In late 1990, the Ford Explorer made its debut, effectively defining the sport-utility vehicle segment that it would reign over for the decade that followed. Based on the Ford Ranger pickup, its mechanicals didn't exactly set the world on fire, but the concept of a versatile, off-road-ready family hauler did.
From inception, the Explorer was a massive sales success, and Ford made improvements to keep it relevant. Its original V-6 was supplemented by a V-8 and later a more modern six-cylinder engine, and the Explorer received periodic interior and exterior freshening. Safety features, such as anti-lock brakes and airbags, increased the Explorer's popularity among families as well as serious truck buyers. Ford introduced Mazda, Mercury, and Lincoln variants of the Explorer, with varying degrees of success.
At the peak of its popularity, a national investigation turned to Explorers that were experiencing tire blowouts and rollovers, crashes that were often fatal. Ford and Firestone recalled millions of affected vehicles' tires and, with each brand's respective credibility tarnished, the two companies subsequently ended their century-old relationship.
Surprisingly, however, the Firestone disaster wasn't a knock-out blow for the Explorer, which continued to enjoy vigorous sales -- this despite fresh competition from Jeep, Land Rover, Chevrolet, and Toyota. Instead, the Explorer's decline was brought on by the introduction of carlike SUVs, such as the Toyota Camry-based Highlander and Lexus RX300, which lured buyers shied away from the body-on-frame Explorer and its ilk.
Explorer sales peaked in 2000 at 445,157, but began a downward slide in 2002 that has continued through this year. Sales in 2009 represent an 88 percent drop over its best year's, and sales in the first half of 2010 stand at just 31,864. A new Explorer is just around the corner, and it will finally abandon the trucklike body-on-frame construction in favor of a unibody design. Improved efficiency and a focus on safety technology also will set the newest Explorer apart from its progenitors.
In today's marketplace, the arena of SUVs and crossovers continues to expand, even within Ford's own lineup. Even if the new model is great, the next Explorer will have a hard time recapturing the volume and success of its 1990s glory days.