2000: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opens an investigation into faulty Firestone tires fitted to several Ford models, including the Explorer. In the case of the Explorer, many instances of tire blowouts lead to vehicle rollovers of an unknown cause, and ultimately over 100 deaths. The investigation turns into a colossal recall of over 6 million tires, resulting in severed ties between Ford and the tire manufacturer. Nonetheless, 2000 was the Explorer's best sales year, at over 445,000 units.
2001: The Explorer Sport Trac, which blurs the line between SUV and pickup, debuts in late 2000 as an '01. The only two-door variant of the Explorer is the Explorer Sport.
2002: An all-new Explorer debuts mid-2001 as an '02 model. The completely reworked Explorer shares only the previous Explorer's 4.0-liter V-6. A 4.6-liter V-8 borrowed from the Mustang, which produces 240 horsepower paired with a five-speed automatic, replaces the aging 5.0-liter V-8. An independent rear suspension improves ride quality while losing little of the Explorer's off-road prowess. For the first time, a third-row bench is optional. The two-door model is officially dropped from the lineup a year later, and leaving the Explorer a four-door only.
At its press introduction, we feel "almost as if we were driving a Mustang." Following the Firestone disaster, advertising focuses on the Explorer's dedication to safety, and Ford introduces optional AdvanceTrac stability control and "safety canopy" of airbags. A new Mercury Mountaineer is also introduced, and features significantly different styling from the Explorer.
2003: A Lincoln variant of the Explorer, dubbed Aviator, joins the ranks to fight new luxury competition from Lexus, Mercedes, and Acura. It offers the V-8 standard, and a redone interior echoes the styling themes of the larger Navigator. It turns out to be a sales failure, and Ford decides to pull the plug on the Aviator just two years later.
2004: The crop of more refined, car-based SUVs continues to grow by the day, but we opine that the Explorer "defines ubiquity." It sells 339,333 units.