Crucial Cars: Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door talks about the comeback kid of the SUV variety, the Ford Explorer.

The Ford Explorer is back. Not that it ever went anywhere, but Explorer sales were declining steadily from their peak of nearly 450,000 new vehicles sold in 2000 to a low of just 52,000 sold in 2009. That nearly 90 percent reduction in sales over nine years certainly gave credence to the observation that there just didn’t seem to be as many Explorers on the road, and the feeling that perhaps Explorer was slowly but surely fading from the automotive landscape into the annals of Ford’s highly successful truck history.

And then 2011 happened, when Explorer sales increased more than 100 percent from the previous year and marked the start of a sales rebound that’s continued every year through 2014 – the latest year for which full-year sales data is available.

So who or what is responsible for the sudden and dramatic resurgence in Ford Explorer’s popularity? Blame it on the fifth generation.

Debuting with the 2011 model year and based on the concept vehicle that Ford unveiled at the 2008 North America International Auto Show, the fifth-generation Explorer was conceived by the same design engineer who held a similar position at Land Rover. Notice any similarities between the Explorer and Land Rover’s Range Rover?

But before looking forward to the latest installment in the fifth generation – the 2016 Ford Explorer – one has to look back to understand the Explorer’s roots, and popularity right out of the gate.Ford Explorer tow picture

The Explorer placed third in truck sales in 1991 – the very first year it was available, and Ford knew instantly they had a clear winner on their hands. If you’re feeling nostalgic, check out this official Ford video explaining how to use the new 1991 Explorer’s features – if you can get past the talents’ “stylish” wardrobe that is. Explorer replaced Ford’s other entry in the sport utility segment, the Bronco II, and was designed to compete directly with Chevrolet’s S-10 Blazer, even though Explorer wasn’t the first compact four-door sport utility to market. That distinction belongs to both the Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu Trooper.

Explorer wasn’t a new name either. Just six years earlier it could be found on Ford’s F-Series Trucks, serving as a trim package designation stretching all the way back to the late ‘60s.

When it debuted, the 1991 Explorer was available as either a two- or four-door model with two- or four-wheel drive in one of three trim levels available on the four-door – the base XL, XLT, or Eddie Bauer. The two-tone green and beige paint scheme available with the Eddie Bauer edition became nearly synonymous with those early Explorers as it seemed they were everywhere.

On the four-wheel drive option, Ford also offered the choice of automatic locking front hubs that engaged with just the push of a dash button, or the traditional hubs that had to be locked manually and the system engaged via a floor lever. As anti-lock brakes were still in their infancy, only the Explorer’s rear brakes were equipped with ABS.

Towing capacity on the first Explorer came in at a hefty 5,600 pounds thanks to a four-liter, 155-horsepower V-6 paired with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. But perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind the Explorer’s instant popularity were its decidedly car-like luxuries, including leather seats and high-end audio, that drivers were not expecting to find in a truck-like vehicle. That power, performance and luxury came at a price – about $22,000 for the four-door model back in the day. Compare that to a price tag of approximately $30,000 for a base, entry-level Explorer today or jump up to the big daddy of them all, the 2016 Platinum Explorer, starting at $52,600.Ford Explorer interior picture

With four generations and five models in the current generation preceding it, Ford took its time arriving at the 2016 Explorer. Outside, the Platinum-level Explorer impresses with its platinum grille, dual-panel moonroof, hands-free, foot-activated liftgate, and LED lamps, all riding on bright aluminum 20’s featuring painted pockets. Inside, it’s all luxury, all the time, with wood accents and “Nirvana” (do they take you there?) leather-trimmed seats with “quilted inserts,” (what does that even mean?), USB charging ports, a command center with so much technology in its display that it looks more like the cockpit of a small plane, three rows of seating for seven, and Enhanced Active Park Assist to take the stress out of navigating virtually any type of parking space.

Under the hood, three engine choices are available with the Platinum – a 2.3 L EcoBoost I-4, a 3.5 L TI-VCT V6 (twin independent variable camshaft timing), or a 3.5 L EcoBoost V6. Getting all that power to the ground is a six-speed, SelectShift automatic transmission and front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Twenty five years later, Ford hasn’t forgotten their roots, or what’s behind the Explorer’s enduring popularity – luxury, car-like features, towing and cargo capacities you’d expect to find in a truck, and a revamped style that helps you look good doing it all.

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