Full 2003 Ford Explorer Review
What's New for 2003
For the 2003 Ford Explorer, sport versions of the XLS and XLT debut, along with a new trim level called NBX (No Boundaries Experience). The NBX includes special exterior trim, unique 17-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, a Yakima roof rack, rubber floormats and a cargo area liner. All-wheel drive is newly available on all but the NBX model. XLS models come standard with an automatic transmission and a CD player for 2003, while XLT models get a chrome grille and metallic interior accents. Eddie Bauer models have satin-finish 17-inch wheels this year. Limited models get upgrades such as chromed exterior trim, chrome wheels, a leather-upholstered center console cover and new woodgrain interior trim. A tire-pressure monitoring system is available on Limited models. An Off-Road Package including underbody skid plates, suspension upgrades, front tow hooks and unique wheels debuts. Finally, a rear seat DVD-based entertainment system will be available later in the year.
The Explorer debuted in 1990 as a 1991 model, and achieved instant success in a market that it ultimately defined, if not created. At the time, the trend toward functional, compact, four-door SUVs was in full swing: Jeep Cherokee was first to offer this kind of vehicle in 1984, but Ford, GM, Nissan and Toyota all followed suit at this time. Based on the Ford Ranger pickup, the original Explorer had the winning combination of size, style and utility that people wanted in an SUV. It came as the volume-selling four-door or a less popular two-door, and replaced the Bronco II in Ford's lineup. Initially, just XLS and XLT trim levels were available. In 1992, an Eddie Bauer edition joined the lineup, and a Limited model followed shortly thereafter. Explorer's first major revision occurred in 1995, when it received a new front suspension, revised styling and a new interior. This iteration soldiered on through 2001 with few changes, but by then accusations that the Explorer suffered a high incidence of tire failures and subsequent rollover accidents had tarnished the brand. Ford blamed tire supplier Firestone for equipping the Explorer with flawed Wilderness AT tires, and initiated a massive recall to replace the original equipment rubber. Firestone blamed the Explorer's design and Ford's recommendation that the tires be inflated to a relatively low 26 psi. Neither company publicly pointed fingers at consumers indifferent to the dangers of overloading vehicles, expecting a truck to handle like a car, failing to monitor tire pressures or dismissing the importance of seatbelts as possible contributors to blowouts and deaths. For 2002, just as the Explorer rollover debacle was winding down, Ford debuted the completely redesigned Explorer. A substantial improvement over the original, the new truck had a wider track, longer wheelbase, independent rear suspension and seating for up to seven adults. It should have been a runaway success, but the Ford-Firestone media fight kept buyers away from showrooms and forced Ford to offer cash rebates and low-interest financing to keep sales afloat. Notably, the two-door model, the Explorer Sport, and a four-door pickup version, the Explorer Sport Trac, are based on the aged first-generation platform. The new Explorer platform is used by the four-door model only. The 2003 Ford Explorer is little different from the 2002. Minor trim revisions have been made to the core model lineup: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited. Sport versions of the XLS and XL debut, and a new NBX model is introduced with special trim and equipment designed to appeal to active outdoorsy types.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2003 Ford Explorer is available only as a four-door model in XLS, XLS Sport, XLT, XLT Sport, NBX, Eddie Bauer and Limited trims. The XLS comes standard with an automatic transmission and a CD player for 2003. The XLS Sport includes alloy wheels, side step bars, wheel lip moldings, an upgraded center console and floor mats. XLT models get a chrome grille and metallic interior accents, while XLT Sport adds special platinum gloss exterior trim and 17-inch machine-finished alloy wheels. The new NBX model includes special exterior trim, unique 17-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, a Yakima roof rack, rubber floor mats and a cargo area liner. Eddie Bauer also receives 17-inch wheels this year, while Limiteds are upgraded with chromed exterior trim, chrome wheels, a leather-upholstered center console cover and new wood grain interior trim. Major options on the Explorer include a six-disc 290-watt sound system, rear-seat climate control, a power moonroof and a rear-seat DVD-based entertainment system. There are also a number of safety-related options available.
Powertrains and Performance
Standard on all Explorers is an SOHC V6 engine making 210 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque. Optional on all models except the XLS is a 4.6-liter V8 engine good for 239 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission and two-, four- or all-wheel drive is available with either engine. The rear wheels propel 2WD models, while 4WD models have Ford's Control Trac system, which automatically sends power to the front wheels when the rears slip. Properly equipped, an Explorer can tow a maximum of 7,300 pounds.
Four-wheel-disc ABS is standard. The Explorer can also be outfitted with a Safety Canopy system of airbags that includes a rollover sensor. Power adjustable pedals are optional on XLT, while a reverse sensing system can be added to all but XLS. Advance Trac stability control is optional on all trims except XLS, but is not available on AWD models. A tire-pressure monitoring system is optional on the Limited. In government crash testing, the 2003 Ford Explorer received a four-star protection rating for the driver and a five-star rating for the front passenger. Side-impact testing has not been conducted, but the NHTSA gave the Explorer three-star rollover rating, good for an SUV. In offset crash testing, the IIHS gave the Explorer a "Good" rating and called it a "Best Pick" in the SUV class.
Interior Design and Special Features
Depending on the model you choose, the interior trim of the Explorer can range from bland to close-to-plush. All the controls are neatly arranged, and the gauges are clear and readable, but it's function over form. It's feasible to carry two adults in the third-row seats, but choosing the third-row option also reduces available cargo space. Seven-passenger Explorers max out at 81.3 cubic feet of cargo space, while five-passenger versions offer a more competitive 88 cubic feet. The folded seat also makes for a slightly sloped load floor, so if you value cargo-carrying capacity over people-moving ability, stick with the five-passenger version.
Any Explorer is a joy to drive, as far as SUVs go. Taking much of the credit for this praise is the rear independent suspension, which provides a smooth ride and nicely planted wheels on rough pavement. Power from either the V6 or V8 engine is acceptable. Though a true all-wheel-drive system is newly available for 2003, we see little need for it; the Control Trac 4WD system works transparently to distribute power to all four wheels as conditions warrant. The Explorer is also comfortable, with space for up to seven passengers.