In 1998, Ford sold 431,488 Explorers in the United States. That's a lot of Explorers. This mid-sized SUV has consistently been near the top of automotive sales charts since its introduction. But what is it about the Explorer that has convinced so many people to plunk down $20,000 to $30,000? We've tested plenty of Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers, but we wanted additional insight. We wanted answers. We wanted something to drive to lunch. We picked up a '99 Explorer for a road test.
We've enjoyed this SUV's ability to provide lots of utility in an easy-to-drive package. However, we've driven only four-door models, so this time, we picked up a two-door Oxford White Explorer Sport. It had two-wheel drive, the 4.0-liter SOHC V6, and a five-speed automatic transmission. Highlights from the options included a trailer-towing package, a power moonroof, the Premium Sport group, the Convenience group, and the Comfort group.
In two-door form, the Explorer looks both modern and rugged. The two doors translate to a shorter wheelbase: 101.7 inches vs. 111.6 inches for the four-door. It also weighs about 200 pounds less. Our test truck was outfitted with 15-inch chrome wheels, fog lamps, and step bars from the Premium Sport group. These exterior add-ons came in handy for identifying our Explorer in mall parking lots. We definitely saw ourselves both coming and going with this vehicle. At one point during our evaluation, one of our editors noticed that he was driving in traffic surrounded by four other white Ford Explorers. Make no mistake: these things are everywhere.
Other than helping our vanity, none of the Premium Sport items was particularly useful. The step bars extended beyond the width of the vehicle. Shorter stature people might like the step bars to aid in entry/egress, but otherwise they were a fashion risk for occupants who didn't use them. If the bars were dirty, care needed to be taken in order to avoid pant leg or shoe contact on the bars. Difficulty of entry/egress was average for this type of vehicle.
More useful equipment came with the Comfort group. The "puddle" lamps are small lights mounted underneath the side mirrors. When the doors are unlocked with the remote or opened, the puddle lights turn on to project a small circle of light next to the door. It's a simple feature, but was useful to see what we were stepping on at night as we exited the vehicle. The Comfort group also added items like an overhead console that displays compass direction and temperature, a keypad, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, automatic headlights, and auto-locking doors. The mirror has a special electrochromic coating that dims at night, reducing the glare from headlights. The automatic headlights worked fine, though we initially thought something was wrong when the headlights were staying on after we shut off the ignition and pulled the key. A flip through the manual told us that they are supposed to do that. A small sliding button on the rearview mirror adjusts the time delay that the headlights stay on after the ignition is killed.
But for $2,340, do you really need this stuff? We could easily go without it, but Ford has sneakily made the Comfort group the only way to get a power-operated driver seat. The same goes for the Convenience group. This $750 option is the only way to get cruise control and a tilt steering wheel on the Explorer Sport.
The $2,340 seat did live up to its group's name. We were quite happy with the comfort it provided, though the standard Ford-brand power-seat buttons on the side of the seat were, as usual, a bit disappointing. They were small and not as intuitive as one would like. And while nothing was horribly wrong with the Explorer Sport's interior, it never went out of its way to impress. In a four-door Explorer, the rear seats are comfortable. But in the Explorer Sport, the rear seats were small and did not provide adequate back or head support. In addition, the materials and overall interior finish were quite average. The center storage bin was large, but the door bins were small. Sitting still, the sunvisor whacked us in the forehead if we moved it from its folded-down position to the driver door position. Does this mean we were sitting too close? If so, then why was it that the smallish radio controls were too far away and couldn't be operated without leaning forward? And why was it that the first button our hand naturally fell to in order to operate the windows was for the passenger's window, not the driver's? It's things like these that make us wonder how this SUV became so popular.
Like the four-door model, the Explorer Sport fares better when its utility is considered. Despite the short wheelbase, the Explorer can still haul 70.2 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats folded down. This beats a two-door Chevrolet Blazer (67 cubic feet) and a two-door Isuzu Rodeo (62 cubic feet), and dominates smaller 'utes like the Chevrolet Tracker or the Toyota RAV4. With the rear seats folded (the process is easy to do), the Explorer Sport can still haul nearly as much cargo as a four-door Explorer with its rear seats folded. Opening and closing the rear hatch lacked any type of drama.
Further utility could be gained from four-wheel drive. But alas, our test vehicle was faithful to its rear wheels only. As such, we didn't bother taking the Explorer off the pavement. Without four-wheel drive, the Explorer is little better than a car in terms of its capability in poor conditions. Actually, it might be less capable. Traction control, something found quite frequently on cars priced similarly to our vehicle, isn't an option on 2WD Explorers.
Contained on pavement, our Explorer didn't do itself any favors. Over small bumps or ripples, it was fine. But once it encountered medium- or large-sized bumps, it was distinctly truck-like in the way it bounded and hopped. This was likely due to the shorter wheelbase. Pushed beyond normal commuting-type efforts, we noticed a steering system that was unresponsive off center and a brake pedal that required too much effort. Only when we were on the throttle were we impressed. The power from the 4.0-liter SOHC V6 (210 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque) was very useful in urban situations, and it allows a maximum towing capacity of 4,900 pounds. On the freeway, the Explorer cruised relatively quietly, with minimal road noise and no squeaks or rattles.
Overall, we were disappointed with the Explorer Sport that we drove. With 4WD, we could have treated our Explorer like an SUV instead of like a car with a huge trunk. With four doors instead of two, maybe that big-time driver's-side blind spot would have gone away and the rear seats would have become more useful. Maybe we would have been more forgiving of a stripper Explorer Sport instead of the $26,505 model we tested. Maybe we would be more impressed if we were "Horse Trailer Monthly" instead of Edmunds.com. Maybe. But none of those things happened. Which leaves us scratching our heads about why somebody would buy an Explorer Sport 2WD. It can't go off-road. And on the road, its manners and interior are humbled by a roomy, new $15,000 Ford Focus. If you want to purchase an Explorer, we recommend a four-door model.