SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
To say that the Ford Explorer started the sport-utility vehicle craze when it debuted in 1990 is perhaps debatable, but only with difficulty. It quickly rose to the top of the sales charts, and has stayed there for the past decade. Although it received a makeover in 1995, its age eventually showed. So Ford introduced the true second generation Explorer as a 2002 model early in 2001. Only the name remains the same.
The newest Explorer is slightly larger than the original in all dimensions, but is still compact enough to be easy to park in urban and suburban environments. There are modifications and improvements to almost every component, most especially the rear suspension. Gone is the old solid axle, a legacy of the original's pickup ancestry. The new one shares its frame with no pickup, and boasts a sophisticated fully-independent rear suspension, used for both two- and four-wheel drive versions, which not only gives better ride and handling qualities but allows increased interior space as well. The interior is as new as the exterior, and noticeably larger, with a third-row seat offered. While the 4.0-liter single overhead cam V6 is familiar from the previous Explorer, the venerable 4.9- liter V8 is history, replaced by a 4.6-liter single overhead cam V8 similar to that in the Mustang. All 2002 Explorers are four-door vehicles. The two-door model continues in the previous body style as the Explorer Sport, and the four-doors-and-a-pickup-bed Explorer Sport Trac rounds out the lineup.
I've been driving a two-wheel drive V8 Explorer Limited for the past week. It improves on the original in every way, with easier access, more interior space, a better ride, and more power. It's more refined without being pretentious, and gives its competitors a new benchmark.
APPEARANCE: Because of its new design and proportions, the 2002 Explorer looks larger than it actually is. While still a two-box SUV, width has increased more than height, giving it a more planted, muscular look. The design is simple, honest, and uncluttered, with little of the gratuitous over-styling sometimes found on SUVs. The egg-crate grille, with its inset blue oval, announces its Ford manufacture. V8 models have a retro-look "V8" badge on the tailgate that echoes the badges used on the first V8 Fords back in the 1930s.
COMFORT: Getting in to the new Explorer is a snap, even for short people. The door handles are easier to use, and because the new frame allows a much lower floor, the optional running boards are not necessary for easy access. On some models, puddle lamps in the outside rear-view mirrors light the side of the vehicle at night. The interior design has the same theme of honest, uncluttered simplicity as the exterior. In Limited trim, the upholstery is leather, with dark woodgrain trim on the doors and dash. The extra width is immediately apparent, with noticeably more elbow room. The driver and front passenger have comfy bucket seats, and the useful console has plenty of open and covered storage. The second row seat in my test car (and in comfort and design it is definitely more car than truck) had a 40/20/40 three-piece split for access to the third row. Second row room is more than before, and even the center position is a reasonable place for a real human thanks to the nearly-flat floor. The third row feels as roomy as the old Explorer's second row, and its back may be folded down for cargo space. Cupholders, storage spaces, and vents abound, especially with the optional rear air conditioning system. Welcome to the American family station wagon for the 21st Century.
SAFETY: In addition to dual-stage front airbags and side intrusion beams, the 2002 Explorer features side curtain airbags and the "Personal Safety System" that manages the airbags, seatbelt tensioners and other devices.
ROADABILITY: With its 2.5-inch wider track and two inch longer wheelbase, significantly more rigid chassis and body structures, and lower center of gravity, the 2002 Explorer would probably have better ride and handling characteristics than its predecessor even without its new independent rear suspension. But, with less unsprung weight and better wheel control, the new suspension removes any residual trucklike ride and handling foibles. The independent front suspension has been revised for better handling and steering response. Result: the new Explorer feels like a large, tall car, not a truck. There is considerably less body roll in cornering than with the previous chassis, and better response to bumps and holes in the road. Most Explorers never get used for serious off-road duty, but increased ground clearance is welcome to avoid road debris. Owners who do take their new Explorer off-road will find better approach and departure angles helpful.
PERFORMANCE: If the badge on the tailgate is retro, the engine under the hood isn't. The old iron pushrod 4.9-liter V8 is gone, and in its place is an aluminum-alloy 4.6-liter overhead cam V8. Its 240 horsepower and 28- lb-ft of torque are up from the specs of the old engine, and most of that torque is available right from idle for quick response. The five-speed automatic transmission is designed not only for smooth, economical operation but for low maintenance, and is a good match for the engine. The standard 4.0-liter V6 is only slightly less powerful, and should also be a good choice.
CONCLUSIONS: "New and improved" is a hoary old advertising slogan that just happens to be absolutely correct when describing the 2002 Ford Explorer.
SPECIFICATIONS 2002 Ford Explorer Limited 4x2 Base Price $ 32,090 Price As Tested $ 35,775 Engine Type single overhead cam 16-valve V8 Engine Size 4.6 liters / 281 cu. in. Horsepower 240 @ 4750 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 280 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 113.7 in. / 189.5 Curb Weight 4099 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.1 Fuel Capacity 22.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular gasoline, 87 octane Tires P245/70 SR 16 Goodyear Wrangler AP Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear short-and-long arm with coil-over shocks on all wheels Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 14 / 19 / 16 0 to 60 mph 8.6 sec (mfg) Trailer towing 3500 lbs standard, 7000 with towing package OPTIONS AND CHARGES White pearl paint $ 200 4.6-liter sohc V8 engine and 3.55:1 axle ratio $ 695 Running boards $ 395 Side curtain air bags $ 495 Auxiliary climate control system $ 610 Reverse sensing system $ 255 Third-row seat package $ 670 Telescopic steering wheel delete credit -($ 60) Adjustable pedals delete credit -($ 175) Destination and delivery $ 600