First generation (1991–1994)
First generation Explorers were equipped with the then new 155 hp 4.0 L V-6. Vehicles came with either Ford’s own 4-speed A4LD automatic transmission, or Mazda’s 5-speed M5OD manual transmission. Like the Bronco II it replaced, it was an SUV derivative of the Ranger pickup, thus Explorers came equipped with many of the Ranger’s optional features. Explorers were available in both 3-door and 5-door body styles and with either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. The four-wheel drive versions were equipped with a Borg Warner 13–54 part-time four-wheel drive transfer case. The 13–54 was available with either “Touch Drive” electronic push-button shifting or manual lever-operated shifting. Both were “shift-on-the-fly” designs that allowed the SUVs to be shifted from two-wheel drive to “four-high” at any speed and into “four-low” when the vehicle was stopped.
Explorers initially came in 4 trim levels: the base model XL (later called XLS), XLT, Sport (3-door version), and the upscale Eddie Bauer edition. For the 1993 model year, engine output was increased by 5 hp for a total of 160 hp. The Limited edition, added for the 1993 model year, was available only in the 5-door body style and was positioned at the top of the lineup above the Eddie Bauer edition. It featured automatic headlights, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, fog lamps, a center roof console with compass and outside thermometer, unique wheels and grille, and an automatic transmission as standard equipment. The grill and headlight trims on the Limited edition were paint-matched to the body color, unlike the chrome (XLT) or black plastic (XL) versions on other trim levels.
A common complaint about the first generation models is that the light-duty A4LD automatic transmission, which was basically the 3-speed Ford C3 transmission with an overdrive gear, was not well-suited for towing and was unable to cope with higher power output from modified engines. The A4LD was also known to suffer premature failure of the overdrive gear (or 4th gear) when used to frequently tow or haul heavy loads. Improved fluid cooling using aftermarket transmission coolers can alleviate these issues. Also, the automatic locking front hubs on four-wheel drive vehicles tended to fail prematurely; the manual versions, made for Ford by Warn, suffered from fewer reliability problems.
Second generation (1995–2001)
The Explorer saw significant exterior, interior, and suspension updates for the 1995 model year. The 4.0 L V-6 from the previous generation carries over. The “Twin Traction Beam” (TTB) front suspension was replaced with a more car-like independent front suspension. The Ford Explorer lineup now consisted of two models, the 3-door Explorer Sport and the 5-door Explorer. The Limited was once again the top of the line model. The selectable automatic ControlTrac four wheel drive system debuted with a two-speed dual range transfer case featuring three drive modes: 2WD, 4WD auto, and 4WD low. The 1995 Ford Explorer was the first production vehicle to use a neon center high-mount stop lamp. It was also the first vehicle in its segment to have dual front airbags. Like the Explorer 5-door, the Explorer Sport was significantly redesigned for 1995. The Eddie Bauer trim level was replaced with Expedition on 3-door Explorers for the 1995 model year, but the Expedition trim was removed from the lineup for the 1996 model year, as the name was being reused for the new 1997 Ford Expedition.
2001 saw the introduction of the Explorer Sport Trac, which put a small pickup bed behind four normal SUV doors. The Sport Trac was similar in design to the Ford F-150 SuperCrew, except the F-150 was a full-size pickup truck.
Third generation (2002–2005)
The 5-door Explorer and its companion the Mercury Mountaineer were redesigned entirely for the 2002 model year, gaining a similar appearance to its big brother, the Ford Expedition. The new design is frequently mistaken for the later second generation Expedition, having rounded wheel sockets and larger back lights along with a more rounded appearance overall. The previous generation’s 4.0 L SOHC 12 valve V-6 engine carried over, however the Windsor V8 was replaced by the 4.6 L 2V SOHC 16 valve V-8. Though in the Sport Trac variant, the 4.0 L SOHC 12 valve V-6 was rated at just 205 hp, 242 ft·lb of torque.
A third row seat became available for the first time, bringing total passenger capacity to seven. The Mazda 5-speed manual and the 5-speed Ford C3-derived automatic transmissions were available, but the 2002 model year was the last year the larger 5-door could be ordered with a manual transmission. Trim packages were now the base Sport Value, Sport Choice, XLS, Sport Premium, XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited, in order of luxury trim-offerings. The 2002–2004 models also saw stability control as an option, Ford’s AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control system. The stability control system became standard for the 2005 model year.
For the third generation, Ford installed fully independent rear suspension in the 5-door Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer – but not in the 3-door Sport model. This replaced the non-independent “live axle” rear suspension used in previous model year Explorers. With a fully independent rear suspension, each rear wheel connects to the rear differential via a half-shaft drive axle.
Third generation Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers and Lincoln Aviators often acquire a single crack visible vertically on the plastic panel between the window and the rest of the lift gate, close to the center respective badge. This led to Ford switching to a more conventional one-piece lift gate design on the following generation.
Fourth generation (2006–2010)
The Ford Explorer was updated for the 2006 model year on a new frame. It was upsized slightly because a then-brand new crossover utility vehicle was added to Ford’s SUV/CUV lineup, the Ford Freestyle, in between the Explorer SUV and the compact Ford Escape CUV. Along with this new, stronger chassis, Ford updated the interior, redesigned the rear suspension and added power-folding third-row seats. Also, a tire pressure monitoring system and electronic stability control became standard equipment. Power running boards, like the ones from the Lincoln Navigator, were also made available on the Explorer and Mountaineer; the running boards lower to allow easier access when entering the vehicle, then retract upon door closure.
The 210 hp 4.0L 12-valve SOHC V-6 was once again the standard engine. A more powerful 292 hp 4.6L 24-valve SOHC V-8, similar to the Fifth-generation Ford Mustang’s engine, was available as an option. The 6-speed automatic transmission was made standard equipment with the V-8 engine as well. The five-speed automatic transmission was advanced.
In 2007 Ford Explorer received a few minor updates including standard AUX input on all stereos and optional power running boards, heated windshield, Ironman Package, and XLT heated leather seat package.
For 2008, Ford added side curtain airbags across the Explorer range. Also, the optional satellite navigation system was also upgraded with voice control. This year also marked the end of the optional power running boards due to issues with retracting as well as the optional Ironman package.
For 2009, the Explorer received a trailer sway control system as standard equipment, and the navigation system received traffic flow monitoring with updated gas prices from nearby stations.
For the 2010 model year, Ford’s MyKey became standard on all Explorer trims.
Fifth generation (2011–present)
The fifth generation 2011 Explorer includes a unibody structure and features blacked-out A, B, and D-pillars to produce a floating roof effect. The fifth generation Explorer features sculpted body work with stepped style headlamps similar to the Flex, Edge, Escape, Expedition and F-150, as well as new stepped style tail lamps. The grille features Ford’s corporate three-bar design with upper and lower perforated mesh work, similar to that of the sixth-generation Ford Taurus.
Available features on the fifth generation Explorer include intelligent access with push button start, remote engine start, power lift-gate, power adjustable pedals with memory, premium leather trimmed seating, heated and cooled front seats, dual headrest DVD entertainment system, adaptive cruise control, active park assist, SIRIUS Travel Link, MyFord Touch, Ford SYNC by Microsoft, Sony audio system with HD radio and Apple iTunes tagging, in-dash advanced navigation system, SoundScreen laminated acoustic and solar tinted windshield with rain-sensing wipers, 20-inch polished V-spoke aluminum wheels, and High-intensity discharge headlamps (HID) and LED tail lamps.
The Explorer is available in either front-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive. At first only one engine was available: the 290 hp – 255 lb·ft, 3.5 liter TiVCT (Twin independent Variable Camshaft Timing) V-6 attached to either the 6-speed 6F automatic or 6-speed 6F SelectShift automatic.
Soon thereafter, Ford offered the economical 240 hp – 270 lb·ft 2 liter EcoBoost turbocharged, direct-injected I-4 mated to the 6-speed automatic. The I-4 engine is not available with the optional 6-speed SelectShift automatic, and will only be available in front-wheel drive.
Off road electronics include Hill Descent Control (HDC), Hill Ascent Assist (HAA), four-wheel electronic traction control and Terrain Management.
Four-wheel electronic traction control (ABS braking) is employed to simulate front and rear differential locks via aggressively “brake locking” the front or rear differentials, transferring up to 100 percent of torque from side-to-side. In the right conditions, the Explorer can keep moving even if only one wheel has traction, regardless of which wheel it is.
Safety features include: Dual front adaptive SRS air bags, dual front seat side impact air bags, dual rear safety belt air bags and side curtain head, torso and rollover protection air bags. Other safety features include BLIS blind spot information system with rear cross traffic alert, forward collision warning with brake support pre-crash system, Auto high-beam, Roll Stability Control (RSC), Electronic stability control (ESC) and Curve Control.
The fifth-generation Explorer was the first-ever vehicle to be equipped with inflatable dual rear inflatable safety belts. Air bags are sewn into the inside of the seat belts, and inflate with cold air to prevent burns. Ford claims it will be released as an option and to introduce inflatable seat belts on other Ford models eventually.