It was a pioneer, a vehicle that uncovered a segment. Sure there were SUVs that came before the Explorer, but they were nearly always covered versions of pickup trucks. Take the case of this vehicle’s immediate predecessor, the Bronco II, which was little more than a short wheelbase Ranger with sheetmetal extensions behind the cab.
|1. Two engines are offered, a 210-hp V6 with 14/19 mpg (2WD) and 13/19 mpg (4WD), or a 292-hp V8 with a 14/19 mpg rating.
2. Three driveline setups are available, depending on trim: front drive, part-time 4WD and full-time AWD.
3. Unlike modern crossovers, SUVs like the explorer can really pull with a 3,500 lb tow rating for the V6 and 7,115 lb rating for the V8
4. All Explorer models get Advance Track and Roll Stability control.
5. A fully independent suspension delivers decent on-road capability, but means the Explorer isn’t as capable off-road.
The Explorer, with its four-door utility, decent ride and attractive price, paved the way for the SUV boom of the 1990s. Since then it’s fallen on hard times. First there was the Firestone tire fiasco and then, given that the SUV market has increasingly moved towards car based soft-roaders, banishment to obscurity, as real on-off road vehicles like this have become what they were in the beginning - truly niche players.
Given that the truck based Explorer is now in the twilight of its existence, AutoGuide decided to take the old warrior for one last spin, before it docks in that big parking lot in the sky. For 2010; Explorers are offered in four different trim levels, XLT; which starts at $29,280; Eddie Bauer; beginning at $33,280; XLT Sport at $36,005 and finally the bucks up Limited which stickers for $36,280.
In engineering terms, the Explorer hasn’t received a serious makeover for some time. The last major changes were back in the 2006 model year, where the third generation truck received sheetmetal tweaks, a new frame and revised interior. As a result, by modern standards, it has a decidedly retro feel.
As mid-size SUVs go, the Explorer is fairly large in stature and even two-wheel drive models sit relatively high off the ground. Given the Explorer’s basic age, workmanship isn’t bad. Panel gaps are decent enough – the paint on our sample vehicles was largely free of orange peel and even today, the chrome grille treatment looks kind of regal, especially in Eddie Bauer trim combined with exterior colors such as Black Pearl slate and Dark Copper Metallic.
As you climb inside, you’re greeted with an airy and spacious cabin, dominated by a sizeable center console which houses the shifter, cup holders and a decent storage bin (think F-150 Lariat on a smaller scale).
Ford has really made huge advances in interior quality during the last decade and while the Explorer might not be quite up to the same level as newer offerings like the Focus, Fusion and Mustang, it still feels decently crafted inside. Switchgear is logical and easy to use and the driving position is a lot better than some other SUVs (especially car based ones), with a good steering wheel to seat relationship and outward visibility (even at the ¾ angle) is good. Adjustable pedals on the Limited are also a nice touch.
Standard features on all trim levels include three-row seating, with standard cloth upholstery (leather is optional on the base XLT and standard on the others), plus a 64/40 split for the second row and 50/50 for the third (64/40 configuration is also offered, with power folding on the Limited). As with most vehicles on the market today, power windows, locks and mirrors are standard kit and easy to operate, as are the primary driver controls, wipers, lights, turn signals. One good thing is that even with optional navigation and premium sound system, the info-entertainment system is a joy to use, unlike an increasing number of mid-priced vehicles, be they car or truck. For those who will actually take this truck out into the boonies for a bit of camping – standard dual 12-volt power outlets in the front and center of the cabin are welcome.
Not surprisingly, being a modern Ford vehicle, SYNC is standard on all trim levels bar the XLT (where it’s optional). As time passes, we’re getting more used to this voice activated system, though it still has trouble with this author’s funny accent – “call home” and names of certain audio tracks from the MP3 play list proved particularly frustrating. On the other hand, navigation was simple and easy to use, especially when negotiating the tough streets of Los Angeles proper.
In terms of on-road driving behavior, the Explore is somewhat surprising. Yes it does ride on a separate frame, but it also boasts fully independent suspension, with coil springs at each end. As a result, over most road surfaces, it’s remarkably composed for a truck-based rig. Directional stability is also quite good too, aided by standard Roll Stability control and the steering, although noticeably boosted, feels less sloppy than some others (the GM T900 trucks come to mind). As for acceleration, the 4.0-liter “Cologne” V6 is a fairly gruff, noisy engine, the base transmission (a five-speed automatic) amplifying these characteristics, particularly under acceleration in first and second gears.
Developing 210 horsepower and 254 ft-lbs of torque, in view of the Explorer’s 4,400 lb plus curb weight, performance on the V6 is perhaps best described as adequate, though there’s no doubt it will run forever.
Optional on Eddie Bauer and Limited models with 4x4 is a version of the 2010 Mustang GT’s 4.6-liter modular V8 with 3-valve cylinder heads, which in this configuration makes 292 horses and 315 ft-lbs of torque. Compared with the V6 it’s a smooth running piece, with good throttle response and ample torque for quick on-ramp acceleration, climbing grades or towing. Teamed with it is Ford’s six-speed automatic, which not only aids refinement, but also fuel economy.
Given that the V6/five-speed auto combination manages a paltry 13/19 mpg (city/highway) in 4WD trim and the AWD V8 with a six-speed automatic gets 14/19 mpg, there isn’t any reason to consider the base engine, unless it your purchase absolutely comes down to price (though with dealer incentives being what they are, it’s likely you can pick up a V8 Explorer today for almost the same as list on a base V6 version).
As a truck based rig, the Explorer also works reasonably well as a proper tow vehicle – V6 versions with the standard 3.55:1 rear axle, can pull 3,500 lb loads, while a V8 model, outfitted with 3.73:1 can yank a substantial 7,115 lbs of weight behind – far, far better than many soft-roaders.
Along with fully independent suspension, all Explorers come with standard four-wheel disc brakes and ABS. Given that even the lightest of these trucks weighs over 4500 lbs, they’ve got quite a job to do, but panic stops aren’t all that dramatic, though front end dive is noticeable, especially when stops are instigated at speeds of 60 mph or above.
In terms of driveline configurations, Explorers are offered in rear-wheel, and perhaps confusingly, four and all-wheel drive. The 4WD system is your traditional part time setup with a two-speed transfer case. High range four-wheel drive can be engaged on dry payment at speeds below 60 mph, but you still need to stop and shift the transmission into neutral to engage the low range for rock crawling. However, given the nature of the Explorer’s suspension design, the truck isn’t among the most adept for off-road boonie bashing, even though the 235/70/16 raised white letter tires XLT and Sport may suggest otherwise.
The AWD system (available only on the Limited); is a permanently engaged setup, designed primarily to maximize on road traction during inclement conditions, in some respects an enhancement to the two-wheel traction control standard on all models. Eddie Bauers offer a 17-inch wheel and tire combo, while Limiteds are also available with snazzy 18-inch chrome clad wheels and 65 series tires, that marginally improve handling but otherwise offer little else in value.
Once the segment leader, the Explorer has been somewhat left behind by the push towards car based crossovers, yet despite its age, the Explorer still offers a fine blend of on-road manners, with durability and towing characteristics that most newer offerings struggle to match, plus a healthy list of equipment, even in the base XLT models. Given that the current truck is in its last year and we’re still in a shaky economy, deals abound, so if you want to get an Explorer and need the sort of things a real SUV can deliver then there’s never been a better time. But if on-road functionality, fuel economy and handling are more important, we suggest you hold out for the crossover.
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