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Ford Explorer Through the Years

Stephen Rivers

Over thirty years, the Ford Explorer has reinvented itself multiple times to ensure it continues to dominate and define the SUV and CUV market.

Many SUVs existed before the Ford Explorer but none of them managed to accomplish what it did. It single-handedly made the SUV segment what it is today. It set new trends, broke sales records, and influenced millions of cars that are on the road today. Now, three decades later the Explorer has found itself reinvented numerous times over. As each chapter seems to come to a close, the Explorer manages to find new ways to remain relevant, engaging, and desirable. With the 2020 model year, Ford has done it again and brought to market the best Explorer ever. Today we take a trip with the Ford Explorer through the years.

First Generation (1991-1994)

1991 Ford Explorer - ford.com

1991 Ford Explorer – ford.com  |  Shop Ford Explorer on Carsforsale.com

  • The original Explorer offered buyers something that simply wasn’t on the market at the time. It offered more passenger and cargo space than rivals from Chevrolet and Jeep while also being low enough to make everyday use a breeze for anyone.
  • It was slightly longer than the Blazer and Cherokee but wasn’t overly bulky like the giant SUVs from the mid-80s.
  • It still used the chassis from the Ford Ranger and goes so far as to use the same front facia as well.
1994 Mazda Navajo - carsforsale.com
1994 Mazda Navajo - carsforsale.com
  • This was the only generation to also be used as the Mazda SUV of the time period called the Navajo. It was only offered as a 3-door and featured slight styling changes and little else to differentiate it from its Ford brethren.
  • Within the first 5 years of its life, the Explorer went from an unknown type of vehicle to some degree to one of the top ten best-selling vehicles in the country.
  • 4 trim levels were offered ranging from XL, Sport, XLT, and the premium Eddie Bauer edition.
  • Power came from a 4.0-liter V6 that produced 155 horsepower in 1991 and was bumped to 160 in 1993.

Second Generation (1995-2001)

1997 Ford Explorer - ford.com
1997 Ford Explorer - ford.com
  • In 1995, Ford introduced a restyled and more sleekly styled Explorer.
  • In 1996 Ford crams a 4.9-liter V8 under the bonnet that pushes performance to a new plane with 210 horsepower.
  • Also in 1996 Ford releases its Adrenaline concept that blends the Explorer and Ranger lines into one vehicle. 5 years later in 2001, the Explorer Sport Trac arrives due to the positive reaction to the Adrenaline.
2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac - carsforsale.com

2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac – carsforsale.com  |  Shop Ford Explorer Sport Trac on Carsforsale.com

  • The Sport Trac is in many ways a melding of multiple Ford vehicles. The frame is from the Ranger Supercab, the interior from the Explorer, and the bed from the F150 supercrew.
  • In 1997 Mercury gets its own version of the Explorer called the Mountaineer. It helps Mercury continue as a brand until 2010 when the entire division is shut down.
  • While the Explorer 5-door ended production in 2001, the Explorer Sport 3-door variant continued until 2003 without any major generational changes.
  • Also in 1997, Ford introduced a pushrod V6 that offered the same 210 horsepower as the V8 model while also being available with a manual transmission, unlike the V8.

Third Generation (2002-2005)

2002 Ford Explorer - ford.com
2002 Ford Explorer - ford.com
  • After dominating the US market, the third generation of the Explorer turned more attention towards being more attractive to buyers abroad. To achieve that recognition it was tuned for higher speed driving and a more luxurious ride.
  • The overall width of the vehicle is increased by 2 inches to improve stability and handling even at high speeds.
  • In 2003 the final 3-door Explorer is built never to be seen again.
  • The V8 gets upgraded to 240 horsepower to again differentiate it from the V6.
2005 Lincoln Aviator - carsforsale.com

2005 Lincoln Aviator – carsforsale.com  |  Shop Lincoln Aviator on Carsforsale.com

  • Lincoln begins to use the vehicle as its Aviator, a mid-sized luxury SUV offering.
  • For the first time, a fully independent rear suspension is offered along with an all-new AWD system.
  • A third row of seating becomes available as the overall size of the vehicle grows.

Fourth Generation (2006-2010)

2006 Ford Explorer - ford.com
2006 Ford Explorer - ford.com
  • The fourth-generation was far more than just a mid-cycle refresh. It offered a stiffer frame, and for the first time the 3-valve 4.6-liter V8 with nearly 300 horsepower.
  • The exterior was redesigned and modernized with new headlights, grille, and power running boards.
  • Navigation Systems were improved upon with voice control as well as traffic flow monitoring.
  • Safety features improve too with side curtain airbags, roll stability control, and tire pressure monitoring.
  • At the end of the lifecycle in 2010, Explorers get the exceptional MyKey system that provides owners the ability to restrict the use of certain features when using specific keys.

Fifth Generation (2011-2015)

2012 Ford Explorer - ford.com
2012 Ford Explorer - ford.com
  • The 5th generation of the Explorer took a whole new direction by using the unibody chassis from the Ford Taurus sedan.
  • Due to that change, this is the first Explorer that can be purchased in front-wheel-drive guise.
  • All-Wheel-Drive is also available in a format that still sends the majority of power to the front wheels until wheel slip is detected.
Ford Mustang Through the Years
2014 Ford Explorer Sport - carsforsale.com
2014 Ford Explorer Sport - carsforsale.com
  • In 2013 the Ford Explorer Sport was released with the same powertrain used by the Taurus SHO performance sedan. It produced 365 horsepower and 350ft-lbs of torque.
  • The other two engines available were both potent with a 240 horsepower 4-cylinder and a 295 horsepower V6.
  • Ford includes a Terrain Management System that aids in traction on multiple surfaces including Mud, Sand, and Gravel.
  • Technology is jam-packed into this Explorer including Ford’s Sync system, adaptive cruise control, active parking assistance, and remote start technology.

Fifth Generation Refresh (2016-2019)

2017 Ford Explorer - ford.com
2017 Ford Explorer - ford.com
  • The entire front end of the Explorer is refreshed and continues its close ties to Ford trucks with fog lights inspired by the F150.
  • The base engine is changed from the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder to a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder with 280 horsepower. That small boost in power makes a world of difference in terms of drivability.
  • This is the same exact engine used in the 4-cylinder equipped Mustang of the time.
  • In addition to the standard, Sport, and Limited packages, a new trim level called Platinum is introduced.
  • Platinum equipped Explorers receive even more technology like front and rear cameras, as well as semi-automatic parallel parking.
  • This trim level comes standard with the Ecoboost V6 that was previously only available on the Sport version.
  • The 2018 model year sees dramatic exterior improvements including both LED headlights and fog lights as well as new wheels and paint options.

Sixth Generation (2020-Present)

2020 Ford Explorer - ford.com

2020 Ford Explorer – ford.com  |  Shop new Ford Explorer on Carsforsale.com

  • The sixth generation of the Explorer has returned to its roots in some ways by switching back to a rear-wheel-drive platform that can be optioned with all-wheel-drive.
  • Powerful engines become a major part of the platform with the 2.3-liter 4-cylinder even getting a 10 horsepower boost up to a total of 300.
  • Styling is more angular and modern than ever before. The overhangs are to aid in off–road capability.
  • The hood is longer to allow additional room in the engine bay for the now longitudinal layout of the drivetrain.
  • The Ecoboost V6 is still available but if customers opt for the ST trim level it’s now tuned to 400 horsepower instead of the usual 365.
2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid - ford.com

2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid – ford.com  |  Shop new Ford Explorer Hybrid on Carsforsale.com

  • For the first time in history, a hybrid Explorer is offered. It produces 318 horsepower with a combination of electric grunt and a 3.3-liter V6.
  • Technology continues to improve with Sync 3, a rotary gear selector, and an optional 10.1 inch touchscreen control center.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Stephen Rivers
Stephen Rivers

Stephen is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion. In his free time, he’s usually at a hockey rink, walking his dogs, or on a road bike. His automotive tastes lean towards cars that oftentimes seem to take a pound of flesh for the ethereal pleasure they provide: things like the Lamborghini Diablo, TVR Cerbera, and a C4 Corvette turned into a street-legal go-kart. He drives his Bugeye Subaru WRX in Autocross, Rallycross, and track day competitions throughout the year and daily drives a twin-turbo BMW 535i.

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