Happy Birthday! Ford Explorer Turns 23 Today

Introduced on March 15, 1990 as a 1991 model, the Ford Explorer turns 23 today, and it’s a pretty big deal. While it certainly wasn’t the first SUV on the market, the Explorer stands out because it was one of the first and most successful to undergo the transformation from truck roots to a versatile family vehicle. Consumers bit on the idea, and the Explorer became a sales superstar. As the Ford Explorer turns 23 today, we explore key points in its history and discuss how the blue oval-badged SUV has continued to redefine itself.

1991 Ford Explorer front left view 300x187 imageReplacing the Bronco, the first Explorer in 1991 debuted as a two- or four-door, and it wowed consumers with its capacious interior and optional six-passenger seating. At the time, the Explorer was the only major SUV to offer dual airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and an anti-lock braking system. Standard features included a 4.0L V-6 engine that put out 155 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. The upscale Eddie Bauer trim level on the four-door model was also introduced, as was the touch driver transfer case for 4×4 models. In 1990, 140,509 Explorers were sold, and in 1991, sales skyrocketed to 249,640 units.

Although the Explorer was already a best-seller, Ford significantly redesigned the 1995 model.  Changes included a new suspension, new four-wheel-drive system, and amenities such as a six-disc CD player and integrated child seat.  Sales continued to climb, with 395,227 Explorers sold in 1995.

Shortly after, the Explorer got a new drivetrain that would further catapult it ahead of its competitors. While consumers flocked to the rugged SUV, it still had its flaws. Powerful, smooth, and quiet weren’t words traditionally used to describe the Explorer’s powertrain, until the 1997 model year when an optional 205-hp 4.0-liter V-6 was introduced.

“Particularly before the 5.0-liter V-8 arrived in ’96, the Explorer hasn’t been known for spirited acceleration or powertrain silence. That changes dramatically for the ’97 model year. There’s a new engine choice beyond the 160-hp 4.0-liter OHV V-6 and the 210-hp 5.0-liter OHV V-8. And this new engine is mated exclusively with a new five-speed electronically controlled automatic – a first for a domestic car or truck,” we wrote in a previous article.

In 2001, the Explorer Sport Trac was introduced. Based on the four-door, the Sport Trac had an open rear cargo area for a half SUV, half truck-like appearance. It was also around this time that the Explorer became the main topic of discussion after several Explorers equipped with Firestone tires rolled over when a tire blew out.

2006 Ford Explorer right side 300x187 imageSignificant updates were in order for 2006, including an improved interior, a stronger V-8 with a six-speed automatic transmission, stiffer chassis, and a new suspension configuration. “On the highway, the Explorer benefits from an independent rear suspension, teamed with a control-arm front end. Ride quality is far better than that of SUVs that use a traditional live-axle rear suspension: The Explorer handles mid-corner bumps in a much more compliant fashion, without turning occupants into life-size bobbleheads. If anything, the Explorer is quite sporty in the way travels a back road, and we like the accurate and direct steering,” we wrote in a review.

Fast forward to now, and although we’ve had issues with the Explorer in a six-SUV comparison test and in a 2012 Explorer EcoBoost I-4 First Test, the SUV has seen sales rise compared to the last-generation model. When we drove a 2013 Ford Explorer Sport, we were a little more complimentary about the crossover: “The real trick of it all is that the ride quality has improved as well. Most bumps are soaked up with a soft thump that is audible and felt in the chassis. The worst bumps on the road will cause a somewhat unrefined bang, but overall, it’s a significant improvement. Likewise, noise/vibration/harshness is improved and the cabin is fairly isolated experience.”In 2012, 158,344 Explorers were sold.

Source: Ford, The Henry Ford Collection

By Karla Sanchez

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