The Ford Explorer is widely regarded as the catalyst that started America's love affair with the SUV back in the early 1990s. Certainly there were SUVs before the Explorer, but they were mostly utilitarian in nature. The Explorer was the first go-to SUV for the car-buying public. Throughout its life, the Ford Explorer has delivered versatility, a reasonable amount of comfort, affordability and, perhaps most importantly, more style than a station wagon or minivan.
Early generations of the Explorer were built like trucks, but newer Explorers are much more carlike in both construction and road manners. It's given up some off-road prowess over the decades — though it's still more competent in the dirt than many competitors — in exchange for improved handling, ride quality, fuel efficiency, acceleration, and better interior materials with more luxury and technology options. The justifiably popular Explorer should be part of any serious SUV search.
Current Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer offers a quiet cabin made with quality materials, seating for seven, and a range of engine choices. With all the bells and whistles, the top trims rival luxury offerings for performance, comfort and technology. Dipping into the options menu can quickly add cost, but the Explorer has a lot to offer buyers.
There are five trim levels: base, XLT, Limited, Sport and Platinum. Though even the base version comes well-equipped, moving up the list provides luxuries such as leather seating, the Sync voice command system, a rearview camera, keyless ignition and entry, and upgraded audio systems. In addition to its potent engine, the Sport trim features a sport-tuned suspension as well as unique interior and exterior trim details. Optional highlights (depending on trim level) include a navigation system, a rear-seat entertainment system, adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel and even an automatic parallel parking system. Stability control and a multitude of airbags are standard, with blind-spot and collision warning systems available on upper trims.
A 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is standard on all but the Sport trim, which comes with a turbocharged version good for 365 hp. Optional on all but the Sport and Titanium is a fuel-efficient turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder that makes 280 horsepower and returns 22 mpg combined (19 city/27 highway). All engines are hooked up to a six-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard on all but the Sport and Titanium, which have all-wheel drive standard. The latter is optional for all other Explorers.
In reviews, we've found the Ford Explorer to be one of the best choices for a family-oriented SUV. It drives well, gets good fuel economy for its class, and still retains the versatility that made people like SUVs in the first place. Fitted with most of its optional high-tech features, the Explorer is also one of the most advanced SUVs available, luxury brand or not. The Explorer's most notable downside is that it doesn't provide as much third-row and cargo space as some rival large crossover SUVs. Our favorite version is definitely the Sport for its buttoned-down handling and improved steering response. Other trims can seem sluggish with the smaller engines, and handling can feel a bit ponderous.
Used Ford Explorer Models
The latest Ford Explorer represents the fourth-generation Ford Explorer, which debuted in 2011. It represents a major change for the nameplate, as it switched from body-on-frame construction (most commonly found in pickup trucks) to unibody construction (which cars use). This move alone radically improved the Explorer's on-road manners. A whole new range of more powerful and more efficient engines was also introduced, along with a completely new interior and upgraded technology. This generation represented a quantum leap over the previous one.
Some changes have occurred within the current generation. The turbocharged V6 didn't arrive until 2014, and the 2.3-liter four-cylinder debuted for 2016. Prior to that the Explorer's optional four-cylinder engine was a less powerful 2.0-liter producing 240 hp. It could only be had with front-wheel drive as well. Explorers from 2016 and up also feature the latest Sync 3 infotainment interface (older models have the finicky and often-criticized MyFord Touch system), updated styling and new safety features. If you're shopping for a used Explorer of this vintage, it might be worth trying to find a '16 or newer.
The third-generation Explorer ran from 2002 to 2010, with a significant refresh in 2006. A longer wheelbase and an independent rear suspension allowed room for a fairly accommodating third-row seat and also improved ride and handling performance. A 210-hp V6 was joined by a new 4.6-liter V8 with 239 hp, and both were matched to a five-speed automatic transmission. Initial trim levels included the XLS, XLT, and the more upscale Limited and Eddie Bauer.
For 2003, a few new trim levels debuted, including the XLS Sport and the NBX (No Boundaries eXperience — we're not making that up). The latter came with all-terrain tires, special trim and a Yakima roof rack. An off-road package became available as well, complete with a beefed-up suspension and skid plates. The following year, equipment levels were shuffled, stability control was made available on most trims (previously it could only be had on V8 models), and Limited and Eddie Bauer models got a quad bucket-seating option. The stability control system was upgraded with roll stability control for 2005.
For 2006, a substantial update took place that included revised styling inside and out, an improved frame, enhanced safety systems and a more powerful V8. The latter made 292 hp (up from the previous 239 hp), though the 210-hp 4.0-liter V6 continued unchanged. The V8 came paired with a new six-speed automatic transmission. Safety equipment was upgraded, too, as front-seat side airbags and stability control were made standard on all Explorers. More recent Explorers benefited from the arrival of the voice-activated Sync music and phone interface (2008) and a revised navigation system (2009).
In general, we liked this Explorer and found value in the excellent ride and handling characteristics, comfortable and roomy cabin and, on V8 models, strong power and high towing capacity. Though later outclassed by newer crossover SUVs in terms of comfort and design, this Explorer is a solid pick, particularly if you plan to use a V8 model for towing.
Model years 1995-2001 represent the second-generation Explorer. Though neither as refined nor as powerful as the generation that followed, this group is still a respectable choice for an SUV. For most of this generation's run, three engines were available: a standard 160-hp V6, an optional 210-hp V6 ('97 and later) and a 210-hp 5.0-liter V8. The familiar XL, XLT, Eddie Bauer and Limited were the available trims, and there was a two-door Explorer known as the Sport. Editorial reviews at the time noted that the Explorer had a comfortable cabin and decent utility but fared poorly in terms of road handling and off-road ability.
The original, first-generation Ford Explorer debuted in 1990 as a 1991 model, and it replaced the Bronco II in Ford's lineup. It achieved instant success in a market that it ultimately defined, if not created. 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. Initially, just the XLS and XLT trim levels were available. In 1992, an Eddie Bauer edition joined the lineup, and a Limited model followed shortly thereafter. For power, these Explorers had a 155-hp V6. Output went up slightly to 160 hp in 1993; this was also the year Ford made antilock brakes standard equipment.