The Explorer is roomy and comfortable. It's capable of seating seven people when equipped with the optional third-row seat that folds flat into the cargo floor when not being used. For more luxurious comfort, second-row sport bucket seating is now available on Eddie Bauer and Limited models.
Buyers can choose between V6 and V8 engines, but the V6 provides plenty of power unless you're pulling trailers or live in the Rocky Mountain states where the air is thin. Part of the reason for this is that the Explorer benefits from a superb five-speed automatic transmission.
Safety features abound: Anti-lock brakes come standard, and side-curtain air bags, designed to provide rollover protection, are optional and highly recommended. Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system is available for all XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited models, providing improved traction and safety. Full-time all-wheel drive is available, providing better handling stability on slippery surfaces, and a tire-pressure monitoring system is available.
Ford redesigned and completely re-engineered the four-door Explorer two years ago (for model year 2002), and it's a much better vehicle. The current model rides on a wider track and a longer wheelbase, giving it a more solid, more stable stance. Its newly developed independent rear suspension gives it a smoother ride and better handling than SUVs with traditional live rear axles.
New Car Test Drive chose the Explorer as the best all-around sport-utility vehicle for 2003. It earned this title for its ability to carry four to seven people in comfort, pull a trailer, and venture off-road. The Explorer is rated to pull a trailer of up to 7,140 pounds when properly equipped, and though it does not excel at off-road travel, it can go most of the places most of us need to go.
An overhead-cam V6 engine is standard on all models. An overhead-cam V8 ($800) is an option for all models except the XLS. All models come standard with the five-speed automatic. Most offer a choice of two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive.
XLS ($26,285), XLS 4WD ($28,510), and XLS AWD ($28,510) come with cloth upholstery, AM/FM/CD/cassette, and a center console with a storage bin and cup holders. (And yes, 4WD and AWD are the same retail price.) An optional XLS Sport package ($1,175) adds the high series center console, black step bars, Medium Dark Platinum wheel lip moldings, 16-inch painted cast aluminum wheels (to replace the standard steel wheels) and front and rear floormats.
XLT ($29,025) gets nicer sport cloth upholstery, a six-way power driver's seat, the Medium Dark Platinum exterior trim, and more luxury features, such as a temperature gauge and compass, rear map/dome lights with second row reading lamp, outside approach lighting, fog lamps, extra power outlets, and an illuminated keypad for keyless entry. An upgraded center console offers a tissue box, power points, pencil holder, and coin holder in addition to cup holders and a storage bin. XLT comes with aluminum alloy wheels, a new chrome grille and black-grain outside door handles. Four-wheel-drive Control Trac and All Wheel Drive models retail for $31,250. Leather trimmed upholstery with a six-way power driver's seat is available for $655. XLT buyers can choose a $1,175 Sport package consisting of 17-inch machined aluminum wheels, P245/65R17 All-Terrain OWL tires, Platinum gloss step bars, cladding, wheel lip moldings and two-tone front and rear fascias.
NBX ($1,175) is actually a package designed for outdoor enthusiasts. NBX includes a Yakima LoadWarrior roof rack, which features a cargo basket made of heavy-duty steel, two-tone bumpers, body cladding, wheel-lip moldings, step bars, front tow hooks, and 17-inch aluminum wheels with P245/65R17 all-terrain tires. The NBX interior is trimmed with unique seat fabric, special rubber floormats, and a soft liner for the cargo area with a storage bag.
Eddie Bauer ($33,100) and Limited ($33,975) come with leather trimmed seating surfaces, automatic dual-zone climate control, 290-watt six-CD stereo with seven speakers, and wider tires. Six-way adjustable heated power seats with dual lumbar supports are used in front, and the driver's seat has a three-position memory feature. Four-wheel drive adds $1965. The top two Explorer models differ in their distinctive trim: Eddie Bauer comes with Arizona beige bumpers, moldings, lower bodyside cladding, 17-inch satin-nickel wheels and grille, and P245/65R17 all-terrain tires. Limited uses monochromatic bumpers, moldings and cladding with a chrome grille and unique 17-inch chrome wheels. The Limited model is available in new Ceramic White Tri-Coat.
Options include third-row seating ($670), auxiliary air conditioning ($610), power-adjustable pedals ($120), Reverse Sensing System ($255), and a power moonroof ($800). A Trailer Towing Prep Package ($395) replaces the standard Class II hitch with a Class III hitch and adds a 3.73 limited-slip rear axle.
Instead of conventional front side-impact airbags, Explorer offers an optional ($560) Safety Canopy Air Curtain System. Located in the roof, it is designed to help protect first- and second-row outboard occupants during side-impact or rollover accidents. The safety canopy is designed to improve side-impact protection by staying inflated for a longer period. Ford has done a great deal of research on this technology and we strongly recommend ordering the safety canopy.
Seatbelts use retractors and pre-tensioners designed to reduce injuries in a hard crash. The second-row center seat has an integrated shoulder belt, a feature not found on all SUVs. All occupants should always wear their seat belts as they are the first line of defense in an accident.
Explorer's styling is fresh and contemporary. Though ubiquitous, it is a handsome, good-looking vehicle. Front and rear fascia are smoothly integrated, while jeweled headlamps and tail lamps give it a sophisticated look. Yet, it clearly evokes the previous-generation Explorer. No one will have trouble identifying it, and few will notice it at all. Don't expect people to turn and stare when you drive by. Turning heads is not always the objective, however, and the more time we have spent with the Explorer the more its looks have grown on us.
Hitting the Unlock button on the key fob illuminates the approach lights mounted on the bottoms of the outside mirrors, enhancing security and making it easier to find your way at night. Uplevel models come standard with an illuminated keypad on the door for keyless entry. The keypad doesn't improve the appearance of the Explorer, but it continues to be a popular feature among loyal owners.
The Eddie Bauer model comes with the traditional beige steering wheel and pinhole leather seating material. Handsome pecan wood accents lend a luxurious appearance. Light-colored trim on the inside A-pillars and grab handles add to the light, airy atmosphere. It's a successful execution, though the mouse-fur roof liner is nothing to write home about. The leather-trimmed upholstery is attractive. However, we wish Ford would have stitched leather all the way around to the inside edge of the seat bottom instead of using carpet there to save money.
The front seats are comfortable. They are wider and offer more fore-and-aft travel than before. We found the cloth seats in the XLT comfortable, firm, and supportive, with lots of adjustments. The same held true for the leather seats in the Eddie Bauer model.
Seat heaters are part of the Eddie Bauer way of living. They keep you warm while the truck is still heating up. The buttons that control them are mounted in an awkward location, on the sides of seats. Reaching down to the side of the driver's seat, the left hand is confronted with an array of seat adjusters; finding and pressing the seat-heater button is a challenge. When you succeed, however, a small indicator lights up on the climate-control display. Likewise, it isn't always easy to find the seat-height adjuster. Rake is easy to adjust, and there's a knob on the up-level seats for cranking in some lumbar support.
Adjustable pedals, a tilt steering wheel, and long seat travel help the Explorer fit a wide variety of body types. Big coat hooks accommodate thick hangers and big loads of dry cleaning, something few manufacturers get right. Nicely designed cubbies with rubber mats provide space for wallet, sunglasses, a pen, cans, and bottles. A relatively large center console keep odds and ends in check. Interior door handles seem a bit awkward at first, but that went away with familiarization. Map pockets on the insides of the doors are handy and swell at the end to hold water bottles, but wouldn't accommodate a one-liter water bottle. The front power outlet was positioned well for a cell phone, but like most, was a bit of a reach for a radar detector. The trip computer came in handy, calculating the distance to an empty fuel tank.
The six-disc in-dash CD player sounds good and is easy to operate, with large, clearly marked controls; it worked very well for books on CD, which take up multiple discs, and I found I could easily rewind to replay passages missed while concentrating on driving.
The second row of seats, the row we recommend for those who don't get to drive or sit up front, is quite comfortable. Sliding your feet under the front seats increases legroom. Many people prefer second-row bucket seats, which are more comfortable but only accommodate two passengers.
Third-row seating is available. In fact, the decision to add third-row seating drove the design and engineering of the current Explorer. As a result, Ford has done an excellent job of making the third row as roomy as possible, while making it flip quickly out of the way when it isn't needed. The third row offers as much headroom as the second row, but legroom, shoulder room and hip room are significantly compromised. After flipping the second-row seat neatly out of the way, you can climb back there, fold the second-row seat back into position and slide your feet underneath, which provides somewhat tolerable legroom. It isn't comfortable for an adult, however. There's little shoulder room, and the seat itself is a bit hard on the outboard edge; it pushes you away from the outboard side toward the center. It'll work okay for small children, but if you need to carry six or seven adults on a regular basis, you may want to consider a bigger SUV, such as the Expedition, or a minivan, such as the new Freestar.
Leaving the third row in place does not leave much room in back for groceries or other items. Fortunately, the third row easily folds away. Simply squeeze a lever and lightly push the seat forward. With some practice, it's possible to unlock the rear hatch, open it, and flip the third row out of the way with one hand, important when juggling an armload of groceries. The third-row bench folds neatly into the foot well.
Well, maybe not so neatly. In fact, neither the second- nor the third-row seats fold perfectly flat, so the load surface slopes back toward the rear hatch. A sliding cover bridges the gap between the two folded seats, but you could still lose small items through the cracks and it's not as dog friendly as we'd like.
Though we haven't seen one, five-passenger models are supposed to offer a flatter cargo floor, a bit more cargo capacity, and some useful storage below the floor. Seven-passenger models provide 79.9 cubic feet of cargo space with rear seats folded, while five-passenger models offer 86.2 cubic feet with rear seats folded. Not opting for the third row may reduce the Explorer's resale value, however.
Explorer's cargo floor is relatively low, good when loading heavy cargo. Pressing a button on the rear hatch opens the rear glass separately. The lower edge of the rear window is very low, so it's not too difficult to lift smaller objects up and through the window, saving time and effort. After raising the rear hatch, a grab handle helps the height-challenged pull it down before closing.
The Explorer rides on a four-wheel independent suspension with coil springs all around. It's a sophisticated setup and it works very well. (Crude by comparison, the previous Explorer used torsion bars in front and a live rear axle on leaf springs.) The independent rear suspension offers better lateral stiffness yet more fore/aft compliance than a live rear axle. That means both ride and handling are better.
The Explorer delivers a smooth ride on rough roads. Bumpy corners don't upset it, and it feels stable in fast, sweeping turns. The Explorer is very stable at high speeds and feels comfortably secure in bad weather. We felt safe and confident while pulling a trailer all day through a tropical storm in Tennessee. Just knowing the Explorer had Auto 4WD and ABS was comforting when it was raining buckets. It's still a truck, though. Tire whir is heard; road vibration is felt. But the ride is more comfortable, less jouncy than, say, the Nissan Pathfinder.
Off road, the Explorer has never measured up to the Toyota 4Runner or Land Rover Discovery, and the new generation doesn't change that. The Explorer is not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail or any other seriously rugged terrain. The current model is better than the old one, however, and it is perfectly capable on primitive roads. In other words, it makes a fine vehicle for trout fishermen, kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Ground clearance is increased by an inch over the previous generation, and shorter front and rear overhangs offer better approach and departure angles, all of which means you don't scrape the ground as much as before. If primitive roads and deep snow are the extent of your off-road driving, then the Explorer will serve admirably.
The optional Control Trac four-wheel-drive system (4WD) works great. We were surprised by the amount of grip the Explorer had on a muddy, snow-covered two-track in the Arizona high country near Sedona. Ford has refined this system to make it more transparent to the driver, while improving its abilities in limited-traction situations. The normal driving mode is Auto 4WD; there is no two-wheel-drive mode. In Auto 4WD, Control Trac directs power according to input from sensors that compare grip between the front and rear wheels. If the rear wheels lose traction, for example, the optimal amount of power is transferred to the front tires where there's more grip. Using a dedicated controller, the system checks for slipping tires 50 times a second and can anticipate situations, such as hard acceleration, that are likely to cause the wheels to spin. It feels secure on wet pavement, gravel, mud, and snow. When the going gets rougher, press the 4WD HI button, which effectively locks the front and rear driveshafts together. This can be useful for severe off-road or winter conditions, though Auto 4WD does such a great job of transferring torque that 4WD HI is almost irrelevant in practical terms. Driving on a muddy, primitive trail, I couldn't tell the difference between Auto 4WD and 4WD HI. It may be possible to detect subtle slip in Auto 4WD on slippery, snow-covered surfaces, but the bottom line is that you can leave it in Auto 4WD for all but the worst conditions. 4WD Low works well for creeping over truly rugged terrain. We found it does a good job of engine braking down steep grades, and we suspect it would be helpful on slippery boat ramps.
The optional AdvanceTrac all-wheel-drive system (AWD) takes four-wheel drive to another level with a sophisticated traction-control system that adds stability by regulating side-to-side torque distribution. It does this better than traditional mechanical systems. AdvanceTrac applies braking selectively when it detects wheelspin. By stopping the spinning wheel, the system sends power to the wheel that has the best traction.
AWD or 4WD? With two different four-wheel-drive systems selling for essentially the same price, which to get? For pouring rain, snow, or ice, I'd choose the all-wheel-drive system found on the AWD models. For serious off-road driving, the part-time system on the 4WD Explorers might be better. So for most people, I'd recommend the AWD models. The AdvanceTrac AWD system should work very well in snow, ice, and rain.
The 4WD Explorer works well off-highway and I wouldn't hesitate to take it down primitive roads and slippery two-tracks. It's easy to modulate the throttle precisely when creeping along; throttle tip-in is gradual so you're not lurching off the line. Capable of going most of the places most of us will want to go, the Explorer makes for a fine trout fishing companion. However, it does not have the capability of a Land Rover Discovery, Toyota 4Runner, or Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Explorer doesn't have their suspension articulation and is otherwise not designed to tackle the Rubicon Trail. It is, however, a nicer vehicle than the Grand Cherokee in most other respects, with a better-quality interior, and a smoother, more refined ride. And it's more stable and easier to drive on the highway than the Discovery.
The standard engine is a modern 4.0-liter V6 with overhead cams and aluminum heads rated at 210 horsepower. Acceleration with the V6 is quite respectable, thanks to the 254 pounds-feet of torque it generates at 3700 rpm. You can hear and feel the V6 under full-throttle acceleration and it isn't as smooth as Toyota's V6, but it is entirely within acceptable bounds. You're not likely to need the V8 unless you're towing or live at high altitude.
The optional 4.6-liter V8 provides quick acceleration performance. A modern and sophisticated engine, the V8 is all aluminum for lighter weight, with single overhead camshafts. Like the V6, it makes itself heard and felt under full throttle, but it's smooth. The V8 produces 239 horsepower at 4750 rpm and 282 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It performed well while towing a car trailer across the U.S., though we felt the weight of the trailer on long, steep grades at higher altitudes. According to the trip computer, I was averaging 14 mpg while pulling the trailer.
The real star in the Explorer drivetrain is a sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission. It's smooth and responsive, quickly downshifting when the gas is mashed. It detects the driver's intentions and upshifts later or earlier, depending on what the driver is doing with the throttle. It's a great transmission and makes the V6 and V8 engines feel strong.
Turning around and maneuvering in crowded parking lots is made easier in the Explorer with its relatively small turning radius. The Reverse Sensing System alerts the driver to objects behind the vehicle and is handy when maneuvering in tight quarters. (It can be turned off when you are pulling a trailer.) Though not billed as such, this system can also enhance safety by detecting people, including little children, behind you.
Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes provide stable stopping without drama even at threshold braking (slamming the pedal to the floor and keeping it there until the vehicle stops). Electronic Brake Force Distribution is standard, a great feature as it transfers braking force to the wheels with the best grip to improve stability and reduce stopping distances.
Model as tested
Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer AWD ($35,325)
3 years/36,000 miles
Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
4.6-liter V8 engine ($800); Safety Canopy air curtain system ($560); auxiliary air conditioning ($610); Reverse Sensing System ($255); third-row seat package ($670); Class III/IV trailer package ($395)
Model Line Overview
Explorer XLS 2WD ($26,285); XLS 4WD ($28,510); XLS AWD ($28,510); XLT 2WD ($29,025); XLT 4WD ($31,250); XLT AWD ($31,250); Eddie Bauer 2WD ($33,100); Eddie Bauer 4WD ($35,325); Eddie Bauer AWD ($35,325); Limited 2WD ($33,975); Limited 4WD ($36,200); Limited AWD ($36,200)
Safety equipment (standard)
ABS; driver and passenger dual-stage air bags with tailored deployment characteristics; safety belt pretensioners and energy-management retractors; child safety seat attachments
Safety equipment (optional)
4.6-liter sohc 16-valve V8
Specifications as Tested
air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, keyless remote, digital clock, cruise control, electric rear window defroster, roof rails, power steering, tilt steering column, tachometer, Class II trailer towing receiver hitch, intermittent front and rear wipers; XLT adds special exterior trim, automatic headlamps, high-series center floor console, cargo shade, front and rear dome and map lights, second-row reading light, approach lights on outside mirrors, fog lamps, front and rear power points, cloth front bucket seats with 6-way power driver seat and manual driver/passenger lumbar support; Eddie Bauer adds leather seating surfaces, special exterior trim, automatic air conditioning with dual controls, Homelink garage door opener , message center, heated mirrors, 290-watt 6-disc stereo, dual six-way leather-trimmed luxury seats, color keyed leather wrapped steering wheel with audio/climate controls, cast aluminum wheels, P245/65R17 tires, tire-pressure monitoring system
Engine & Transmission
4.6-liter sohc 16-valve V8
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
239 @ 4750
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent with short and long control arms, coil springs
independent with short and long control arms, coil springs
independent with short and long control arms, coil springs
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear