When the 1991 Ford Explorer replaced the Bronco II in the automaker’s lineup, it quickly gained popularity with consumers. In fact, the first-generation Explorer sold more than 300,000 units per year—outselling the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet S-10 Blazer by a significant margin—and more than 400,000 units a year by the end of the second generation. Ford sold more Explorers than all import SUVs combined. By 1994, it was the ninth best-selling vehicle in the U.S. The Explorer has changed quite a bit over the years, and today it faces perhaps its stiffest competition ever in the three-row SUV category, with a redesigned Highlander and the new Kia Telluride to fend off, among myriad others. To answer that challenge, Ford recently released the completely new 2020 Explorer built on a rear-drive-based architecture, and even offers it in high-performance ST and green-leaning hybrid flavors. As the new Explorer arrives, here’s a look back at the model through the years:
First Generation: 1991–1994 Ford Explorer
Like the Bronco II that preceded it, the first-generation Ford Explorer was based on the compact Ford Ranger pickup. But where the Bronco II was strictly a two-door, the Explorer came in both two- and four-door configurations, the latter no doubt increasing the SUV’s appeal with families. Power for the first-generation Explorer came from Ford’s 4.0-liter Cologne OHC V-6, rated for 155 to 160 horsepower. The engine was mated to either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. Rear-drive was standard, and four-wheel drive was also available. (You can read a review of the 1991 Explorer from our pals at MotorTrend right here .)
1991–1994 Mazda Navajo
Based on the Ford Explorer Sport, the Mazda Navajo was only offered in the two-door body style. Initially only available in four-wheel drive, a rear-drive model was introduced in 1992. Although it shared its sheetmetal with the Explorer, the Navajo was given a unique grille and front bumper, exterior trim, taillights, and wheels. Interior changes were even more subtle. Two trim levels were offered, with the base model featuring power windows, locks, and mirrors. An available premium package included air conditioning, cruise control, a pop-up moonroof, and more. The Navajo was only offered for one generation.
1991–2003 Ford Explorer Sport
Although the Ford Explorer Sport was based on the regular four-door Explorer, the two-door model rode on a wheelbase 10 inches shorter. Initially a trim level, the Explorer Sport eventually became its own model. The Explorer Sport lasted for the first two generations of the regular Explorer, the second-generation Sport outlasting the second-gen four-door by two years with a face-lift. The shorter-wheelbase Explorer Sport was more maneuverable off-road but at the expense of on-road ride quality. The two-door configuration also hindered back-seat accessibility. The Explorer Sport was only available with the V-6 engine.
Second Generation: 1995–2001 Ford Explorer
Although still based on the Ranger, the second-generation Explorer received significant updates, including a more aerodynamic front end and mechanical changes. A fully independent short- and long-arm front suspension replaced the semi-independent twin I-beam/traction-beam setup, and a new rack-and-pinion system replaced the recirculating-ball steering. In 1996, the 5.0-liter V-8 with an available full-time all-wheel-drive system hit the market; a year later, a more powerful 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 became available with a five-speed automatic, and new heads on the V-8 give a small power bump.
2001–2010 Ford Explorer Sport Trac
The first-generation Explorer Sport Trac rode on an extended wheelbase with a short composite bed behind the rear doors, a change from Explorer Sport’s shortened four-door second-generation Explorer wheelbase. It shared the same front-end styling of the Explorer Sport, as well as the same 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 and five-speed automatic. A five-speed manual became available later. The larger second-generation (2007–2010) Explorer Sport Trac was based on the new fourth-generation Explorer, including its independent rear end. The 4.0-liter V-6 and five-speed auto were standard, and the 4.6-liter three-valve engine and six-speed auto were also available. An Adrenalin model didn’t up performance but had large wheels, fender vents, and blacked-out trim, and other sporty-ish changes.
Despite its popularity with consumers, controversy surrounded first- and second-generation Ford Explorers (and related Mazda Navajo and Mercury Mountaineer [pictured] models) and the factory-installed Firestone tires. The Explorers were more prone to rollovers than other SUVs. Ford believed the issue was related to tread separation on faulty tires, and Firestone claimed that Ford didn’t recommend enough air pressure. Although Ford said the low tire-pressure recommendation (26 psi) didn’t affect Goodyear tires, the automaker sent owners replacement stickers with a higher pressure recommendation (30 psi). Driver overreaction to a blowout was also considered a contributing factor in the rollovers.
1997–2010 Mercury Mountaineer
The Mercury Mountaineer SUVs three generations coincided with the second through fourth generations of the Ford Explorer. In order to differentiate the Mountaineer from the Explorer, the mid-lux SUV originally arrived with the 5.0-liter V-8 as its sole engine offering. Outside, the Mountaineer featured a new grille design and some trim differences, and the interior offered a more premium feel. In its second year, Mercury added the 4.0-liter V-6 and a mild face-lift to increase sales. The second (2002–2005) and third (2006–2010) models received the same changes as the Explorer but offered slightly higher-quality interiors and Mercury’s unique front- and rear-end treatments.
Third Generation: 2002–2005 Ford Explorer
No longer based on the Ford Ranger, the third-generation Ford Explorer underwent an extensive redesign. The new Explorer featured an independent rear end and seating for up to seven passengers with an available third-row seat. That independent rear gave the third row more room than expected in a midsize SUV. Inside, the Explorer featured more amenities and better ergonomics than ever. The 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 carried over, but the 4.6-liter SOHC V-8 rated for 230 horsepower and 285 lb-ft of torque replaced the 5.0-liter V-8. The manual transmission was dropped after 2002.
2003–2005 Lincoln Aviator
Based on the third-generation Explorer, the Lincoln Aviator complemented the full-size Navigator in the premium brand’s lineup. In order to differentiate it from the Explorer and Mountaineer, the Aviator was powered by the Mustang Mach 1’s 4.6-liter DOHC four-valve V-8 mated to a five-speed automatic. Power was rated at 302 hp and 300 lb-ft. Second-row bucket seats and a console were standard, and a bench was optional. The exterior featured Lincoln styling with available HID headlights, and the interior featured electroluminescent gauges and walnut wood trim throughout. Slow sales led to its short three-year production run. The Aviator is making its return for 2020, though, alongside the mechanically related sixth-gen Explorer.
Fourth Generation: 2006–2010 Ford Explorer
Although the fourth-generation Explorer looked like a warmed-over version of the previous model, it featured lots of new content under the skin, including a new stiffer frame with through-the-frame-rail crossmembers and a revised front suspension. Although the 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 and five-speed auto carried over, the available 4.6-liter V-8 gained a new three-valve head good for 292 horsepower, as well as a six-speed automatic. Inside, the interior was noticeably improved, and Roll Stability Control, canopy airbags, and other adaptive safety devices improved safety.
Fifth Generation: 2011–2015 Ford Explorer
Based on a modified Ford Taurus sedan’s unibody chassis and transverse engine layout, the fifth-generation Ford Explorer received significant changes from prior generations. The 2011 Explorer made its debut with a 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6 with 255 lb-ft mated to a six-speed automatic and was available in front- or all-wheel drive. Ford introduced the underwhelming 240-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged EcoBoost I-4 with a 270 lb-ft engine option. Despite its premium price, it was slower than the 3.5-liter V-6 with only slightly better fuel economy. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost was only available in front-drive guise. The Ford Explorer Sport returned in 2013 as a completely different animal. Still a four-door, the 2013 Explorer Sport was powered by the Taurus SHO sedan’s 365-hp 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 with 350 lb-ft and standard all-wheel drive. Ford claimed a zero-to-60-mph time of six seconds flat.
Fifth Generation Refresh: 2016–2019 Ford Explorer
Revealed at the 2014 Los Angeles auto show, the refreshed 2016 Ford Explorer helped extend the life of the fifth-gen SUV by adding revised styling, a new infotainment system, and more. The base turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine was dropped in favor of a version of the turbo 2.3-liter making 280 horsepower and 310 lb-ft, which was good enough to shave a whole second off the turbo-four model’s zero-to-60 time in MotorTrend tests. But there’s only so much a mid-cycle refresh can fix, and the tight interior and packaging issues of the fifth-gen Explorer wouldn’t be addressed until the arrival of the . . .
Sixth Generation: 2020 Ford Explorer
The sixth-generation Explorer shifts from a front-drive to a rear-drive architecture, with all-wheel drive available. With its new setup, the SUV achieves a wider stance and short overhang, promising better off-road capabilities and delivering more room inside the cabin.
For 2020, the Explorer offers a standard 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four engine that makes 300 horsepower. That’s up 10 from the previous model year, and it replaces a six-speed automatic with a new 10-speed automatic. If you want more power, a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 is good for 365 ponies, and an ST model is specially tuned to pump out 400 horses. Opt for the hybrid Explorer, and you’ll receive a 3.3-liter V-6 and electric motor combo with a combined 318 hp. The new Explorer also receives a 600-pound increase in max towing capacity.
Inside the cabin, new technologies abound. Along with a 12.3-inch digital cluster, there is an optional 10.1-inch capacitive screen (standard 8.0-inch screen) with an updated Sync 3 interface. Instead of a traditional gear stalk, you’ll find a new rotary gear shifter, as well as an electronic parking brake.