Though not the first compact four-door sport-utility vehicle (Jeep's Cherokee and Isuzu's Trooper had been introduced around 1984) Ford's Explorer would prove to be one of the most popular vehicles in this relatively new market segment. Debuting as an early 1991 model, the Explorer could be had as either a two-door or four-door, both as either two- or four-wheel drive. Unlike some competitors, the two-door was built on a shorter (102.1-inch) wheelbase than the four-door, which had a 111.9-inch wheelbase. The logic behind this was that those who wanted a sportier, more maneuverable vehicle would go with the two-door whereas those who needed more passenger room would opt for the quattroporte. Curb weights ranged from around 3,700 pounds for a 2WD two-door to about 4,000 pounds for a 4WD four-door.
Explorers were basically available in three trim levels. The two-door models went from base XL, to Sport, to Eddie Bauer and four-door versions moved from base XL, to XLT and then to Eddie Bauer. The Sport added features such as blacked-out exterior accents, aluminum wheels and a few interior refinements like illuminated visor mirrors. An XLT threw in power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control and tilt wheel. The Eddie Bauer Explorers were the most stylish rigs with two-tone paint schemes (such as the popular dark green and beige combination), alloy wheels and plush interiors.
With rugged body-on-frame construction, a 4.0-liter, 155-horsepower V6 engine hooked up to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox powered all Explorers. Two four-wheel-drive systems were offered: an effortless "Touch-Drive" version with buttons on the dash and nothing cluttering the floor that allowed one to "shift on the fly," and for traditional 4WD buffs, a manual system with the lever on the floor and the manually locked front hubs. An antilock braking system for the rear brakes was standard as full ABS was not yet available.
For those who actually used these vehicles for some of their intended purposes, 4WD Explorers came with a Low range for serious off-road duty. And towing capacity was rated at up to 5,600 pounds, depending on the model and choice of equipment.
With many attributes such as available luxury car-like amenities (leather seating, a JBL audio system with CD player, etc.) combined with a high driving position, up to 81 cubic feet of cargo capacity (in the four-door) and truck toughness, the Explorer was an immediate success. In fact, for 1991 it placed third in truck sales, not bad for its first year.
The Mazda Navajo was also introduced as a 1991. Available only as a 4WD, two-door vehicle, the Navajo was essentially a rebadged Explorer and shared almost everything with its Ford twin. To set the two apart, the Navajo had a different grille, taillights and wheels. Inside it was even harder to tell one from the other, as seat fabrics and the steering wheel hub were the only apparent differences.
Two trim levels for the Navajo were offered, base and LX. The base version wasn't exactly stripped, as power windows/locks/mirrors were standard. The LX added features such as extra interior illumination and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. An optional premium package loaded up this sport-ute with luxuries including A/C, stereo with cassette deck, cruise control, sport seats with power lumbar adjustment and a pop-up/removable moonroof.
Explorer pricing ranged from $16,375 for a base 2WD two-door to $21,701 for an Eddie Bauer 4WD four-door. Mazda's pricing for the Navajo fell in line with comparably equipped Explorer two-doors.
Minor changes occurred for 1992 to Ford's red-hot contender in the SUV market.
A numerically lower, 3.27:1 rear axle ratio replaced the former 3.55:1 unit to improve gas mileage and reduce engine rpm at highway speeds. Performance of the air-conditioning system was also improved and different alloy wheels debuted for XLT and Eddie Bauer models. Luxury and convenience were both enhanced by the fitment of six-way power adjustment for the optional sport seats (standard in EB), dual front cupholders in the center console and a one-touch down feature for the driver's power window.
A 2WD Navajo was available for 1992, geared toward those folks who liked the cargo capacity, high seating position and sporty image of an SUV but didn't need the 4WD. Base models were now called DX, more in keeping with the Japanese manufacturer's way of referring to their base versions (such as Mazda's own 626 DX). Otherwise, Mazda's "Explorer" had so little changed that most of the photography used in the 1991 brochure was used for the 1992 brochure.
A major safety improvement, four-wheel antilock brakes, bowed for the 1993 Explorer. The stress-reducing binders were made standard on all Explorers. The 4.0-liter, V6 engine picked up 5 horsepower, for a total of 160 ponies. In keeping with the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, other changes were minimal — a new steering wheel, revised instrument graphics and new wheel designs completed the revisions to America's top-selling midsize SUV.
As expected, the Navajo picked up the same mechanical upgrades as the Explorer; the increased power for the V6 and the antilock brakes. Unlike the Explorer, however, the only other change was an optional CD player.
With a revamped version due for 1995, 1994 saw virtually no changes to the Explorer, save for the addition of a luxurious, leather-lined Limited four-door model. And new five-spoke alloy wheels for the Navajo LX were the lone change for this, the Mazda's last year.
Evolutionary and worthwhile upgrades took place for 1995 as the Explorer continued to ride a huge wave of popularity. The body received a facelift in the form of a new grille and light clusters (both fore and aft), a downward-sloping nose and new bumpers. The rhinoplasty added 4 inches to the Explorer's length, though other dimensions were unchanged.
While the previous Explorer had no airbags, the '95 came with both driver's and passenger's side bags. Other interior upgrades included a new instrument panel and seat trim as well as the addition of rear headrests.
A new "Control Trac" 4WD system allowed full-time use of the 4WD system by automatically sending power to the front wheels when the rears started to slip. Prior to this, the Explorer's 4WD could be used only on slippery surfaces and required the driver to make a decision whether to employ 4WD or not. And a Low selection was still offered for serious four-wheeling. Also the front suspension was revamped, with a more modern independent design replacing the old twin I-beam (2WD) and twin Traction-beam (4WD) architecture of the previous Explorers.
A big improvement underhood arrived for 1996, when Ford made their 5.0-liter V8 available in the Explorer. Boasting 210 horsepower, the V8 gave the Explorer a noticeable boost in performance, as well as an increase in towing capacity from 5,000 to 6,500 pounds. Unfortunately, it could be ordered only on four-door XLTs with 2WD.
Helping out the backs of parents with small children was a newly optional, built-in child seat for four-door Explorers. Finally, the Limited model acquired new alloy wheels.
1997 was a big year for the Explorer, as not only did a host of mechanical improvements take place, but also after a two-year stint as an only child, it once again had a twin, this time in the form of Mercury's Mountaineer.
Functional upgrades were the introduction of a powerful, 4.0-liter V6 sporting an overhead cam (OHC) design and 205 horsepower. And this potent powerplant was hooked up to a new five-speed automatic gearbox. This V6 brought the number of Explorer engines to three; the standard 4.0 V6 with 160 horsepower, the new V6 mentioned above, and the 5.0-liter V8, which could now be had with AWD and on any four-door model. On V8 Explorers, a full-time AWD (all-wheel drive) system was fitted. All-wheel drive differed from Control Trac 4WD in that the AWD system always powered all four wheels equally, whereas the Control Trac system normally sent almost all power to the rear wheels except when slippage was detected, in which case more power went to the front wheels.
Ford's cousin, Mercury, went after a piece of the increasingly popular SUV pie by intro-ducing the Mountaineer. Aimed at the upscale consumer, the Mountaineer was a loaded Explorer four-door (with the V8 and AWD), uniquely garnished with a chromed-out grille and different side moldings and tailgate trim.
Holding fast to its status as America's best-selling SUV (with nearly three million sold up to this point), the Explorer was further refined for 1998. Safety was enhanced by way of second-generation (reduced deployment force) airbags and improved antilock brakes. Helping to keep Explorers with their rightful owners was a new anti-theft "SecuriLock" system (which required an electronically coded key to start the vehicle) that was standard on all models.
Two-door Explorers now came strictly in Sport trim as the XL was dropped, while four-door models continued to be offered in XL, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited versions.
From the outside, one could tell a '98 Explorer from a previous year by the rear end, which had new taillights and a bigger liftgate window. Interior perks for this year included steering wheel-mounted audio and climate controls for the Limited trim level and the debut of Ford's kickin', subwoofer-equipped "Mach" audio system.
The Mountaineer lineup was expanded to cater to the bourgeois by including 2WD, as well as V6-powered, versions of the SUV. The V6 chosen for Mountaineer duty was the high-output, 205-horsepower, OHC unit that was paired with the five-speed automatic transmission. This meant that in addition to the V8 AWD Mountaineer, buyers also had a choice of less costly 2WD or 4WD versions powered by the V6.
To further differentiate the Mercury from the Explorer, a new grille and headlight clusters debuted along with standard two-tone paint. And as with the Ford, audio system choices grew to please the most ardent audiophile.
1999 brought advances in safety to the Explorer. Side-impact airbags were optional as increased protection against red-light runners. And an available Reverse Sensing System alerted drivers to out-of-sight objects behind the vehicle. The system used sonar sensors (mounted in the rear bumper) and beeped with increasing frequency as the vehicle got closer to the object(s) in its path. It also made parallel parking the Explorer much easier.
Giving the Explorer's looks a slight update were new fog lights, front bumper and body moldings. Limited models got new wheels and some faux wood trim sprinkled through-out the cabin. A new XLS four-door debuted (positioned under the XLT), which included power everything, A/C, and alloy wheels. Optional Sport packages for the XLS and XLT models added aggressive wheel lip moldings, side step bars and upgraded wheels and tires.
Helping to appease environmentalists who decried SUVs for being gas-guzzling, ozone-killing monsters, was the '99 Explorer's low-emission vehicle (LEV) status. This meant that it spewed forth 40 percent less pollution than non-LEV rated,
1999 passenger cars. This is even more impressive when one considers that trucks don't have to meet the same stringent emissions standards as cars.
Mountaineer's modifications amounted to the same optional side airbags and Reverse Sensing System as on the Explorer.
Y2K was mostly uneventful for the Explorer, as the big news for 2000 was the dropping of the XL trim level.
Similarly, the Mountaineer received but a couple of new option groups, dubbed Premier and (taking a name from an old Mercury full-size sedan) Monterey. The Monterey package included color-keyed moldings, bumpers and running boards as well as a few minor interior upgrades such as woodgrain trim. The Premier added steering -wheel audio controls and unique paint and wheels.
2001 was a mixed bag for the Explorer. The four-door received the 205-horsepower, 4.0-liter, OHC V6 as standard, as both the former base engine (the 160-horse V6) and the five-speed manual gearbox were dropped. The addition of child seat-tether anchors in the second row was the only other change for this Explorer.
On the other hand, the two-door Explorer Sport got a complete facelift, and further distanced itself from the four-door. But an Edmunds.com dissertation on this Explorer will have to wait until that generation has run its course.
The sole change for the Mountaineer was the addition of the child seat-tether anchors.
The 2002 Explorer underwent the biggest changes since the truck debuted as a 1991. Nearly everything except the name was new. Bigger than before, the Explorer's clean and gimmick-free body style and sound cabin design were a hit with consumers and car reviewers alike.
A third seat became optional, made possible by a 2-inch stretch in wheelbase, a 2.5-inch-wider track and a new independent rear suspension that lowered the rear floor 7 inches. Other benefits of the independent rear end were improved ride and handling characteristics.
There were four trim levels available: XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited. Historically, the most popular Explorer tended to be the well-equipped XLT. The Eddie Bauer and Limited had virtually every luxury item standard, such as heated leather seats, automatic climate control and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Standard safety features on all models included ABS with electronic brake distribution and a Securilock passive anti-theft system. Safety options consisted of side curtain airbags and a Reverse Sensing System.
Under the hood, either the workhorse 4.0-liter V6 making 210 horsepower or a new 4.6-liter V8 pumping out 240 ponies could be found. Only the XLS could be had with a five-speed manual gearbox. All other models, be they V6- or V8-powered, had a five-speed automatic transmission, which was optional on the XLS. A choice of two- or four-wheel drive was offered for each trim level.
The Explorer Sport, the two-door that rode on the old platform, continued virtually unchanged.
The Mercury Mountaineer came as a single trim level with several unique design elements, such as vertical grille bars, wrap-over headlamp clusters and aluminum interior trim that distinguished it from its more common Explorer cousin.
One key difference between the two was that the Mountaineer offered an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system with no buttons to push, as opposed to the Ford's four-wheel-drive Control Trac system. AWD means that all four wheels are powered all the time. The Explorer's system had 4x4 High and 4x4 Lo settings that were meant for slippery driving conditions, not dry roads.Control Trac, however did have an Auto setting, which operated in a rear-drive mode until wheel slippage was detected, at which point, torque was directed to the front wheels, as well.
For 2003, the Explorer line expanded with the addition of Sport versions of the XLS and XLT trims 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 and a cargo area liner. All-wheel drive could be had on all but the NBX while XLS trims came standard with an automatic transmission. The volume-selling XLT got fancier via a chrome grille and metallic cabin accents. Other upgrades included more chrome exterior trim and new woodgrain interior accents for the Limited and an Off-Road Package complete with skid plates and a beefed-up suspension.
The Explorer Sport, meaning the aging two-door version, soldiered on essentially unchanged what would be its last year. Meanwhile, the Mountaineer was offered in three trims — base Convenience, midlevel Luxury and loaded Premier — ostensibly to broaden its appeal and attainability.
Safety advanced somewhat for 2004 when Ford's AdvanceTrac stability control system, previously available only on V8 models, became optional for all V6 Explorers except the XLS and XLS Sport. The NBX adopted the Off-Road Package as standard. A quad bucket seat arrangement became optional for the Limited and Eddie Bauer trims (if equipped with the third-row seat). Lastly, a tire-pressure monitor became standard on XLS Sport and higher trims.
Key changes for the Mountaineer included the availability of stability control for the two-wheel-drive versions and, for the upper two trims, the option of second-row bucket seats and a standard tire-pressure monitor.
With the exception of minor exterior and cabin trim changes and the adoption of roll stability control for the AdvanceTrac stability control system, 2005 was a quiet year for the Explorer. For the Mountaineer, stability control became standard on all models and a Designer Series package, with suede cabin trim and unique wheels, debuted.
After four years it was time for a mid-cycle refresh, so for 2006 Ford's popular family SUV received styling tweaks that included a new grille, tailgate and taillights. Inside, there was now more sound insulation for a quieter ride. Underneath, a stiffened frame and new shocks boosted the ride and handling characteristics.
Powertrain changes included revising the V6 to cut emissions and replacing the two-valve-per-cylinder V8 with a new three-valve version that made 292 hp, an increase of overmore than 50 ponies. The new V8 came paired with a new transmission, a six-speed unit that optimized performance and fuel economy. More standard safety features debuted, with all Explorers now having stability control and front side airbags. Trim levels were simplified with XLS, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited comprising the lineup.
After the previous year's significant changes, 2007 saw detail refinements. The XLS was dropped, an audio input jack (for MP3 players) was added and new options debuted, including a navigation system, a heated windshield and power-retracting running boards. Triathletes may have been flattered that an "Ironman" package was offered for the XLT, consisting of a monochromatic black exterior scheme with a two-tone leather interior.
The Mountaineer's trim levels were trimmed from three to two, leaving the base and Premier versions while side curtain airbags and an audio input jack became standard for all.
For 2008, side curtain airbags were made standard across the board, while a capless fuel filling system debuted later in the model year. Ford's superb "Sync" system, which allowed voice commands for cell phones, the audio system, an iPod and the navigation system. The Explorer jumped on the big wheel bandwagon with the new option of 20-inch polished alloy wheels.
Standard features took a downward turn for both Mountaineer trim levels, as the base version lost its leather seating and dual-zone climate control while the Premier lost its power-folding third-row seat, parking assist and heated front seats. These all could be had as options, however.
The XLT Sport returned for 2009 while more substantial improvements included the addition of trailer sway control to the stability control system and the option of Sirius Travel Link for the navigation system. The latter included traffic reports as well as the ability to show local gas prices, weather forecasts and even sports scores and movie listings.