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The Ford Explorer, Still The Champion

by Larry Weitzman

Ford Full Line factory footage (14:26) 28.8, 56k, or 200k

The Ford Explorer started life as a 1991 model in the middle of 1990. It was based on the very popular and rugged Ford Ranger Pickup. It soon wrestled the sales leadership from Jeep Cherokee as the top selling sport/ute. Even I owned one from 1991 to 1995 and it was basically flawless in the 45,000 miles we drove it.

It was powered by the 160 hp 4.0L V-6 (still available) and performed admirably. So I was very interested in how a new Explorer would stack up and did Ford really improve an already great vehicle?

This sport/ute has gone through an evolutionary process. There have been some significant changes in body design, mechanicals and the interior. The new Explorer sports a more rounded, softer front end with more accentuated wheel well flares and the rear tail gate also was rounded and soften. The face lift has worked well and the Explorer looks as contemporary and sharp as anything going.

Besides the venerable 4.0L 160 hp V-6, Ford has added two new engines, a 5.0L 215 hp V-8 (introduced in 1996) and a SOHC version of the 4.0L V-6 (introduced in 1997) that pumps out a neck snapping 205 hp @ 5,000 rpm and a seismic 250 lb-ft of torque @ only 3,000 rpm. This new engine sports a 9.7 to 1 compression ratio, which is part of the reason for its high efficiency. My test car had this new V-6 and it was connected to a class exclusive 5 speed electronically controlled automatic.

It was my first time with this new combination and was I surprised. This rig gets up and goes. It hits 60 from a standstill in only 8.7 seconds and will sprint from 50 to 70 in 6.4 seconds. This time expands to 9.2 seconds when gong up a 6% grade. Great times for a 4.0L midsize, 4,200 pound sport ute.

But there is more than just the quick times that makes this vehicle so fun and that is the operation of the transmission. When the throttle is nailed, first gear pulls to almost 50 mph. When it shifts into second, rpm drops off to only 4800 rpm (near maximum horsepower) with an imperceptible shift and it pulls strongly to 70 (5900 rpm) when the transmission shifts into third while maintaining engine speed again at 4,800 and pulling strongly. The way this thing loves to rev, it almost gives you the feeling of driving an Italian sports car.

I would estimate third gear would be good to about 90 mph before shifting into fourth. It was one of the sweetest automatics I have ever driven. The way the transmission keeps the engine on the power curve is just a blast. This is one terrific powertrain. The engine is very quiet and smooth at idle and at normal cruising speeds. It turns a lazy 2200 at 65 mph.

In 1995, the Explorer abandoned the twin I-beam front end for a fully independent front set up with upper and lower "A" arms, torsion bars and anti-roll bar. The rear continues with a live axle, leaf springs and a stabilizer bar. Gas pressurized shocks at each corner finish off the package. It works much better than my previous 1991 model. Ponderosa Road was reasonably smooth and bumps in the corners did not cause the rear end to move. Bigger bumps were absorbed like a sponge. Remember this is a truck with a stout separate ladder frame and body.

Bass Lake and Green Valley Road posed no difficulty for this new set up. Very little body roll, good cornering grip and accurate rack and pinion power steering made the corners fun. It grooved through sweepers with lots of confidence and predictability. The freeway showed off the long legs of this Explorer. Smooth, quiet and relaxed are adjectives that make this Explorer a great highway cruiser/hauler.

The fuel tank holds 21 gallons and the EPA predicts 15/19 mpg city/highway. I measured the fuel economy for my 80 miles of use and calculated 20.2 mpg. From my experience and other information, I would estimate 16-18 mpg in El Dorado County driving which is 1 to 2 mpg better than I got in my 1991 Explorer. The highway mileage should exceed 20 and a cruising range of 400 miles plus should be easily obtainable.

The four-wheel drive system is called Control Trac. It normally operates in rear wheel drive and as wheel slippage is detected, power is transferred to the wheels with the most traction. It is automatic and requires no driver input. My test car had the optional limited slip rear end/trailer tow package ($355 and worth every penny). The system can also be locked as in a conventional 4-wheel drive system and it has a low range for real off road.

This powerful SOHC V-6 is rated to tow up to 5,640 pounds even with the 3.73 axle. The only real advantage of the V-8 is an increase in towing capacity of 800 pounds, due to its 38 pounds of increased torque and 10 extra horsepower.

The Explorer footprint is smaller that some and bigger than others. At about 190 inches long and 70.2 inches wide, it's 5 to 10 inches longer than an Isuzu Trooper or Rodeo, but 4 to 10 inches shorter than say a Dodge Durango or Chevy Tahoe. The interior reflects its midsize. It offers generous dimensions in front and rear leg, shoulder and headroom and a large rear cargo area.

The power leather front seats in my test vehicle were especially comfortable. They offered great thigh support and just wonderful back support. They were deep enough to keep one planted when going through the twisties on Airport Road. They are more comfortable than the seats in our previous Explorer. The rear seats are wide enough for three and the 1/3, 2/3 split enhances this comfort. The center passenger doesn't have to sit in a crack.

The rear seats fold flat with the flick of a small lever. The head restraints are hinge so they do not have to be removed. This leaves a flat cargo floor six feet in length, big enough to act as a small hotel room when camping in bad weather or where my wife and two kids slept for a few days after the Northridge earthquake.

The dash instrument pod contains full instrumentation including a 6,000 rpm tach which many times saw the needle at the full vertical. To the right are the sound system and climate controls. The air conditioning was powerful and the optional center console has rear outlets and controls as well as handy pull out cup holders.

The sound system in my test vehicle had the optional console C/D changer ($370) which provided super sound with the premium (standard with a C/D) four speaker audio system. The rear console had headphone jacks and radio controls and allows the rear headphones to listen to a C/D while the front passengers can listen to the radio.

My test vehicle also had an optional power moon roof ($800), which still allowed ample head room for our second opinion 6'3" super size tester.

The Explorer that I drove was a standard XLT (base price of $28,830) with option package 945A (N/C), SOHC V-6 ($540), 3.73 limited slip rear differential ($355), power moon roof, running boards (well designed and great looking, $395), leather seats ($950 and a bargain), 6 play C/D ($370), two tone rocker paint ($120) and destination of $525 for a total price of $32,885.

The only things that I would eliminate from that option list would be the two tone paint and possibly the moon roof, which would bring the price down to under $32,000. All the other options makes this sport/ute what it is, simply the best selling sport ute in America.

The least expensive Explorer is a 2 door 4X2 XL. It bases at $21,840 including destination. The top of the line Limited will set you back $35,065 including destination and the V-8.

The new Explorer is available for red lining with the melodious SOHC V-6 and 5-speed auto in a sampling that could double as a high performance racing engine test.


Price                            $21,840 to about $35,000
Engine Type
   4.0L OHV V-6                  160 hp @ 4,200 rpm
                                 225 lb-ft torque @ 2,750 rpm
   4.0L SOHC V-6                 205 hp @ 5,000 rpm
                                 250 lb-ft torque @ 3,000 rpm
   5.0L OHV V-8                  215 hp @ 4,200 rpm
                                 288 lb-ft torque @ 3,300 rpm
                                 5 speed manual
                                 (4.0L OHV only)
                                 5 speed Automatic
                                 (4.0L OHV and SOHC only)
                                 4 speed Automatic
                                 (5.0L V-8 only)
Transfer case
                                 Control Trac
                                 2 speed transfer case
                                 (4.0L OHV and SOHC only)
                                 All Wheel Drive
                                 (5.0L V-8 only)


Wheelbase                        111.6  inches
Length                           190.7  inches
Width                            70.2   inches
Height                           67.5   inches
Ground Clearance
@ rear axle (loaded)             6.7    inches
Curb Weight                      4146   pounds
Fuel Capacity                    21     gallons
Max Tow Capacity                 6,700  pounds

0-60                             8.7   seconds
50-70                            6.4   seconds
50-70 uphill                     9.2   seconds
Top Speed                        Not in this county
Fuel Econ                        EPA 15/19 city highway, my 
                                 estimate 16-18 in El Dorado 
                                 County and 20+ @ legal highway