Ford’s iconic SUV has had a roller coaster life

The Ford Explorer has been around for almost 30 years. In that time, the SUV segment has evolved in ways no one could’ve dreamed of. Through it all, the Explorer has remained one of the segment’s backbones, a pillar from which the SUV world has stood on for close to three decades. The Explorer’s life reads like a Hollywood script, too. It started off with a bang, establishing itself as one of the most popular SUVs on the market. That success lasted for more than a decade before the Explorer lost its way as other SUVs arrived. Sales eventually cratered, leaving Ford desperate to recapture the magic the Explorer had when it became the breakout hit of the early ’90s. The return to form eventually took place as the SUV segment in the U.S. exploded. With the Explorer now entrenched as one of the most popular SUVs in the market, Ford’s banking on the sixth-generation model to keep that momentum. Whether it does so or not remains to be seen, but the all-new Explorer appears fully equipped to take on that challenge.

First Generation - 1990 to 1994 - Overnight Success

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The first-generation Ford Explorer arrived in 1990.

The Explorer started off as a humble, body-on-frame SUV that was actually built on top of the Ford Ranger’s chassis.

It also shared a number of parts with the Ranger, most notably the panels ahead of the A-pillar and dashboard. The first-gen Explorer also measured just 174.5 inches long, which is nowhere near the size of the current Explorer which extends to almost 200 inches in length. In terms of design, Ford capitalized on the boxy design range of the time, giving the first-gen Explorer a simple three-slat front grille and a pair of rectangular red headlights. Flush side glass, integrated mirrors, and the lack of drip rails were also a few of the first-gen Explorer’s most prominent design details. Ford also offered the model as a two-door and a four-door model, giving customers the opportunity to choose which model suited them best.

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Under its hood, Ford fitted a 4.0-liter V-6 engine that produced 155 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Later model years received a five-horsepower bump, though the torque numbers remained the same.

Transmission options were limited to a standard five-speed manual, which Ford sourced from Mazda, and an optional four-speed automatic that the company built in-house.

Rear-wheel drive was also standard, but there was an option for a four-wheel drive setup. Whether it was the scent of an all-new model or not, the first-gen Explorer was an immediate sales hit, with Ford selling 140,509 units in its first year on the market. That number more than doubled the next year with 282,837 sold units. At its peak, Ford was selling 300,000 units of the Explorer per year, a staggering number even by today’s standards.

Second Generation - 1995 to 2001 - The Golden Years

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Despite its surging popularity, the first-generation Ford Explorer only lasted four years on the market. Perhaps Ford wanted to leverage on the success of the SUV so, in 1995, it launched the second-generation Explorer with a new look and improved off-road abilities.

The SUV was still based on the Ranger’s underpinnings, but Ford understood that if the Explorer was to broaden its appeal, it needed to have its own performance identity.

One of the most distinctive changes the automaker made was to replace the i-Beam front suspension with a new, independent wishbone setup that still featured a live axle in the rear. In terms of design, changes include rounder headlights to go along with an equally round front grille. Arguably the biggest change, though, was its size. The second-generation five-door Explorer grew to 190.7 inches in length, a by-product of Ford trying to fill the space left behind by the Bronco that was discontinued a year before the second-generation Explorer arrived.

The second-generation model was also the first Explorer to come with a multitude of engine options. The same 4.0-liter V-6 that produced 155 horsepower remained in the fold, but Ford also added a 5.0-liter V-8 that produced 210 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, which eventually grew to 215 horsepower in later years. A third engine — a 4.0-liter V-6 — was also introduced to the model range. This engine produced 205 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque.

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On the flip side, the second-gen Explorer was the first Explorer to have a brush with controversy, specifically involving issues with its Firestone tires that had a tendency to blow up because of tread separation. That issue led to many rollovers, 271 deaths, and as many as 23 million recalled tires.

Even with this issue, the second-generation Explorer is still considered the high watermark for the model.

Ford gambled on rolling out a next-gen model to capitalize on the model’s popularity, and that gambled worked. In 1995 — the second-gen Explorer’s first year in the market — sales of the SUV reached 395,227 units. Sales trended upwards throughout the model’s life span, culminating in 2000 when Ford sold a record 445,157 units. Even in its last year in 2001, there was a total of 415,921 units of the second-generation Explorer sold.

Third Generation - 2002 to 2005 - Momentum Halted

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The third-generation Ford Explorer received the most dramatic changes to date. It stopped sharing its underpinnings with the Ford Ranger pickup as Ford moved the SUV to its own dedicated UN152 platform.

Sure, it was still a body-on-frame SUV, but the decision to create a unique platform was sparked by the automaker’s plan to turn the Explorer into a more family-focused SUV, benchmarking it against mainstream crossovers like the Volkswagen Tiguan.

Part of that plan involved introducing third-row seats, which was a first for the Explorer. Ford was able to accommodate that by adding a new independent rear suspension that freed up space for the aforementioned third row on top of giving the SUV improved riding capabilities relative to its predecessor.

The new and dedicated UN152 platform also meant new engine options for the third-gen Explorer. For this generation, Ford offered the 4.0-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque as a base engine. To give customers a little extra, Ford brought into the mix a more powerful 4.6-liter, all-aluminum, V-8 hat developed 240 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The combination of the new V-8 unit and the SUV’s body-on-frame construction meant that the third-gen Explorer could tow as much as 7,300 pounds, fully establishing itself as a more domesticated SUV. The Mazda-sourced, five-speed manual transmission was still available for the V-6 model at the onset, but Ford ultimately ditched it in favor of a five-speed automatic for the rest of the third-gen model’s life. Aesthetically, the third-gen Explorer returned to its rectangular headlights roots, though the SUV’s front grille kept up with Ford’s design language at the time.

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Unfortunately, all the changes Ford made to the third-gen SUV didn’t translate well with the public.

It sold well in its first year with 433,847 units sold, but those numbers started going down steadily over the next few years.

In 2005, sales of the Explorer dropped 45 percent to just 239,788, beginning what would become the darkest years of the SUV’s life.

Fourth Generation - 2006 to 2010 - The Doldrums

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Just like with the first-generation Ford Explorer, the third-generation model only lasted four years before Ford ushered in the fourth-generation model. We can speculate the reasons for this, but it’s not a coincidence that both generations ended because Ford wanted to bring a new one in quickly. The reasons were different, but the idea was the same.

The fourth-generation Explorer arrived in 2006, continuing its transition from a rugged SUV to a more mainstream crossover.

It featured a tougher frame, a redesigned rear suspension, and, most critically, a fresh new interior. The fourth-gen model was also the first Explorer to hang its hat on more tech and convenience features. Again, this was done to increase its mainstream appeal.

The fourth-generation Explorer also arrived with a more powerful 4.6-liter V-8 that produced 292 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. All that power coursed through a new six-speed automatic transmission. Those who didn’t want the V-8-powered Explorer could still get their hands on the base unit, which had the previous generation’s 4.0-liter V-6 engine with the same 210-horsepower and 255-pound-feet of torque. The base unit also had the same five-speed automatic transmission that carried over from the previous generation.

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Unfortunately, all these changes didn’t help the Explorer’s declining sales numbers. In its first year on the market, Ford only sold 179,229 units of the fourth-generation Explorer.

That represented a decline of 25 percent from the sales numbers of the previous year. If that wasn’t bad enough, sales continued to plummet in the succeeding years, culminating in 2009 — the worst sales performance of the Explorer — when Ford only sold 52,190 units. Do the math, and that’s roughly 10 percent of what sales were at their peak in 2000. Part of the reason for the embarrassing returns was blamed on plummeting consumer demand, though the crashing U.S. economy at the time also contributed to the fourth-gen Explorer’s sales failure.

Fifth Generation - 2011 to 2019 - Return to (Sales) Form

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It’s safe to say that when 2010 rolled around, Ford was desperate to turn the fortunes of the Explorer. To its credit, that’s exactly what the Blue Oval did.

The fifth-generation Explorer represented the most dramatic generation-to-generation change we saw from the SUV.

We can talk about the aesthetics and the overall presentation of the fifth-gen Explorer as big reasons why it returned to form, but there’s no question that the most important change Ford made was to shift the Explorer from the body-on-frame construction that underpinned it since its inception in 1990 to unibody construction. That decision ultimately gave the Explorer the family-friendly, car-based crossover credentials that it had been missing since Ford decided to switch its identity. It also helped that Ford gave the fifth-generation a design that fit the times. No longer did the Explorer look completely out of its time - it actually looked like a proper car-based crossover, the same type of SUV that was the rage at the time.

Under its hood, the fifth-generation Explorer came with new engine options that not only offered more power but dramatically improved fuel economy, as well. The base unit used a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that produced 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Those numbers, combined with its new, car-based construction, helped the SUV achieve ratings of 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway for all-wheel drive models. Front-wheel drive versions fared even better, returning 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Those numbers represented dramatic improvements from the fourth-gen Explorer, which earned a reputation as a gas-guzzler, thanks in large part to putrid EPA ratings of 13 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway.

The fifth-generation Explorer also received with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine rated at 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque.

That had better EPA returns at 20 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. Eventually, that engine evolved into a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-pot that produced 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.

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All these dramatic changes gave Ford the results it needed. Sales of the fifth-gen Explorer reached 135,704 units in 2011, more than doubling its sales volume from the previous year. That started a trend of rising sales, culminating in 2017 when Ford moved 271,131 units of the Explorer. It still fell way short of the SUV’s sales record in 2010, but it also represented a huge spike from its worst sales year in 2009.

Sixth Generation - 2020 to ? - The Future Has Arrived

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Take a step back for a minute and think about how far the Ford Explorer has come since it first burst into the auto scene in 1990. It’s experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It has thrived, and it has faltered. As we prepare for the official arrival of the sixth-generation Ford Explorer — it’s scheduled to make its auto show debut at the 2019 North American International Auto Show — it’s worth asking if the SUV’s momentum can continue even if its arriving right in the middle of the SUV segment’s surging popularity.

The sixth-generation Explorer arrives with an all-new look that speaks to its place in the current SUV hierarchy.

It has a more defined fascia and a larger and more prominent grille than its predecessor. It also boasts unique lighting elements in the back, a product of new technology in that space. The new Explorer also arrives with two engine options: a base 2.3-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder that produces 300 horsepower and an optional twin-turbocharged, V-6 that pumps out 365 horsepower. The latter is one of the most powerful engines fitted into the Explorer, a sign that big things are in store for America’s all-time best-selling SUV. Hybrid power is also expected, and don’t sleep on four- and six-cylinder engines joining in on the fun, either. Underneath all of that is Ford’s new CD6 platform, which gives the SUV both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive capability, the latter of which will be an option.

Further reading

2020 Ford Explorer
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Read our full review on the 2020 Ford Explorer.

2016 Ford Explorer High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2016 Ford Explorer.

2006 Ford Explorer
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Read our full review on the 2006 Ford Explorer.

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