy sedan.

The third-row seat never saw use during its first month in the fleet, but Stacie reported that when it came time to transport a large item from Toys R Us, she was able to fold the seat down in seconds without even glancing at the owner's manual. "It lowered instantly, and I didn't even have to remove any headrests, unlike in my Odyssey. No time, no effort."

The Explorer's appearance impressed Karl, despite the fact that he's not a big fan of running boards. "I'm surprised how good they look on this vehicle. I think it's the gray paint and the flat black boards that make them look so good because those colors tend to accent each other nicely. When running boards are painted a body color, they almost look like some sort of lower body cladding, which is OK on a performance car, but not on a sport-utility vehicle." His wife noted that she wasn't happy about the high step-in height of the Explorer, especially when loading small children into car seats, but the running boards definitely helped.

At one point, the Explorer was driven through a heavy downpour while traveling up the California coast and onto some tight canyon roads. Karl left the Control Trac four-wheel-drive system in "auto" mode, and the Ford never missed a beat. He never detected even a slight bit of wheel slippage, despite some steep inclines when trundling up various canyon roads.

As Mr. Brauer handed off the Explorer at the end of the month, he wondered how successfully this latest version of Ford's best-seller would perform in a segment that has expanded and fractured many times since the model's debut in 1990. Back then, all SUVs rode on truck platforms and items like an independent rear suspension and side-curtain airbags weren't even talked about. Now the Explorer faces everything from compact car-based crossovers to premium luxury sedan-based "sport-activity vehicles." Even the Land Rover Range Rover will switch to a unibody design next year.

Truly, in terms of variety and change, the SUV market makes the midsize sedan and entry-level luxury classes seem tame by comparison. We're not sure how this former segment leader will survive in the brave new world, but check back here every month for the next 12 months as we find out together.

Current Odometer: 420
Best Fuel Economy: 11.6 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.6 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 11.6 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

March 2002

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw has more experience behind the wheel of the Explorer and its twin, the Mercury Mountaineer, than anyone on staff. Since first driving the redesigned 2002 Ford Explorer during an exciting expedition into Arizona's high country more than a year ago, he has been extolling the virtues of this extraordinary SUV to anyone who will listen. Thus, when the Explorer decisively won a recent five-truck comparison test (conducted, coincidentally, in Arizona's high country), he reacted smugly. "I expected as much," he expressed. Punk.

A month piloting our 2002 XLT V8 4WD model has not diminished his affection for the Explorer, though he's not completely satisfied with certain elements of the interior. When the Explorer is used as a high-mileage commuter and family carryall, Wardlaw reports that aside from truly abysmal fuel economy, it will meet the needs and requirements of most families most of the time. "Unless, that is, they plan to use the third-row seat to haul children."

Explaining himself, Wardlaw wrote in the logbook:

"I took our new Explorer to Arizona to visit family. Upon arrival at my brother's house, seven of us piled into the Explorer, with the older kids riding in the rear-most seat. Anchoring the kids' booster seats in the third row was not an easy task, despite the existence of ALR (automatic locking retractor) seatbelts. In my experience, the seatbelt anchors for that bench are located too far forward, and even when all the slack is removed from the belt, the base of the seat is loose and slides too easily. No matter what I did, I could not get the child seats tightly anchored the way I could in the second row.

"Furthermore, getting the kids loaded up and buckled in was quite a chore. With two toddler child seats mounted in the outboard locations of the second-row seat, the older kids had to clamber aboard through the space made available by the center folding section of the seatback. Easy enough for a 4-year-old, but not so easy for someone approaching 10 times their age with floating cartilage under his kneecaps. Then, my sister-in-law had to climb into the center of the second row and squeeze between the two child seats used to secure the younger kids. I was actually wishing I had brought a minivan for the ride instead of the Explorer, but hey, then I wouldn't be able to relate this fabulous story."

The upshot is that, in Wardlaw's opinion, it's optimistic to think of the Explorer as a true seven-passenger vehicle. "Knowing what I know now, I think I'd skip the third-row seating option, trading it for increased cargo capacity. And if I absolutely had to have seven-passenger seating, I'd opt for a larger SUV or a minivan."

That constituted Wardlaw's major revelation for the month. Otherwise, the same little things that perturbed him about other Explorers are duplicated here. Our XLT isn't quite as loaded up as other test trucks we've had, and that suits Wardlaw just fine, because that means the stereo is less complicated and littered with fewer buttons, and we get three large rotary knobs for the climate controls rather than myriad buttons controlling automatic functions.

"Hey, we bought the optional Leather package, didn't we? Why doesn't this truck have a leather-wrapped steering wheel?" Good question. And we also bought the power driver seat, the controls for which never fall immediately to hand, located as they are on the lower left side of the seat. We miss the heated side mirrors that we've come to appreciate on the Eddie Bauer and Limited trim levels; they could have come in handy on a few foggy Los Angeles mornings. And the hard plastic door panels "have got to go," proclaimed Wardlaw.

But, our Explorer is equipped with everything we need, except the twice-delayed rollover protection system, which can detect an impending flip onto the roof and deploy side-curtain airbags that will remain inflated for several seconds to better cushion occupants during an endo through the median. We've got leather, a power driver seat, the handy high-series floor console, a CD player, rear air conditioning, the third-row seat, four-wheel drive and a V8 engine.

Wardlaw likes the V8, but questions whether most buyers wouldn't do better buying the V6. "Our Explorer can barely cover 300 city miles between fill-ups, and it's got a big tank, so this is not an inexpensive proposition." Trading refinement and power for fuel economy might not be a bad idea, depending on your needs.

The V8 is matched to a five-speed automatic transmission and Control Trac four-wheel drive. Wardlaw noticed that during part-throttle acceleration, it feels like the drivetrain is slipping. He said that under such circumstances, he detects little tugs and slips through the accelerator pedal.

However, Wardlaw made sure to note that, unlike the past two test Explorers we've driven, our new truck doesn't shimmy and shake at 90 mph on the highway. "There's no vibration coming from the front suspension whatsoever," he noted, "which leads me to believe that our two previous test trucks suffered from tweaked suspensions due to prior offroading excursions."

Seat comfort was judged to be acceptable, if not downright comfortable, with Wardlaw complaining of a sore back after his 1,000-mile jaunt to Arizona. Also, he noted that wind noise seemed to be rather excessive at highway speeds, citing the fixed-mast antenna that juts from the front right fender as the probable cause of repetitive conversation between cabin occupants.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Explorer's headlights do an admirable job of illuminating the highway at night, despite throwing a light pattern that has obviously been intended to be more compatible with regular passenger vehicles that are lower to the ground. Also, the standard stereo sounds just fine to Wardlaw's out-of-tune eardrums, capable of emitting satisfactory bass without distortion...unlike our long-term Nissan Altima's. Finally, he notes that the unique design of the Explorer's flip-up rear glass, which creates a lower liftover than that of other SUVs on the market, really works as advertised.

Handling is predictable, as long as you aren't expecting the rig to corner like a car. Chris also said that steering is light but direct and the brakes provide decent feel and acceptable stopping distances. Finally, he commented that the tan interior color on our truck is preferable to the darker colors on some of our previous test Explorers, even if it is more likely to show dirt in the future.

"Is the Explorer perfect?" he asks in the logbook. "No, but then no vehicle is. What the Explorer is, however, is functional, handsome, comfortable and capable. What more do you want from a midsize SUV?"

Photographer Scott Jacobs agreed, despite the fact that he's not a fan of SUVs. He took the Explorer to San Jose for a weekend and found it to be powerful, comfortable and attractive, if a tad noisy on the highway. His girlfriend's parents were duly impressed, as well. In the market for a new sport-ute, they were eager to check out our truck from top to bottom. By the time Scott prepared to drive away from their home for the return trip to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, our long-termer was sharing driveway space with their new Explorer Eddie Bauer (of course, it helped that Fremont Ford slashed 9 grand off the $39,000 sticker price).

"Big and brawny is still an ideal held close to the American heart," wrote Scott. "[Our] Explorer exemplifies this. I've got to admit, if I had the wherewithal to purchase and maintain this beast, I'd love to keep it in my corral."

Current Odometer: 3,805
Best Fuel Economy: 16.4 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 10.8 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 13.9 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

April 2002

After naming the 2002 Explorer the winner of our most recent midsize SUV comparison test, our long-term test vehicle now becomes more important than ever. With this test, we'll see if those comparison-test impressions stand the test of time, not to mention the critical eye of more than just our usual stable of road test editors.

This month is a perfect example, as the primary driver of our mineral gray tester was Edmunds.com's president, Peter Steinlauf. He's never been on one of our comparison tests, and quite frankly, couldn't care less about horsepower numbers and track times. Like the vast majority of SUV drivers, he used the Explorer for weekday commuting and weekend errands.

His general impression was very much like that of our editors. He found the Explorer comfortable, easy to drive and an altogether handy vehicle for day-to-day driving. As a long-time driver of an Acura sedan, he warmed right up to the high seating position that affords a clear view of traffic ahead. He also appreciated the simple climate and radio controls that allowed him to jump in and get comfortable with a minimal amount of fuss.

One instance where his opinion diverged with that of our editors concerned the Explorer's throttle feel. We praised the gutsy sport-ute for its strong off-the-line power that makes it feel faster than it really is. To Peter, however, the Explorer's abrupt takeoffs were less than desirable, making it hard to drive smoothly. "It's too hard to modulate. It lurches with the slightest nudge of the gas, making it too jumpy when crawling through traffic."

Aside from this minor quibble, Peter had few complaints about the Explorer's overall design and construction. Whether this means that Peter is a man of few words or that the Explorer is just a well-rounded vehicle is up to you, but our experience has us leaning toward the latter. Subsequent months will subject the Explorer to plenty of additional scrutiny, but as it stands, the Explorer remains one of our all-around favorites when it comes to practical and functional family sport-utes.

Current Odometer: 5,125
Best Fuel Economy: 17.0 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.8 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.1 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

May 2002

The Ford Explorer was rigorously tested this month by the Edmunds.com editorial staff. Photography Editor Scott Jacobs started things off by using the Explorer to help in the move to a new apartment. Scott learned just how much stuff he actually owns once he had packed most of it up. "I knew that with only a half day with a U-Haul truck, the cargo capacity of the Explorer would come in handy, as I'd need it to move the rest of my junk." However, Scott noticed that with the seats folded down, the cargo floor wasn't exactly flat. It was smaller than it appeared. Scott also felt that the tall height of the Ford's cargo hold floor made the loading of heavy objects that much more difficult, a problem that got increasing more painful as the move went on.

Scott not only used the Explorer for a move, but also for the long haul. With a mini vacation in mind, he drove the 350 miles out to Las Vegas for a weekend with friends. "The power of the V8 really helped me pass on the freeway with ease," commented Scott. "Time hasn't been a friend to most of the people I was meeting in Vegas," he wrote in the logbook, "so the V8 also helped out by carrying my load of friends and the extra pounds they've put on over the years."

After merrily belting out a few rounds of "Luck Be A Lady," the Vegas crew promptly set out to win their millions only to leave a hefty cash deposit behind at each casino they visited. The house always wins, boys. Their only comfort afforded was the spacious seating and the separate front and rear climate controls. Just about all the passengers were a little agitated at this point, so having plenty of room and a temp they liked to be at was rich enough.

Though Scott came back from Vegas empty-handed, he did find the Explorer to be a source of constant comment. He found the clean and simple interior design to be better than the previous generation. He liked the center stack buttons and the fact that they were arranged in a very logical position. His only gripe about the interior design was that when the shifter is placed into drive, the shift arm partially blocks the left-hand side of the stereo controls. "Even though it was blocked, I did find that resting my hand on the shift arm made it quite comfortable for me to constantly push the radio scan button."

Later in the month, Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans borrowed the Explorer. He needed something brawny to tow his broken-down '91 Nissan 240SX from our parking structure to San Diego.

Brent estimated that his car weighed about 2,800 pounds and the U-Haul Auto Transport weighed about 2,000 pounds. Fortunately, our Explorer has the factory-installed Class III/IV tow hitch and, of course, that wonderful V8. A Class III hitch is limited to 5,000 pounds of gross trailer weight. Class IV refers to anything more than 5,000 pounds. The Ford web site says the Explorer can tow 7,300 pounds, when properly equipped.

With the V8 and 4WD, the owner's manual says Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) is 11,600 pounds. Brent figured that with the trailer, the Explorer's CWR was 9,500 pounds. If we had an Explorer V6 (which has a 10,240 GCWR) the trailer would be coming uncomfortably close to exceeding GCWR.

Brent went to U-Haul where he had to purchase a draw bar, hitch ball and receiver pin and the workers there helped him hook up the trailer. He also had to get a plug adapter to work with the four-plug wiring harness that the Auto Transport had.

Even though this was his first time towing, Brent didn't find the experience all that difficult. The plan was to drive with the Explorer to San Diego, but because of a few snafus, he didn't get any farther than his apartment, about 10 miles from the parking complex. He had to concentrate when going around tight city street corners, so as not to cut the corner with the trailer. In terms of performance, the Explorer was certainly taxed. Acceleration was slower and the brakes lacked normal stopping power. But what do you expect when you've got an extra 4,800 pounds behind you?

"It felt good to be using our truck for something other than commuting. Finally, a worthy cause!" commented Brent. "I might try again this coming weekend to get the car to San Diego."

The Explorer was truly in its happy place this month carrying loads of people, loads of boxes and a broken down '91 Nissan 240SX.

Current Odometer: 7,789
Best Fuel Economy: 16.8 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 10.6 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.8 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None.

June 2002

If a vehicle is good, and perhaps good enough to be the best in its class, does it earn an automatic recommendation? This was a question facing Brent Romans as he piloted our long-term Ford Explorer for the month of June.

Since this was the first time Brent had driven our Explorer, he was struck by how easy it is to drive. "Other than its size, which is a detriment only when it comes to parallel parking or cramming into 'compact' parking spaces, the Explorer doesn't seem like an SUV at all," commented Brent. He appreciated the V8's 240-horsepower output, noting that the Explorer feels just as fast as a V6-powered family sedan.

"The handling, too, is quite exceptional," said Brent. "In terms of ride quality, this new Explorer is vastly superior to the previous version. The independent rear suspension and wider wheel tracks make a huge difference. The Explorer is much more stable when rounding corners, especially bumpy ones." He also appreciated the steering's direct feel and quick response, the comfortable seating and the useful storage areas.

For a short time in June, we also had a 2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500 test vehicle that we were reviewing. Brent drove the ML500 and Explorer back-to-back. In Brent's opinion, the Explorer was the superior vehicle in just about every area. "It's not very often that one can drive a Mercedes and a Ford and come away thinking that the Ford is a better choice."

Later in the month, however, Brent was meeting friends at a Seattle's Best Coffee house on a Sunday afternoon. Sufficiently liberated by a grande-sized iced latte and staring at the handsome Explorer in the parking lot, Brent ruminated not about the truck, but what he used it for. His thoughts:

"While I enjoyed driving the Explorer, my current lifestyle doesn't require much of what the Explorer offers. I'm single, without kids, and live in a Los Angeles apartment. In May, I did use the Ford to tow my '91 Nissan 240SX, utilizing a rented U-Haul car trailer. This was the only task in the last two months for which I needed the Explorer.

"I didn't use it to haul anything bulky or large. The maximum number of passengers I toted at one time was four. I never used the third-row seat, and I never encountered a situation that required four-wheel drive. All I did was make my short commute to work and usual trips around L.A. The Explorer averaged about 13 mpg when in my care. In actuality, I could have driven a hybrid Honda Civic this month, used it for the same tasks and gotten at least triple the fuel mileage."

But would he have wanted to? In America, cars and trucks are much more than transportation. They project an image and status of who the driver is, or at least who the driver would like to be.

"I appreciate the Explorer's capabilities. But given a choice, I'd drive a Civic, Focus or some other small car. It would be the more practical and logical choice. Yet I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren't like me. For them, the Explorer's rugged image is more important than emissions or fuel mileage."

Brent's hope is that technology will render the choice of an SUV guilt-free. "Ford will have a hybrid Escape for 2004. And perhaps 20 years from now, hydrogen will be the fuel of choice. Then the kind of fuel mileage a vehicle gets won't matter at all."

Current Odometer: 8,998
Best Fuel Economy: 14.7 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 12.9 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.2 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

July 2002

Road Test Editor Liz Kim was the recipient of the keys to the Ford Explorer this month. As she had enjoyed her brief time with a Limited V8 model during our Midsize SUV Comparison Test, she was looking forward to spending quality time with our long-term vehicle.

The Explorer didn't disappoint; as with previous editors, Liz had very little to complain about in terms of the actual driving experience. She appreciated the surging power churning forth from the 4.6-liter V8, the responsive steering rack, the slim turning circle and the independent suspension system that made the previous mediocre Explorer a hazy memory.

While she enjoyed her time in the car, she, like last month's driver, Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans, couldn't help but experience pangs of guilt whenever she'd try to climb aboard in front of a bunch of people milling about.

See, she could tell what they were thinking, because she would be thinking it herself: A bona-fide city-slicker like myself has no business piloting such a big vehicle. It isn't only the fuel economy, which at its dismal lowest allowed the Explorer to burn through a gallon of unleaded in 11.3 miles; it's that this sport-ute simply takes up more space than it ought to. She says she understands that there are those who need the space to carry large, bulky items regularly and those who need the towing capability, but she wonders how some people can conscientiously make a choice to further impose their presence on the already-clogged streets of a metropolitan area like Los Angeles. She points to statistics that highlight the trend that SUVs are bought solely for the image they connote, and it's not necessarily a positive one. Sometimes, she wishes for a placard, like those for student drivers, denoting that she's an automotive journalist or that she could at least display a sign reading "This isn't mine!" Liz feels that with the plethora of all-wheel-drive cars and large-cargo wagons that are now available, it's about time that SUVs lost their popularity and went the way of the musical group Hanson.

And yet, hypocritically, there was a perverse side of Liz that reveled in driving the vehicle. Really, she won't be in line to buy a Honda Insight anytime soon. The Explorer has a very comfortable, convenient cabin. She liked the door bins that held a 1-liter bottle in place, as well as the large center console. The seats were comfortable, and her rear passengers found little to nitpick over. Plus, being at the same height as other SUV drivers is a good thing in stop-and-go traffic.

Still, you'll find her to be hard-pressed to recommend an SUV for anyone aside from those who really need it. And needing something can be subjective at times. For instance, she made a run to Target to purchase a 7-foot-tall bookcase advertised in the circular that week. Of course, it fit easily in the Explorer's cargo bay, yet she couldn't help but remember that the very same-sized bookcase was swallowed just as well by our Hyundai Elantra, which had a 60/40-split seat to handle just such an occasion; read about it in our September 2001 update. Did it make the task easier? Yes. Did she need the Explorer for this occasion? Nope.

Our Explorer is equipped with the optional third-row seat, which takes away some of the available space; without it, you would have 88 cubic feet of cargo capacity (rivaling the Dodge Durango). As it is, our vehicle has 81.3 cubic feet available, which, by the way, is the same number as that in the Mercury Sable station wagon. If your sole purpose in buying an SUV is to haul around large and bulky things, that's not terribly impressive. Jeannine Fallon, director of public relations for Edmunds.com, who snagged the Explorer for the sole purpose of hauling in-laws and their luggage to the airport, had this to say: "Loading three 28-inch suitcases, three large duffel bags and three other adults was not as pleasant as I thought it would be. I had borrowed the vehicle knowing my own car didn't have that kind of cargo capacity, but I didn't expect a large SUV like the Explorer would struggle with the load. After a few minutes of Suitcase Tetris, everything finally fit, and with one bag centered between the backseat passengers, I enjoyed a bit of rear window visibility on the 10-mile drive to the airport. I felt safer and lighter on my return drive, having emptied the rest of the vehicle -- and that has nothing to do with the fact that two of the passengers had been my in-laws!"

So what was Liz's final impression of the 2002 Explorer? While she concurs that this is a solid, well-crafted vehicle, she suggests that you think long and hard before you decide that you "need" an SUV.

Current Odometer: 9,922
Best Fuel Economy: 14.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.3 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.6 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

August 2002

This month the Edmunds.com long-term Ford Explorer XLT was given a real-world rollover test while being driven by Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed.

Phil was in the right lane of the 405 freeway in Long Beach, Calif., traveling at about 65 miles per hour, when he saw a car in front of him begin to swerve wildly from side to side. "I remember thinking, 'That's going to be a really bad accident,' but I didn't consider that I was about to become a participant in the action," he wrote in the vehicle's logbook.

The swerving car suddenly fishtailed into a skid and slammed into the rear quarter panel of a young woman's Toyota Corolla. This caused the woman's car to travel sideways out of control directly into the path of the Explorer. Phil braked hard but realized he was going to hit her unless he took evasive action. He lifted off the brake and cut the wheel hard to the left, then back to the right. As he veered around the Corolla, he was so close he expected to feel an impact at any second. But he sailed past and the Explorer was completely undamaged.

It was only later Phil realized he had performed the exact maneuver that can lead to a rollover in top-heavy SUVs. However, the Explorer had felt very stable and handled well in this critical situation. Phil had noticed that the Explorer approached most corners with an initial lurch as the weight transferred. Then, it quickly regained its composure and set into the curve. Of course, the ultimate test was the accident-avoidance maneuver he had been forced to perform. And the Explorer passed with flying colors. Phil had been partial to the SUV before; after this incident he had a newfound respect for it.

The rest of the month was less eventful. The Explorer was driven a total of 2,548 miles, and had no mechanical problems but recorded rather poor gas mileage. Phil enjoyed getting to know the SUV since he had never spent time in it before. With some reservations, he enjoyed driving the big rig despite the fact that he's no fan of gas-guzzling SUVs. It impressed him as being comfortable, a pleasure to drive and practical to use.

In most cases, Phil didn't tap the vast resources of the XLT's 4.6-liter V8 engine. Although it would have been fun to open it up and see where the limits of the 239-horsepower engine were, gas mileage in the low teens was enough to deter him. However, Phil felt a guilty thrill having this power at the ready and was also impressed by the quiet purr of the engine at idle.

Another pleasant surprise was the turning radius of this midsize SUV. The Explorer passed Phil's terrain test, which consists of pulling a U-turn on the street where he lives. This put the Ford in the same league as some other long-termers, such as the VW Passat, Ford Focus, Honda Insight and Mini Cooper. Who would have thought?

One annoyance when driving the Explorer with passengers was the poorly marked door locks. When arriving at the destination and shutting off the ignition, the driver usually climbs out and walks away. However, with the Explorer, he's often greeted by the muffled shouts of passengers yelling, "Hey! Unlock the doors. Okay?" With the keyless remote entry, that isn't a problem. But Phil thinks that clearer door markings would be a big help.

The interior -- the gauges in particular -- struck Phil as being rather plain but not unpleasantly so. The leather seats give it a touch of class and provide good support. The upright driving position and high ride afford good visibility. On a staff outing, seven people piled into the SUV, and access to the third-row seat was surprisingly easy thanks to the flip-up seats on both sides of the middle row.

This month we took the Explorer to Santa Monica Ford for its 10,000-mile service appointment. Dennis, the service advisor, didn't try to sell us a "dealer recommended" list of maintenance checks. Instead, he agreed to do the oil and filter change and a tire rotation. The estimate was $65; the actual cost was $60.85. Along with the oil change, the mechanic performed a list of 15 inspection points including a visual estimate of brake wear. On the front brake pads, there was still 70 percent left. The rear brakes had 80 percent left.

Not wanting to take the shuttle back to the office, Phil decided to wait at the dealership for the work to be performed. An hour and a half later, he checked in with Dennis and found the SUV was ready to go. Phil was not overwhelmed by the efficiency of the dealership, but everyone was friendly and, given there was no hard sell for bogus services, it was a positive experience.

Phil summed up his feelings about the Explorer in this logbook entry: "There is a utilitarian charm to the cockpit -- and the SUV in general -- that I find appealing. In most ways, it drives as well as much higher-priced domestic SUVs. The only reason to buy a more expensive SUV is if you enjoy spending money or must have a different badge on the hood. Otherwise, go for the Ford."

Current Odometer: 12,267
Best Fuel Economy: 19.4 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 9.3 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.3 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: $60.85 for oil change and tire rotation
Problems: None

September 2002

When it comes to sport-utility vehicles, you've obviously got a few options in terms of size. You could choose a "cute-ute" like the Jeep Liberty or Honda CR-V. If your needs with regard to hauling capacity are more significant, you could opt for a midsize sport-ute like the Chevy TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango or Buick Rendezvous. And if your family is staffed like a soccer team, you've probably got your eye on a king-size people-mover like the Ford Expedition or Chevy Tahoe.

But outside of interior room, what differences exist between these classes of sport-ute? Does increased size automatically bring with it unpleasant compromises with regard to handling? We got a chance to take a crack at these questions this month. Our long-term Explorer spent most of its time in the hands of a young couple whose daily driver is the Mazda Tribute, our pick this year (along with its twin, the Ford Escape) as Editors' Most Wanted in the compact SUV category. How did the Explorer, an Edmunds favorite in the midsize sport-ute segment, stack up against the comparatively petite Tribute? Here's what our driver wrote in the logbook:

"The Ford certainly seemed huge when we got into it for the first time (and actually it remained so every time we got into it!), and we both liked the running boards, which made getting in and out very comfortable."

"It did feel safe being so high up, but we missed eye contact with other drivers, and felt like we were looking down a lot of the time. It's often nice to be able to make eye contact with other drivers, especially when trying to get into another lane or make a turn. But on the other hand, no one was going to mess with us in this monster!"

"Maneuverability is excellent, and the turning circle is tight. We liked to joke that the driveway at our house (which was built before SUVs were so common) seems to be designed to make it much easier to arrive than to leave! But the Ford's all-round good visibility, light steering and tight turning circle made this task much easier than expected."

"The Ford feels very powerful and has strong acceleration. However, I found a flipside to this when parking in tight spaces, as even a tiny touch of the gas can shoot the car forward or backward more than anticipated."

"Despite the smooth and light steering, the responsive and tight maneuverability and the strong power, the Ford still felt like a monster truck to us, and since it was just the two of us, we didn't feel that it had a significant advantage in passenger room over our Mazda Tribute. It was also a gas guzzler. There is, however, noticeably more cargo space. And perhaps if we were bigger people we would appreciate the size more (I am 5 feet 8 and my wife is 5 feet 6)."

So, our beloved Explorer scores high points when it comes to issues concerning maneuverability, visibility and power, even in comparison to a smaller, and presumably more nimble, competitor. If you're a "cute-ute" owner with a pressing need for more cargo space to lug your assorted doodads (and are prepared to face the consequences concerning increased gas consumption), you may want to consider stepping up to the Explorer -- secure in the knowledge that you'll likely be sacrificing little with regard to handling in the process.

Current Odometer: 14,757
Best Fuel Economy: 16.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 10.2 mpg
Running Average (over life of vehicle): 13.7 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

October 2002

The Ford Explorer was cared for by our photo editor Scott Jacobs this month. It was a lonely month for the Explorer as Scott was either busy photographing other cars or not so busy relaxing on the beach during vacation. However, he did manage to get a few days of driving in, and it quickly reminded him why he likes it so much.

While some editors claim the interior is dull, Scott would argue that the design is simplistic and clean. "I don't like clutter," he commented. "This dash is straightforward and easy. You know where everything is at a glance." The center console features easy-to-use dials for the climate controls, and large buttons on the radio that make quick changes simple.

While driving around town for the first time, Scott noticed a rattling coming from the rear seats. After pulling over to find the source of the racket, Scott noticed the tow hitch hiding under the driver seat. While trying to find a space to store it, Scott came across small storage bins under the cargo floor area. "What a great idea!" he exclaimed. "It's too bad the bins are just snug enough that they don't close properly with the hitch inside. They don't seem to be able to hold anything larger than a flashlight and maybe some screwdrivers."

The Explorer does feature plenty of places to store an active family's treasure, though. Along with those hidden storage bins, there are netted cubby holes on the sides of the cargo area, seatback pockets, front door pockets and a large center console storage bin. Combined with the 44.5 cubic feet of luggage capacity (a maximum of 81.7 cubic feet with the seats folded down is possible) means the Explorer can really pack it in.

To haul the family around, the Explorer is equipped with a 4.6-liter V8 that cranks out 239 horsepower and 282 pound-feet of torque. "It's definitely a blast to mash the gas in this thing," Scott remarked. "For such a large vehicle, this thing can really move. And it moves fast." The power comes at the price, however, as our Explorer is averaging just 13.9 mpg. Thankfully the gas tank holds 22.5 gallons of fuel to quench the engine's thirst. Ford claims this gives the Explorer a range of 315 miles, though we've been seeing around 290 on our trips.

Besides the raw numbers, the Explorer has an emotional side effect. Its large and imposing stance gives you a "Big Kahuna" feeling. "It can definitely go to your head if you're not careful," Scott wrote in the logbook. "You feel like it's your road, and with driving such a large vehicle you have to take extra care. I became the sort of SUV driver I usually curse at -- one who is greedy and doesn't give others their share of space." Though this vehicle's girth does give the driver an overly exaggerated sense of confidence, it would stand to reason that in a crash, the law of physics would give you a decided advantage over smaller vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety bolsters this advantage by giving the Explorer an overall "Good" rating for the offset frontal impacts. Government testing has given it a five-star rating for head-on frontal impacts. Side and rear crash test scores weren't available.

The Explorer definitely struck a cord with Scott. "There's just something about those big tires, the ride height and engine grumble that makes me smile when I'm behind the wheel," he said. "It's a great feeling to drive this thing. It makes me want to find a big patch of mud and go nuts."

The Explorer has a lot of pros and cons. For Scott, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The Explorer is simply a vehicle he loves.

Current Odometer: 14,952
Best Fuel Economy: 14.0 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.1 mpg
Running Average (over life of vehicle): 13.9 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

November 2002

Our Explorer breezed its way through yet another month of daily errands, stop-and-go commutes and a couple long-distance trips thrown in for good measure. The general consensus remains much the same -- it's a great all-around utility vehicle that's easy to drive, comfortable and thoughtfully designed. As usual, we were able to find a few minor issues to complain about, but our overall impression still remains quite favorable.

In short stop-and-go commutes the Explorer proved to be a likable companion. "It has great off-the-line power -- it's almost instantaneous," one driver wrote. "I don't drive all that fast, but just knowing that I'll always have plenty of power readily available was strangely comforting," she continued.

Another driver wasn't quite so laudatory, as he found the Explorer occasionally clumsy when it came to the rigors of stop-and-go driving. "I've noticed that the transmission seems to be loosening up a bit when it comes to lower-speed shifts. So far it's been flawless, but once in awhile during lower-speed maneuvers you'll get a few 'clunks' out of the transmission. Full throttle shifts are still impressively smooth though." Yet another driver noticed that the vehicle seems to move a little too much for his taste after it's shifted into "Park." We'll be keeping a close eye on the transmission in the coming months to see if either condition gets any worse.

When it came to interior ergonomics and comfort, the Explorer earned high marks from one editor who made the 600-mile round-trip to Las Vegas to cover this year's SEMA aftermarket accessories show. "Four straight hours and I never grew uncomfortable -- that really surprised me," he wrote. "The seats aren't super-duper multiadjustable buckets or anything but they were comfortable the whole way through. I also appreciated the steering wheel-mounted cruise controls that allowed me to make constant adjustments without ever having to take my hands off the wheel."

Returning from Sin City gave that same editor a chance to see just how good the Explorer's gas mileage could be as he failed to check the gauge until well on his way into the middle of the desert. "A 'check gauge' light came on after the fuel meter had been on empty for awhile so I knew I had enough gas to get to the next station, but I eased off just to make sure." He was able to pull a solid 345 miles out of that particular tank resulting in a respectable 16.5 miles to the gallon, not bad for such a powerful V8. Overall, however, our Explorer has averaged just 14.1 miles to the gallon, so if mileage is a concern, you might consider sticking with the V6.

Closer to home, the Explorer made taking a worn-out dresser to the local Goodwill store a no-hassle deal. With both the second- and third-row seats folded flat the Explorer was able to swallow the good-size dresser without much trouble. We did notice, however, that the load floor wasn't truly flat, especially over the folded third-row seat. It didn't make much of a difference when it came to loading our dresser, but had it been a tighter fit, the awkward floor shape would have been a problem.

So with nearly two thousand miles added to the ticker, our Explorer is only showing very minor signs of age. The transmission woes don't seem to indicate any major cause for concern, but we will be sure to monitor the situation closely to see if it deteriorates any further. Other than that our Explorer is proving itself deserving of its crown as the best-selling sport-utility on the market. If it continues to serve in this fashion throughout its time in our fleet, there's not much reason why we wouldn't recommend it wholeheartedly.

Current Odometer: 16,482
Best Fuel Economy: 16.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.7 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.1 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: Occasional transmission choppiness.

December 2002

This month, the assigned driver of our Ford Explorer turned down a weekend in the hot new Mini Cooper S to continue driving this practical and likable SUV. Much of the decision had to do with his commute (stop-and-go traffic) and family duties (transporting kids and hauling cargo). Still, his choice shows the level of satisfaction we have felt with our midsize SUV.

In other news, Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed was asked to switch with another staffer and drive the 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan for the Thanksgiving holiday while the Explorer transported another editor on a 1,000-plus-mile round-trip trek to Northern California. Phil agreed since he knew it would give him the opportunity to compare these two domestic "people movers" -- one a minivan and the other an SUV. The feeling of driving each vehicle is completely different, while their capabilities are similar -- they each carry seven people.

One advantage the DGC offers is that the third-row seat is more accessible. Passengers relegated to "the back of the bus" can easily walk through the aisle between the two middle seats. Furthermore, the doors open wide and the floor is lower to facilitate quick entries and exits. In the Explorer, the second-row seat must be flipped forward so that a passenger can scramble into the "way back." This requires some groping around for the release latch and hoisting the seat. Once you learn this maneuver, it is easy enough to do.

The Explorer has a trucklike feeling to piloting it, while the Grand Caravan has a soft, easygoing demeanor, smoothing out bumps at any speed and providing carlike handling capabilities. Phil's visiting cousin was so impressed with the minivan's seats, he didn't want to exit the car after reaching the destination. While neither vehicle would win environmental plaudits, the Dodge gets better gas mileage with a career average of 17.8 mpg to the Explorer's 14.6 (due, no doubt to the V8 engine lugging around a much heavier vehicle).

Finally, it must be mentioned that the Explorer has four-wheel-drive capability which would leave the Dodge far behind in bad weather. However, here in Southern California, the four-wheel drive has never been put to the test so it hasn't offered a clear advantage, only the promise of greater performance if need be. (And if we'd really needed all-weather capability for our minivan, we could have chosen one of the all-wheel-drive DGC models.)

So, clearly, there are trade-offs when it comes to comparing these two vehicles specifically -- or SUVs versus minivans in general. But, in a nutshell, the Dodge Grand Caravan wins the comfort award, while the Explorer could fill a wider role with its off-road abilities.

There were several small maintenance concerns this month as the miles ticked by on the Explorer (we added a whopping 2,426 miles this month). Phil's son, Andrew, complained of a hissing noise coming through the climate control system in the backseat. When we noticed a similar noise in the Grand Caravan, the compressor malfunctioned soon afterwards. Also, another road test editor, who borrowed the Explorer for a night, detected a ringing noise emanating from the differential between 55 and 60 mph. When Phil listened closely, he could hear it, too, but decided it wasn't the beginning of a mechanical breakdown. Or, if it was, the breakdown was so far away it wasn't worth worrying about right now. And, finally, Phil noted that the first couple of shifts on cold mornings were reluctant and slow. Not much of a problem here in Southern California, but in colder climates, it would be something worth watching.

Several of the Explorer's features impressed Phil all over again. The most amazing was the tight turning radius. While much smaller vehicles have failed the "terrain test" (pulling a U-turn on the street where Phil lives), the Explorer does it with ease. Furthermore, Phil became aware that the Explorer is surprisingly agile given its hefty dimensions. This is a welcome attribute in tight traffic, while parking or extracting the SUV from tight situations. The Explorer's maneuverability cancelled out the negatives of driving a big vehicle.

Another nice feature that Phil just noticed this month was the illuminated side mirrors. When approaching the vehicle and pressing the remote key fob to unlock the door, the underside of the side mirrors shines light on the ground alongside the Explorer. This is particularly nice when you have to cross the grassy strip between the sidewalk and your car to put something into the front passenger seat -- a briefcase, for example. In the predawn hours, you never know what you might be stepping on due to negligent dog walkers in the area. Other people will appreciate the light to make sure they have secure footing.

During Phil's idle moments while commuting this month, an analogy occurred to him that sums up his feelings about this long-term vehicle. The Ford Explorer, he mused, was a little like McDonald's restaurants: plain and unassuming but very convenient and ultimately satisfying. If the 2002 Explorer is half as successful as the burger chain, we will be seeing the midsize SUV for decades to come.

Current Odometer: 18,908
Best Fuel Economy: 19.3 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.8 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.4 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: Ringing sound from differential.

January 2003

'Tis the holiday season, and you need to head over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house for a three-day family Christmas extravaganza. You're traveling with a two-year-old and all of her necessary accoutrement, plus numerous mysterious black garbage bags containing the gifts that Santa will be placing under Grandma's Christmas tree on that special eve.

If you're Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick during these final days of 2002, you thank your lucky stars your assigned vehicle this month is the cavernous Ford Explorer XLT. Grandma's house is not exactly a stone's throw away, and as you contemplate the 1,000-mile round-trip, you quickly realize that with the Explorer's 4.6-liter V8 power, 46.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity and comfortable seats, you've seriously lucked out.

In preparing the Explorer for her road trip, Kelly noticed that it was close to needing its 20,000-mile regular service, so the Explorer spent one day at our local Ford dealer, Santa Monica Ford, where it received the attention it required. The service department rotated the tires, replaced the air filter, cleaned the battery terminals, changed the oil and checked the brakes for a total cost of $172.51. Kelly was ready to roll.

After the trip, Kelly reported her renewed pleasure with the power of the Explorer's 4.6-liter V8. "What a great feeling to stand on the gas upon entering a fast moving freeway, and experience the rapid surge of power that propels you into the thick of things."

With two very polar-sized passengers in the Explorer -- one two feet tall and the other six-and-a-half feet tall -- seating was different for everyone. The tall guy rode as a front-seat passenger during the entire trip without complaint. As the owner of a 1993 Ford Explorer, he said that the 2002 model definitely felt more spacious in every direction, and his right leg didn't go numb from being locked against the right side of the passenger area footwell, as happens in his own decade-old model.

The little one in the backseat was secured in her child safety seat using the LATCH system tether anchor located on the floor between the second- and third-row seats. Transporting all of their luggage and gear prompted the Stennicks to fold the third-row seat flat to expand cargo space. Kelly was pleased to find that even with that seat folded down, she was still able to easily access the tether anchor during safety seat installation.

Kelly logged a total of 2,103 miles during her month in the Explorer, with half of those miles spent solely on the freeway during the Christmas trip. The remainder of the time was spent largely commuting in heavy stop-and-go traffic, plus preholiday shopping runs around town. The month's traveled miles consumed 136.6 gallons of gas, and at an average of 15.4 mpg, cost us over $225 in fuel. For those of you following the math, that's a lot of moola for 30 days' worth of driving. You can enjoy this midsize SUV's capabilities, but you're going to pay the price at the gas station.

Current Odometer: 21,011
Best Fuel Economy: 17.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 8.8 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.5 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: $172.51
Problems: None

February 2003

Our Explorer has now been with us for a full year and with over 21,000 miles on the ticker it's obviously been a popular vehicle. With room for up to seven passengers, a powerful V8 engine and an easy-to-drive demeanor, its suitability to so many lifestyles and driving habits isn't much of a surprise.

The various editors who spent time behind the wheel this month echoed many of the same sentiments expressed in previous updates. The optional V8 engine in our Mineral Gray XLT hasn't lost a beat, serving up loads of passing and merging power with barely a hint of strain. One driver remarked that a recent road trip had him constantly checking the speedometer to make sure he wasn't cruising along at well over the posted limit -- a testament not only to the V8's power but to its quiet operation as well.

But as much as we love the power and performance of the Explorer's eight-cylinder power plant, its penchant for gas still remains an issue. Even our best tanks this month returned less than 16 miles per gallon, a figure that doesn't bode well for those on a strict budget. And with gas prices soaring as of late, our Explorer's thirsty habit is becoming more and more of a noticeable drawback.

Mileage aside, the Explorer once again proved itself to be a competent city vehicle. One editor remarked that he was pleasantly surprised by the midsize SUV's agility in close quarters. "I dreaded the thought of having to parallel park this thing but when it came to wedging into a tight spot I found it quite maneuverable. The steering is fairly light at low speeds so it doesn't take much effort, but you do have to crank the wheel quite a few times to get full lock. I make a sharp cut and, to my surprise, it squeezed right in -- maybe SUVs aren't the monsters they've been labeled," he mused in the logbook.

Others commented on the strength of the Explorer's headlights and the slight loss of space from the third-row seat. Some rural driving without the aid of streetlights exposed one editor to the long throw and wide beam pattern of the vehicle's lighting system. "While I certainly couldn't verify it with any quantifiable numbers, the high beams on this thing are about as bright as I've seen from a nonxenon-equipped vehicle. It made me feel much more comfortable driving in the country on a moonless night."

The complaint about the lack of cargo space can be partly attributed to Ford's own doing. After seeing how well the power-folding seats disappeared in a recent test of the larger Ford Expedition, the intrusion left by our slightly older Explorer was a bit disappointing to some. "Ford did a great job of getting a third-row seat back there," one editor said, "but, when it came to the packaging, the designers didn't quite finish the job. The way the seats fold completely out of the way like they do in the Expedition and the Lincoln Aviator (a vehicle based on the Explorer) shows how it should be done." Although the intrusion of the folded third-row seat only slightly reduces cargo capacity, those who want maximum utility should seriously consider how much they really need the third row before they buy.

Current Odometer: 21,966
Best Fuel Economy: 15.7 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.1 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.5 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

March 2003

With all the buzz about high fuel prices and gas-guzzling SUVs, the V8-powered Explorer has a lot of explaining to do in the eyes of many consumers. Yes, there are bigger SUVs out there, but the moderately sized Explorer may be the one that can do so much of what the bigger trucks can do without the $45,000 price tag and $60-per-tank hit to the pocketbook.

The Explorer's main appeal is its versatility. Road Test Editor Brian Moody was officially given charge of the Explorer, but as March has been quite a busy month for comparison tests and the like, the vehicle seemed to take on the role of "old standby" for many on staff. A recent trip to the local car wash revealed just how many uses the editors found for the vehicle. The third-row seating area was littered with pine needles -- this is most likely due to Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig desperately trying to live up to his personal edict of always getting rid of his Christmas tree by Valentine's Day, or St. Patrick's Day "at the very latest." With the two back rows of seats folded down, the Explorer certainly offers enough room to transport the old tree to the local landfill (or side alley, whichever is closer). There were also a few Cheerios under the second-row seats, evidence that someone had been transporting a small child -- the Explorer is good for that, too. There's plenty of passenger room in the second row with more than adequate space for stuff after folding the third-row seat down. Also, the high rear door openings and high roof make getting a child in and out very easy. Mud caked on the tires and rear bumper revealed that someone had used the Explorer in a manner for which it was built -- believe it or not, someone actually took an SUV off-road. Oh, the horror!

As we planned the off-road portion of an upcoming full-size 4x4 test, we required the services of award-winning staff photographer Scott Jacobs -- the plan was for him to meet us at a remote location. What vehicle did he choose on that cold and rainy March day to safely get him to and from the picturesque mountain locale? His choice was none other than the Ford Explorer with its full-time all-wheel drive and selectable low-range four-wheel drive.

Luckily Brian was able to wrangle the keys away from others long enough to pack up the Explorer and head out to the desert for an 80th birthday party held in honor of Grandma Moody. As Brian and his wife Carol are the proud parents of an eight-month-old infant, they continually struggle with how to get all the baby's stuff into their car. "Not only do we have to bring the baby's car seat, but we also need something for him to sit in once we get to our destination. We also like to bring a stroller, extra baby food, a diaper bag plus a changing pad to make sure he can have his diaper changed wherever we happen to be. All that and an overnight bag for me and my wife will simply not fit in a sedan," Brian said. "Plus, one of the great things about the Explorer is that the upright side and rear windows combined with the dark tinting make it so you never have to worry about the sun shining directly in the baby's eyes," he continued.

The Explorer has earned praise for its almost invisible demeanor. Several of our editors remarked that the Explorer had few negative traits, but the positive characteristics were the kind that one simply isn't awestruck by. Comfortable, but not soft seats and a powerful, but not high-performance engine are among our staff's other observations. However, this month the Explorer proved its worth by emphasizing the "utility" portion of "SUV" and displaying its go-anywhere, do-anything capability. It's not the biggest, it's not the smallest, but the Explorer does offer a reasonable alternative that can tackle just about anything that's thrown at it.

This was our last full month with the Explorer, and soon we'll publish a wrap-up of our ownership experience with this vehicle. Accordingly, we'd like to hear from real owners of 2002 and 2003 four-door Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers (any trim level, any drive train). Send us an e-mail and tell us what you like about your vehicle and what you don't like -- we'll include the most thoughtful comments in the wrap-up. Please provide your name and city and state of residence in your message.

Current Odometer: 22,608
Best Fuel Economy: 16.9 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 11.4 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.5 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: None

Wrap-Up: April 2003

Why We Bought It
How It Drove
What It Was Like Inside
Summing Up
Changes to the Explorer Since 2002
Ups and Downs
Best Logbook Quotes
Recalls and Problem History
Dealer Service Reviews
What Consumers Say

Why We Bought It
Three years ago, questions about SUV safety came to a boiling point when it surfaced that an inordinate number of 1991-2001 Explorers equipped with Firestone tires had been involved in rollover incidents caused by tire tread separation. Was Firestone to blame for manufacturing flawed tires? Or, was it a design issue that occurred on Ford's end (high center of gravity, narrow track, flaccid suspension)? To this day, you'll get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and it's likely that blame should be shared by the companies -- and any consumers who overloaded their vehicles and neglected to check the tire pressure and tread wear before setting out on a road trip.

For our part, we were unimpressed by the ride and handling characteristics of the previous-generation Explorer we drove, awarding it a mediocre fifth place (out of eight) in a 2000 comparison test of midsize SUVs. It finished as high as it did by virtue of its roomy, feature-laden cabin; good front- and side-impact crash test scores; and the presence of less capable vehicles like the Rodeo-based Honda Passport in our test.

Fortunately, the 2002 Explorer is a thoroughly modern vehicle that offers much-improved on-road dynamics. Well, that and a larger, more comfortable cabin; an available fold-flat third-row seat; side curtain airbags; and more refined drivetrain choices. Stacked up alongside its competitors in another midsize SUV comparison, this Explorer was our top choice. Crash test scores are even better for this generation, as the '02 Explorer picked up a "Good" rating in 40-mph frontal offset testing, while four-wheel-drive models earned a three-star (out of five) rollover estimate from the NHTSA (though, notably, 2WD models still get just two stars).

Meanwhile, the Explorer has remained the best-selling SUV in the U.S. over the last three years. Understandably, sales dipped in 2001; there was a partial recovery last year, likely helped along by the availability of low-interest financing. At least some of the shortfall can be attributed to lingering tread separation concerns: People who might otherwise have considered an Explorer have excluded it from their shopping. If it's because they've come to grips with the idea that a minivan or car-based SUV could meet their needs just as well, that's fine. If it's merely because the Explorer has a bad name, well, they might be missing out of what could be a very enjoyable ownership experience compared to other SUVs.

Aware of all this, we decided to put our affection for the Explorer on the line. Sure, it had impressed us as a competent and practical family vehicle in a comparison test and other road tests, but could it stand up to 12 months of everyday use by our demanding editorial staff? We had to find out. Below is a recap of what we learned during a year with a 2002 4WD XLT model optioned with the V8, third-row seat, rear air conditioner, leather upholstery and tow package.

How It Drove
As automotive journalists have a well-deserved reputation for liking powerful vehicles, a V8 Explorer might seem like an obvious choice for our staff. But there were other considerations. For one thing, we hoped to fit in some towing during the ownership period, which we did. For another, the 4.6-liter V8 -- rated for 239 horsepower and 282 pound-feet of torque -- is considerably quieter and more refined than the 210-horse V6, which gets raucous when pushed.

Beyond that, the difference in fuel economy between the engines is small, depending on how you drive: Four-wheel-drive V8 Explorers are rated at 14 mpg city/18 mpg highway; we averaged 14.4 mpg over 12 months. With the V6 and 4WD, the rating goes to 15 city/21 highway, but given that a 2WD test vehicle averaged just 15 mpg over several hundred miles, it's unlikely that a 4WD long-term vehicle would have done much better. Suffice it to say that if you're buying an Explorer, or any traditional body-on-frame SUV, fuel economy probably isn't your top priority. One thing to keep in mind, though: the thirstier the engine, the shorter the cruising range. Our long-termer rarely made it 300 miles on a single tank of gas.

In practice, the V8 gave our Explorer above-average acceleration, as midsize sport-utilities go, and editors liked knowing that there were ample power reserves, even if they didn't tap into them everyday. Just about everyone commented on the confidence they felt when merging onto the freeway or executing passing maneuvers. One editor even noted that despite the Explorer's bulk, it felt "just as fast as a V6-powered family sedan."

Of course, it helped that the five-speed automatic transmission was able to come up with timely downshifts. Really, our only complaints about the Explorer's drivetrain were touchy throttle response, which made it too easy to surge in traffic according to some staff members, and occasional slips and, later, clunks from the transmission during low-speed, part-throttle acceleration. The latter issue is akin to frequent heartburn, in that these clunks may be the first signs of a more serious problem down the road. It's something we've noted in other Ford products, but major repairs were required in only one case (our long-term 2000 Lincoln LS underwent a transmission replacement).

Towing capacity is rated at 7,000 pounds for 4WD V8 Explorers equipped, as ours was, with a Class III/IV trailer hitch (that number goes up to 7,300 if you stick with 2WD). This allowed one of our editors to tow his '91 Nissan 240SX on a U-Haul auto transport trailer with relative ease. Acceleration was noticeably taxed, but our editor made the drive from L.A. to San Diego with no problems.

Although truck-based SUVs have long been associated with harsh ride quality and sloppy handling, the '02 Explorer sheds these attributes in favor of road manners that rival those of some car-based SUVs. A new independent rear suspension is a big help here -- it does compromise off-road ability somewhat, but most Explorers spend all their time on pavement anyway.

"The handling is quite exceptional," said Brent Romans, one of our senior road testers. "In terms of ride quality, this new Explorer is vastly superior to the previous version. The independent rear suspension and wider wheel tracks make a huge difference. The Explorer is much more stable when rounding corners, especially bumpy ones."

Editors also commented on the sport-ute's direct steering. Although light enough to make the 4,800-pound vehicle easy to maneuver, the rack provides enough road feel so that the driver knows what's going on with the tires. Braking, too, merited positive mention, as the brake pedal provided good feel and modulation, while the Ford's stopping distances were well within the acceptable range for an SUV.

Perhaps most relevant to buyers concerned about SUV safety was the Explorer's ability to perform a real-world crash avoidance maneuver (without scaring the editor behind the wheel) in August 2002. Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed was driving our long-termer in the right lane of the I-405 freeway in Long Beach, Calif., traveling at about 65 miles per hour, when he saw a car in front of him begin to swerve wildly from side to side. "I remember thinking, 'That's going to be a really bad accident,' but I didn't consider that I was about to become a participant in the action," he wrote in the logbook.

The swerving car suddenly fishtailed into a skid and slammed into the rear quarter panel of a young woman's Toyota Corolla. This caused the woman's car to travel sideways out of control directly into the path of the Explorer. Phil braked hard but realized he was going to hit her unless he took evasive action. He lifted off the brake and cut the wheel hard to the left, then back to the right. As he veered around the Corolla, he was so close he expected to feel an impact at any second. But he sailed past and the Explorer was completely undamaged.

It was only later that Phil realized he had performed the exact maneuver that can lead to a rollover in top-heavy SUVs. However, the Explorer had felt very stable and handled well in this critical situation.

What It Was Like Inside
Since our Explorer had the third-row seating option, it offered a maximum capacity of seven passengers. We didn't put seven people inside the vehicle on a regular basis, and real owners probably wouldn't want to do this either. Instead, the two-person third-row bench should come in handy when you have carpool duty or when your kids decide to bring a couple of friends along on a day trip. One editor, who stuffed our long-termer with four children in child safety seats and three adults detailed his experience:

"I took our Explorer to Arizona to visit family. Upon arrival at my brother's house, seven of us piled into the Explorer, with the older kids riding in the rearmost seat. Anchoring the kids' booster seats in the third row was not an easy task, despite the existence of ALR (automatic locking retractor) seatbelts. In my experience, the seatbelt anchors for that bench are located too far forward, and even when all the slack is removed from the belt, the base of the seat is loose and slides too easily. No matter what I did, I could not get the child seats tightly anchored the way I could in the second row.

"Furthermore, getting the kids loaded up and buckled in was quite a chore. With two toddler child seats mounted in the outboard locations of the second-row seat, the older kids had to clamber aboard through the space made available by the center folding section of the seat back. Easy enough for a 4-year-old, but not so easy for someone approaching 10 times their age with floating cartilage under his kneecaps. Then, my sister-in-law had to climb into the center of the second row and squeeze between the two child seats used to secure the younger kids. I was actually wishing I had brought a minivan for the ride instead of the Explorer, but hey, then I wouldn't be able to relate this fabulous story."

The upshot is that, in our editor's opinion, it's optimistic to think of the Explorer as a true seven-passenger vehicle for everyday use. "Knowing what I know now," he said, "I think I'd skip the third-row seating option, trading it for increased cargo capacity (opting for the seat holds maximum capacity to 81.7 cubic feet; otherwise, you have a full 88 cubes). And if I absolutely had to have seven-passenger seating, I'd opt for a larger SUV or a minivan."

When it was time to load up bulky cargo, we certainly appreciated the convenience of being able to fold the third-row seat flat into the floor. It's a one-step procedure to fold down the seat, as you don't have to remove and stow the headrests. Editors did take note of the fact that the resulting load floor wasn't completely flat, allowing objects to slide about. If you skip the third-row seat, you won't have this problem.

Up front, most editors found the twin captain's chairs comfortable, even after several hours of driving. The control layout was relatively simple, since our XLT model offered just a single CD player and manual climate controls (though with the rear air conditioner option, there are separate front and rear cooling zones to keep everyone happy). The overall cabin design and materials gave our long-termer a plain but functional ambience that one editor likened to the McDonald's restaurant chain. For better or for worse, this is a quality present even in the more expensive Explorer Limited. Most editors weren't put off by it, but there is definitely room for improvement. For example, the hard plastic trim on the upper door panels doesn't give the driver a comfortable place to rest his arm on long trips -- this material should be soft-touch. Additionally, we were dismayed to find that opting for the leather seats didn't buy us the small luxury of a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Summing Up
Looking back over the updates, there just wasn't much we disliked about the Explorer. Our only serious complaint had to do with its thirst for gasoline, which, while no greater than that of most truck-based SUVs, is still a burden on the middle-class wallet. As SUVs go, our long-termer was powerful, relatively nimble and safe with more than enough room for four or five passengers. We rarely had need to put its dual-range Control Trac 4WD system to work, but our experience with test vehicles has shown that the Explorer can handle the kind of mud and snow that most consumers would face. And it can do a fair amount of towing as well. If you need a family vehicle that can do a little more than a sedan or a car-based crossover SUV, the Explorer would be a good bet.

You'll also notice that our Explorer required no warranty repairs during the 23,000 miles that it was in our possession, and that's always a good sign for a first-year model. As we noted, though, drivers did notice an occasional transmission clunk. And toward the end of the Ford's stay, we detected a ringing noise from the rear differential between 55 and 60 mph. While neither issue is serious in our opinion, it is possible that repairs will be required at some point.

Based on our pleasant and virtually trouble-free ownership experience, we knew this was a vehicle we would feel comfortable selling to a private individual once our year-long test was complete. The True Market Value (TMV) for a private-party sale of our Ford Explorer, in "clean" condition, was $19,420 as of April 2003. However, the posting of our classified ad coincided with the beginning of the war in Iraq and the sudden rise of gasoline prices. We received absolutely no calls on the SUV for one week. We decided to lower the price below $19,000 to see if that was a psychological barrier, and set it at $18,750. Immediately, the calls poured in.

The first caller, and eventual buyer, was a sales representative and amateur photographer from St. George, Utah. He told us that he had plugged a Los Angeles ZIP code into AutoTrader to seek out a 4WD Explorer in Los Angeles because regional differences make for bargains there. "Driving on Interstate 15 (the north-south interstate in Utah), I see four-wheel-drive SUVs from Southern California heading north to the auctions in Salt Lake City. And I see two-wheel-drive SUVs heading south to auctions in Los Angeles."

Our consumer advice editor reported that the transaction was a real "cyber deal." Phil scanned in the Explorer title and e-mailed it to the prospective buyer so his bank could do a title search before granting a loan. The buyer then scanned in copies of the cashier's check he had obtained to prove he was "for real." His son then flew to Los Angeles airport where Phil located him by calling him on his cell phone. The exchange of checks for title was made and the Explorer drove north, heading for a new life of desert exploration and weekend camping trips. The final selling price was $18,750, which is between "average" and "clean" TMV levels.

True Market Value® at Lease-end: $19,4201
What It Sold For: $18,750
Depreciation: $12,776 or 41 percent of original price paid2
Final Odometer Reading: 23,182
Best Fuel Economy: 19.4 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 8.9 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 14.4 mpg
Total Body Repair Costs: None
Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over 1 year): $233.09
Additional Maintenance Costs: None
Warranty Repairs: None
Non-Warranty Repairs: None
Scheduled Dealer Visits: 2
Unscheduled Dealer Visits: None
Days Out of Service: None
Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None

1This is the private-party sale TMV for a gray 2002 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD (with the optional V8) with 23,182 miles in "clean" condition in the 90404 zip code as of April 2003.

2To calculate depreciation, we compared the original price paid ($31,526 -- before a $2,000 factory rebate was applied) to the actual sale price to a private individual 15 months later.

Changes to the Explorer Since 2002

2003 -- Sport versions of the XLS and XLT debuted, along with a new trim level called NBX (No Boundaries Experience). The NBX included special exterior trim, unique 17-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, a Yakima roof rack, rubber floor mats and a cargo area liner. All-wheel drive was made available on all but the NBX model. XLS models received a standard automatic transmission and CD player for 2003, while XLT models got a chrome grille and metallic interior accents. Eddie Bauer models were equipped with satin-finish 17-inch wheels. Limited models saw upgrades such as chrome exterior trim, chrome wheels, a leather-upholstered center console cover, woodgrain interior trim and an optional tire-pressure monitoring system. An Off-Road Package, including underbody skid plates, an off-road duty suspension, front tow hooks and unique wheels, debuted. Finally, a rear-seat DVD-based entertainment system was made optional on all Explorers, except the XLS and XLS Sport.

Similar Vehicles: Mercury Mountaineer, Lincoln Aviator

Ups and Downs

Ups: Excellent ride and handling characteristics, strong V8, comfortable cabin with user-friendly layout, good crash test scores.

Downs: Lousy fuel economy, low resale value, some low-grade interior materials, hard-to-secure child safety seats in third row.

The Bottom Line: Smaller inside than a minivan and less fuel-efficient than a crossover SUV, the Explorer is nonetheless a stylish and practical family vehicle for determined SUV buyers. If you've got kids or a trailer to haul, so much the better.

Best Logbook Quotes

"I've got to admit, if I had the wherewithal to purchase and maintain this beast, I'd love to keep it in my corral." -- Scott Jacobs

"What a great feeling to stand on the gas upon entering a fast-moving freeway, and experience the rapid surge of power that propels you into the thick of things." -- Kelly Stennick

"There is a utilitarian charm to the cockpit -- and the SUV in general -- that I find appealing. In most ways, it drives as well as much higher-priced domestic SUVs. The only reason to buy a more expensive SUV is if you enjoy spending money or must have a different badge on the hood. Otherwise, go for the Ford." -- Philip Reed

"Other than its size, which is a detriment only when it comes to parallel parking or cramming into 'compact' parking spaces, the Explorer doesn't seem like an SUV at all." -- Brent Romans

Recalls and Problem History

Recalls: None

Problem History:
1. We noticed occasional clunks from the transmission during low-speed driving starting in about November 2002.

2. We observed a ringing noise coming from the rear differential when traveling between 55 and 60 mph as of December 2002.

Dealer Service Reviews

Santa Monica Ford in Santa Monica, Calif.

10,000-mile service, August 2002
"Dennis, the service advisor, didn't try to sell us a 'dealer-recommended' list of maintenance checks. Instead, he agreed to do the oil and filter change and a tire rotation. The estimate was $65; the actual cost was $60.85. Along with the oil change, the mechanic performed a list of 15 inspection points including a visual estimate of brake wear. On the front brake pads, there was still 70 percent left. The rear brakes had 80 percent left.

"Not wanting to take the shuttle back to the office, Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed decided to wait at the dealership for the work to be performed. An hour and a half later, he checked in with Dennis and found the SUV was ready to go. Phil was not overwhelmed by the efficiency of the dealership, but everyone was friendly and, given there was no hard sell for bogus services, it was a positive experience."

20,000-mile service, December 2002
"In preparing the Explorer for her road trip, Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick noticed that it was close to needing its 20,000-mile regular service, so the Explorer spent one day at our local Ford dealer, Santa Monica Ford, where it received the attention it required. The service department rotated the tires, replaced the air filter, cleaned the battery terminals, changed the oil and checked the brakes for a total cost of $172.51."

What Consumers Say

"I too have a 4x4 V8 XLT. I am on my third Explorer in five years ('98 Sport, 2001 Sport Trac, 2002 XLT). I've just had the opportunity to upgrade over the years. This is, by far, the best Explorer. I like everything about this vehicle. It has a fairly smooth ride, much better than the previous models. I like the V8 power. I had to test the handling due to some evasive maneuvers. It has great handling as I never felt threatened by tipping it. The door handles and locks did take some getting used to, but it is now second nature. The looks are clean, inside and out. It feels solid. I have not had the opportunity to go off-roading, but feel confident with Control Trac during bad weather (maybe too confident -- which is a bad thing). My only complaint about the vehicle is its gas mileage. I seem to get better mileage than what you have posted on the site. My worst was just over 14.5 (mostly city). My best was just over 20.5. I tend to do a combination of city/highway so I average about 16. My only problem with the vehicle happened at about seven months. Somewhere in the rear, I developed a leak. It appears to be the rubber piece just inside the hatch (it contains wires for the top brake light, I believe). The dealer added silicone to stop the leak; which I could have done myself. It's going back to have it repaired correctly." -- P. Marrero, Tampa, Fla.

"We are the owners of a 2002 Explorer XLT 4x4. I feel as you do about the vehicle not doing any one thing great but a lot of small things just right. The positives over our '95 model are much more room, better-looking and certainly better driving. The only negatives I can think of are the occasional transmission 'clunk' and what seems like cheaper grade interior quality as compared to our '95 model. Overall, it's a 7.5 out of 10. We have just over 30K on ours." -- KrausK

"I have the above mentioned vehicle with the following: Mineral Gray, Leather, 6 Disc Audiophile Stereo, Adjustable Pedals, Third-Row Seat, Reverse Sensing System, Safety Canopy System, V6. My only complaint (and it is a small one) is that the load floor isn't completely flat due to the third-row seat. Otherwise, this vehicle is more than I expected. I have 5,000 miles on it now and cannot wait to get behind the wheel everyday. The ride of the Explorer is second to none, stiff enough to give you feedback and soft enough so that it doesn't throw you around like a truck. The upgraded audio system was worth the extra money. It doesn't sound as good as the system in my wife's 525, but I didn't have to spend $2,000 on it, either. The four-wheel-drive system works so well you don't even know it's there. I have been on two off-road trips (Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego) and the Explorer took me where I wanted to go. And I got the pictures I was after. The one item I have really fallen in love with and can't live without is the keypad on the driver door. A prime example of its usefulness was when my wife and I went to Big Bear for a ski weekend. After putting on all my ski gear I was really dreading having to carry the keys with me all day (for fear of losing them). Then I remembered I could leave the keys in the center console and lock the doors. When we were done skiing I entered the five-digit code and voilà the door unlocked! What a great convenience!! Now I know where my keys are at all times, no matter where I'm at! There are SUVs out there that offer larger engines, more passenger/cargo room, more torque, but I doubt if there is an SUV out there that does it all as well as the Explorer for the money. I honestly feel that this is the best value for the dollar in the midsize SUV segment. I am looking forward to many years of reliable service from this vehicle." -- C. Lehr, Vista, Calif.

"In May 2001 I was about to graduate from high school, so since I needed transportation to go to college. I went car shopping with my parents. We went to see the Explorer and I really fell in love with the styling and its versatility. We bought it that same day. I went around town showing my new toy and went to pick up some friends. There were mixed opinions about the Explorer ranging from 'it's beautiful' to 'are you crazy?!' Most people told me that they'd had bad experiences concerning reliability, and others said that I was crazy buying an Explorer after the Ford/Firestone fiasco. I'm happy to say that my Explorer proved these people wrong. It was flawless. No visits to the dealer except for maintenance…." -- F. J. Jimenez, Arecibo, Puerto Rico

"I just wanted to drop you guys a line about my 'long-term' 2002 Explorer XLT. It was great up until seven months ago when a drunk in a Chevy TrailBlazer ran a red light as I was going through an intersection. Needless to say, it is now in Explorer heaven! However, I walked away that day, and the guy who hit me (head-on) was not so lucky. I now have a 2003 Explorer XLT that I also love, and is serving me just fine. Something like this makes you think about the day-to-day decisions you make, because I was looking at the TrailBlazer when considering my Explorer. You don't think that a simple decision like what SUV to buy might someday save your life! I guess the IIHS frontal offset crash test (what made up my mind Explorer vs. TrailBlazer) will be a high priority when I replace my Explorer down the road!" -- Tom D., Elkton, Md.

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