Police officers, millions of motorists and Jurassic Park visitors have one thing in common: a Ford Explorer.
The original Explorer was one of Ford’s greatest hits during the 1990s. It played a tremendously important role in shaping the SUV as we know it in 2020 and democratizing it across America. The nameplate was popular enough to survive the devastating Firestone scandal in the early 2000s but it almost disappeared until some of the same basic guidelines that shaped Boeing’s 787 saved it.
Join us as we celebrate the Explorer’s 30th birthday by looking at six generations of highs and lows – no famished dinosaurs, we promise:
The Bronco II (1983)
The first-generation Explorer traces its roots to the Bronco II, a Ranger-based SUV introduced in 1983 as a 1984 model. Ford developed it as a competitor for the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer and as a more compact alternative to the full-size Bronco. It was only available with two doors and, in hindsight, this was a mistake in a segment where buyers quickly gravitated towards four-door models.
Approximately 144,000 units were made during the 1984 model year, a figure that dropped to about 98,000 in 1985. It wouldn’t be accurate to say sales were low, Ford built 148,433 examples of the Bronco II during the 1988 model year, but the little SUV often trailed its main rivals. Safety concerns tainted its career, too. It was tall, narrow and its alleged tendency to roll over landed Ford in court on numerous occasions. The firm insisted the Bronco II was safe but not everyone agreed. Insurance company Geico notably stopped covering the SUV during the early 1990s due to its questionable safety record.
Making a better Bronco (late 1980s)
Ford knew the Bronco II was only a few improvements away from becoming one of America’s best-sellers. Product planners decided to make its successor bigger, more comfortable and generally more car-like without sacrificing its off-road capacity. They also ditched the Bronco II name, which was increasingly being associated with high-profile rollovers, and adopted the Explorer nameplate.
The first-generation Explorer (1990)
The first-generation Explorer made its debut in 1990 as a 1991 model. Like the Bronco II, it was a body-on-frame SUV closely related to the Ranger pickup. It looked a lot like its more utilitarian sibling when viewed from the front while its boxy rear end cleared up a generous amount of space inside. Above all, it was a right-sized model that was bigger than the Bronco II but smaller than the extra-large Bronco.
The line-up included a two-door model and a four-door version. Several examples of the latter famously starred in the 1993 Jurassic Park movie as tour vehicles equipped with special Plexiglas roof panels. One was destroyed by an angry, flesh-hungry tyrannosaurus rex. This high-profile Hollywood debut made the Explorer one of the coolest cars in the minds of countless 1990s kids.
The first-generation Explorer, by the numbers (1991)
At launch, the first-generation Explorer was only available with a 4.0-litre V6 rated at a rather languid 153bhp. Rear-wheel drive and a five-speed manual transmission came standard while four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox were offered at an extra cost on both the two- and four-door models.
Pricing started at $14,926 for a rear-wheel drive two-door model, a sum which represents about $28,200 (£20,000) today. Motorists who wanted a four-wheel drive four-door had to pay $17,694 ($33,500 (£27,000) in 2020).
The entry-level Explorer cost a little bit more than a comparable 1990 Bronco II. It was also priced above the 1991 Jeep Cherokee, its main rival, yet it outsold it by a wide margin. 322,328 examples of the Explorer were made during the 1991 model year; 74% were 4x4 models. Jeep sold 106,495 units of the Cherokee during the same time period and equipped 83.5% of them with four-wheel drive.
The Mazda Navajo (1990)
Mazda (which Ford owned a significant stake in) introduced a badge-engineered version of the two-door Explorer named Navajo for the 1991 model year. It was built alongside its Ford-branded sibling in Louisville, Kentucky, and the two SUVs were almost identical with the exception of a few Mazda-specific bits, like the grille. Sales were much lower than expected, partly because the Navajo wasn’t offered with four doors, and production ended in 1994.
The star of the 1990s
The original Explorer still stands out as one of Ford’s greatest hits. Nearly 1.3 million units were sold in the United States between the 1991 and 1994 model years. It arrived right when the SUV’s popularity began sky-rocketing and it quickly became a common sight in driveways across America.
Buyers weren’t settling for the base model, either. The upmarket Eddie Bauer trim (which was instantly recognisable thanks to its beige lower body) was so successful that Ford expanded the range with an even posher model called Limited (pictured) for the 1993 model year. It received a trim-specific grille, alloy wheels and leather upholstery, among other upgrades. Ford sold every example it could build.
The second-generation Explorer (1994)
The second-generation Explorer released in 1994 for the 1995 model year had tremendously big shoes to fill. It wasn’t entirely new, it shared its basic body with its predecessor, but it wore an updated design that distanced it from the Ranger it remained based on. Ford knew motorists were primarily buying SUVs as daily drivers, not as off-roaders, so it made the interior even more car-like.
The two- and four-door models returned, as did the 4.0-litre V6 and the Limited trim. Pricing started at $19,485 (about $33,000 (£26,000) in 2020) for a rear-wheel drive two-door Sport model in 1995. Ford expanded the range with an available V8 – the Explorer’s first – for the 1996 model year.
The Mercury Mountaineer (1996)
The second-generation Explorer was even more popular than its predecessor; Ford sold 419,352 examples during the 1996 model year, a record. Profits were huge, too, because the SUV was based on its predecessor which in turn was derived from the Ranger. No one was surprised when Ford’s Mercury division released a posher badge-engineered version of the Explorer named Mountaineer in 1996 as a 1997 model. The only thing shocking about its introduction was that it hadn’t happened sooner.
Mercury charged $27,765 (nearly $46,000 (£37,000) in 2020) for the Mountaineer. In exchange, buyers who paid the premium received a standard V8, dual front airbags, two-tone paint, fog lights and air-con, among other features. It was only offered with four doors and it came standard with rear-wheel drive, though four-wheel drive was available at an extra cost. 78% of the 65,815 units sold in 1997 were 4x4 models.
The Explorer’s bigger brother (1996)
Ford retired the decades-old Bronco nameplate after the 1996 model year and filled the XL-sized gap in its range with the Expedition (pictured), an SUV closely related to the F-150, for the 1997 model year. These two SUVs – plus its perennially popular pickups and the gigantic Excursion – comfortably carried it into the 2000s. The future looked bright but a disastrous scandal was brewing in the background.
The Firestone recall (2001)
Arizona officials asked Firestone to examine a number of tire failures in 1996, according to a 2000 senate hearing. The six engineers sent to investigate concluded the tires, which were fitted to vehicles used by the Game and Fish Department, were not being used properly. And yet, the number of motorists who reported a high-speed blowout (sometimes followed by a rollover) increased. The situation became more catastrophic when reports of injuries and deaths began making headlines.
The second-generation Explorer found itself in the middle of a tug-of-war between Ford and Firestone. Were tires to blame, or was the Explorer unusually prone to ending up on its roof? What was clear is that tires blew (the tread peeled off), SUVs rolled and people died; 271 deaths were ultimately blamed on the defect. Ford replaced tires around the world before launching a recall campaign in America.
The carmaker ended up spending millions of dollars recalling about 23 million tires in the early 2000s. In a 2001 report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded Firestone was responsible for a safety-related defect. The firm lost Ford as a client and closed a factory in Illinois.
The Explorer Sport Trac (2000)
It’s in this grim context that Ford expanded the Explorer range with a four-door pickup named Sport Trac. Released in 2000 as a 2001 model, it was a more lifestyle-oriented truck than the comparably-sized Ranger and the bigger F-150; it was more comfortable hauling kayaks than hay bales. Stylists gave it a new-look front end that it later shared with the final version of the two-door Explorer Sport.
One of the Sport Trac’s most useful features was a tubular cargo box extender designed to be installed with the tailgate open. Its cargo box was relatively small so the extender (pictured) allowed users to haul relatively bulky items, like mountain bikes, without needing to invest in a roof- or hitch-mounted rack.
The third-generation Explorer (2000)
Although the Explorer Sport carried on with only a face-lift, the four-door model entered its third generation for the 2002 model year with a completely new platform. It was no longer built on the Ranger’s bones; it was profitable enough to warrant its own architecture. The range included an entry-level V6, an optional V8 and either rear- or four-wheel drive. Ford made a five-speed manual transmission available for the 2002 model year but canceled it due to a low take rate. And, the SUV’s bigger dimensions meant that buyers could select an optional third-row seat for the first time.
The Lincoln Aviator (2002)
The third-generation Explorer spawned the second-generation Mountaineer. Lincoln also received a version of it named Aviator in 2002 for the 2003 model year. Its front and rear ends were redesigned to resemble the bigger Navigator but it looked like an Explorer when viewed from the side. Lincoln hoped a nicer interior and a 4.6-litre V8 rated at 300bhp would help buyers forget they were driving a gussied-up Ford. Sales ended after the 2005 model year, when the third-generation Explorer was phased out.
The fourth-generation Explorer (2005)
Ford made it a point to quickly replace the fourth-generation Explorer. It remained an incredibly important vehicle in its range and it faced a growing number of competitors so keeping it fresh was vital. The fourth-generation model unveiled in 2005 as a 2006 model shared several styling cues with its predecessor but it benefited from improvements like a standard electronic stability control system.
Buyers still had a choice between a 4.0-litre V6 and a 4.6-litre V8 rated at 207bhp and 288bhp, respectively. Two- and four-wheel drive remained available and the Explorer retained its rugged, body-on-frame construction, though Ford went to great lengths to ensure it didn’t drive like a truck.
The second-generation Explorer Sport Trac (2006)
Ford gave the Sport Trac its second and last chance to shine when it released the second-generation model in 2006 as a 2007 model. Like the original truck, it was based on the Explorer and was exclusively offered with four doors. Tie-down hooks on both sides of the cargo compartment confirmed it was developed with the outdoors in mind, not to haul workers and materials to a construction site.
Sport Trac production ended after the 2010 model year. It didn’t sell as well as executives hoped. Odds are it would fare a lot better in 2020, when demand for outdoorsy trucks is higher than ever.
The Explorer America concept (2008)
Ford traveled to the 2008 Detroit motor show to unveil a concept named Explorer America. It looked like an overly futuristic evolution of the firm’s popular SUV and executives quickly admitted it wasn’t being considered for production; it was merely a design study. On a secondary level, the car-like unibody architecture many ignored previewed the most significant change in the Explorer’s career.
The fifth-generation Explorer (2010)
The basic formula that propelled the Explorer to stardom during the 1990s looked increasingly archaic during the 2000s. Ford sensed the tide was turning so it built the fifth-generation Explorer introduced for the 2011 model year on the unibody D4 platform shared with the Flex and the Lincoln MKT. The switch reflected a major change in the SUV world: motorists wanted space and efficiency, not off-road prowess they rarely took advantage of. The new layout meant the Explorer was front-wheel drive in its standard configuration for the first time.
Mulally’s request (2010)
Interestingly, the Explorer would have likely been consigned to the automotive attic had it not gotten lighter and more efficient. Alan Mulally, the former Boeing executive who became Ford’s chief executive in 2006, threatened to kill the model if it couldn’t be made more svelte. He knew achieving this was difficult but he was certain it could be done. He played an instrumental role in making the 787 Dreamliner about 20% more efficient than the 767 it replaced by using lightweight materials.
Charting the changes
Ditching body-on-frame construction was just the tip of the iceberg. The fifth-generation Explorer came standard with a 3.5-litre, 286bhp V6 and buyers with money to spare could select a turbocharged, 2.0-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder tuned to deliver 238bhp. Asking customers to pay more for fewer cylinders and less horsepower was a bold move but it reflected Ford’s commitment to efficiency.
At launch, Ford pledged the new engines were between 20% and 30% more efficient than their predecessors. Using lighter materials (such as aluminum) and giving the Explorer a sleeker design allowed engineers to make it approximately 45kg lighter than the outgoing model, the firm pointed out.
The law-enforcing Explorer (2013)
Ford risked stepping out of a hugely lucrative segment when it phased out the body-on-frame Crown Victoria in 2011. It had spent decades as the go-to car for police departments across America thanks to its sturdiness and its relatively simplicity. The company didn’t plan a direct replacement so it instead developed a Police Interceptor-badged Explorer variant with law enforcement agencies in mind.
The changes included bigger brakes and an updated cooling system. It took a while, but speedsters got used to keeping an eye out for an Explorer – not a Crown Vic – in their rear-view mirror. Ford’s bet paid off. The Explorer quickly became the best-selling police cruiser in the United States, with a law enforcement market share of over 50%.
The sixth-generation Explorer (2019)
Reinventing the Explorer paid off. In 2018, when it was near the end of its life cycle, the fifth-generation model was Ford’s third-best-selling model behind the perennially popular F-Series and the Escape. The sixth-generation SUV was introduced at the 2019 Detroit auto show and launched as a 2020 model.
Ford updated the Explorer where it counts. It’s still built on a unibody architecture, we don’t see it going back to body-on-frame anytime soon, but it’s once again rear-wheel drive in its standard configuration. It offers more tech features, including a digital instrument cluster and an available tablet-like screen for the infotainment system, yet the use of aluminum makes it about 90kg lighter than its predecessor.
The sixth-generation Explorer, by the numbers (2019)
Explorer buyers seeking efficiency can select a 314bhp hybrid powertrain built around a 3.3-litre V6. Those who want speed can alternatively order the ST trim, which packs a 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbocharged to 395bhp. The standard engine is a turbocharged, 2.3-litre four-cylinder with 296bhp on tap and there’s also a 360bhp version of the V6 available on the upmarket Premium trim. Every engine regardless of displacement or power output shifts through a 10-speed automatic transmission.
Pricing for the 2020 Explorer starts at $32,765, meaning it’s about $4000 more expensive in real terms than the cheapest variant offered during the 1991 model year. However, keep in mind the original Explorer was offered with two doors; the current-generation model isn’t. Viewed in this light, the price difference between the first- and sixth-generation Explorer drops to approximately $2000 in real terms, or £1600.