6 generations of Ford Explorers: A history of the groundbreaking SUV

We look back at the body styles throughout the Explorer’s 29 model years, all the way up to the 2020 model debuting at the Detroit Auto Show.

Manuel Carrillo III Automotive Reviews Editor
A Porsche 911 S brought Manuel Carrillo III home from the hospital after he was born, so it's no surprise his lifelong trajectory has centered on cars, leading him to a robust career creating rich automotive media for publications prior to joining CNET.

The Southern California native briefly lived in Sydney, and is proud to have developed a barely passable Aussie accent. He also serves on the board of directors of the Motor Press Guild. When not reviewing cars or nerding out on OEM premium audio, you can find manual-labor-averse Manuel doing his best to convince his closest friends to fix the very Porsche that delivered him home.
Manuel Carrillo III
9 min read

The was instrumental in popularizing the SUV. When it hit the market for the 1991 model year, it followed the lead of the and Chevrolet S-10 by offering off-road capability and rugged styling with family-friendly utility.

Almost 30 years later, the Ford Explorer is a lot different than when it first drove into suburbia's garages, but it still serves the same purpose: To carry the family in comfort with at least the appearance of can-do capability.

With an all-new, sixth-gen Ford Explorer set to debut ahead of the 2019 Detroit Auto Show , let's look back at the five generations it took to get us to this point.

Ford Explorer begins with immediate success

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1991-1994 Ford Explorer: The breakout hit

The first Explorer was built off the pickup truck chassis and shared a plethora of parts with its more utilitarian sibling, namely body panels ahead of the A-pillar and a dashboard. Although the Explorer resembled the (also Ranger-based) two-door Bronco II compact SUV of the 1989 and 1990 model years, the Explorer was actually a full segment size larger.

The two-door was 12.6 inches longer and 2.2 inches wider than the Bronco II, while the four-door Explorer boasted an additional 22.4 inches of length. It was also more aerodynamic and modern looking, thanks to flush side glass, integrated mirrors and the lack of drip rails, which were still used on the Ranger of that period. The Explorer also came in a well-known, two-tone Eddie Bauer trim -- a tie-in with the outdoorsy clothing store. The Eddie Bauer Explorer was enough of a hit that it returned for subsequent generations.

Under the hood was a 4.0-liter, overhead-valve V6 that made a respectable (for the time) 155 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Later model years saw a 5-horsepower bump, but torque stayed the same. The V6 could be paired with a Mazda-sourced five-speed manual transmission or a Ford-designed four-speed automatic. The first-gen Explorer came with rear-wheel drive standard, but shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive was optional.

Speaking of Mazda, the Japanese automaker sold its own version of the first-gen Explorer. Called the Navajo, it was based off the Explorer Sport, meaning that it was only offered with two doors. While the '91 to '94 Explorer was an immediate hit, the Navajo, unfortunately, never really resonated with buyers.

The Explorer, however, did. In its first year, it sold 140,509 units. In its second year, it more than doubled that with 282,837 sales. By the end of 1993, the SUV had crested 300,000 deliveries.

Second-gen Ford Explorer keeps playin' the hits

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1995-2001 Ford Explorer: Topping the charts

Because most buyers rarely ventured off-road with their Explorers, the second-generation model's redesign was enhanced for better on-road manners, thus further differentiating the Explorer from the Ranger pickup truck on which it was still based. The more off-road-inclined I-Beam front suspension was replaced with a new, independent wishbone setup, but a live axle still resided out back.

The Explorer's exterior design also put more distance between itself and the Ranger. Rather than looking like a pickup with a well-integrated camper shell, the new Explorer had a more rounded look all its own. There was a lot more power under the hood, too. For 1996, Ford began offering a 5.0-liter V8 engine making 210 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. In 1997, Ford added a single-overhead cam, 4.0-liter V6 to the option sheet. This modernized mill was good for 205 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. The base 4.0-liter V6, however, was still making just 160 ponies. Also this year, V6 Explorers could be had with a five-speed automatic transmission -- a very modern gearbox for the time.

This generation of Explorer waved "goodbye" to its Mazda platform-mate after 1994, but the midsize SUV wasn't alone for long. The 1997 model year brought about the , which came only with the 5.0-liter V8, but subsequent years made V6 power optional.

By the turn of the century, the biggest news for the Explorer centered on its Firestone tires blowing out due to tread separation, leading to numerous rollovers, 271 deaths and as many as 23 million tires recalled by both Firestone and Ford. Meanwhile, the blue oval was adding a new pickup truck variant called the with four doors, a 14.3-inch longer wheelbase and a 4.2-foot, composite truck bed.

When it came to sales, these were the Explorer's glory days. At the beginning of the second generation, the SUV registered 395,227 deliveries for 1995. The Explorer reached its all-time peak in 2000 with 445,157 units. It closed out the generation a year later with a still-healthy 415,921 deliveries.

Ford Explorer continues to evolve as SUV market reinvents itself

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2002-2005 Ford Explorer: The thrill is gone

Continuing the trend of being more family hauling-centric than off-road-ready, the third-generation Ford Explorer was no longer tied to the Ford Ranger. But it was still a body-on-frame SUV. Regardless of its truck-like roots, this Explorer was more car-like than ever before. A new independent rear suspension not only offered a superior ride, but it also freed up space for the newly available third row of seats, bringing the total occupant count to seven.

The base engine was carried over from the second-gen Explorer: A 4.0-liter V6 making 210 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, but the third generation brought a more powerful 4.6-liter, single-overhead cam, all-aluminum V8 with 240 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The extra V8 power paired with body-on-frame construction meant this Explorer could tow as much as 7,300 pounds.

You could also have the Mazda-sourced five-speed manual transmission with the V6, but that was only offered for the first model year, after which all Explorers were built only with the five-speed automatic. The Explorer Sport, still based on the previous-gen model, met its maker in 2003.

In addition to the Explorer bidding farewell to the manual and a two-door configuration, the SUV also kissed its stellar sales figures goodbye. In 2002, the Explorer was still resounding with 433,847 sales for the year, but by 2005, sales were down 45 percent from three years earlier to just 239,788 units as more consumers ditched traditional SUVs for car-based crossovers .

While the Explorer began to fade in popularity, it's newest platform-mate, the , was never a huge hit, and was grounded after 2005.

Fourth-gen Ford Explorer improves but doesn't meet customer needs

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2006-2010 Ford Explorer: Downward spiral

The 2006 Explorer brought about a more powerful 4.6-liter V8 engine with 292 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque channeled through a new six-speed automatic transmission. For the base Explorer, the previous generation's 4.0-liter V6 carried on as the standard engine paired with a five-speed automatic, also from the previous generation.

A Sport Trac variant continued with the fourth-gen Explorer, and was even offered in the racy (not really) Adrenalin (yes, spelled incorrectly) trim. Speaking of special editions, don't forget about the Ironman Explorer from the 2007 model year. Hot stuff.

The fourth-gen Explorer also boasted a tougher frame, improved suspension and a refreshed interior. Later model years added more tech and convenience features, but none of those upgrades appeared to speak to customers. In 2006, sales were down 25 percent from the year before to 179,229, and by 2010, sales were down to 60,687, largely a product of the failing US economy and consumers' demand for smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. The Explorer's all-time low of 52,190 sales came in 2009 -- roughly a tenth of what sales were at their peak nine years earlier. Speaking of tenths, the related Mercury Mountaineer sold an embarrassing 5,791 units in 2010, leading to its demise along with the rest of the brand.

Ford Explorer's fifth generation is just what the doctor ordered

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2011-2019 Ford Explorer: The resurrection

The current, fifth-gen Ford Explorer is an example of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." After about a decade of car-based crossovers eating the Explorer's lunch, Ford finally caved and engineered an Explorer -- based on the sedan -- that followed the lead of successful, car-based crossovers such as the .

This strategy seemed to work in Ford's favor. With 135,704 units sold in 2011, the Explorer more than doubled its volume from the previous year, while also beating the Highlander by more than 34,000 units. Sales kept climbing pretty much every year up to the fifth-gen's 2017 peak of 271,131. Last year wasn't bad for the Explorer, either, as it was about 10,000 sales shy of beating 2017's record. Still, that was good enough to make the Explorer America's best-selling three-row SUV.

The Explorer's resurgence definitely had something to do with drastically improved fuel economy. The fifth-gen started life with a 3.5-liter V6 pumping 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission. The Explorer's new engine and car-based construction helped it to achieve 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg highway for all-wheel-drive models and 18/25 city/highway mpg on front-wheel-drive versions. That's much better than the gas-guzzling 2010 Explorer. When equipped with a V6 and four-wheel drive, the EPA rated it at 13/19 city/highway mpg.

To appease budget-minded shoppers even further, the Explorer also came with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine rated at 237 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, allowing the first four-cylinder Explorer to achieve 20/27 city/highway mpg. That engine eventually gave way to a 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder producing 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.

While a V8 was no longer offered, Ford was still adding more power under the hood. In 2013, the Explorer Sport slid back into the lineup, this time with four doors and a twin-turbocharged, 3.5-liter V6 making an impressive 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. A 0-60 time of less than six seconds was about two seconds faster than both the Explorer with the naturally aspirated V6 and the last V8-powered model.

The SUV got a visual update in 2016, followed by more subtle visual tweaks in 2018. Throughout this generation's nine years, Ford has also been injecting more tech into its midsize SUV. As a result, the 2019 Explorer offers the latest in safety and driver-assistance features such as collision-mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, automated parallel parking, automatic high beams and rain-sensing wipers. For those along for the ride, there's built-in Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to keep everyone entertained.

2020 Ford Explorer is better in almost every way

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2020 Ford Explorer: Can it keep the momentum?

If our recent tale of the tape is any indicator, yes it can. The all-new, sixth-generation Explorer offers more interior space, tech, power and capability than before, which not only helps it stand out from the competition, but also should help it keep its sales crown.

The new Explorer's base price sees a $400 increase over 2019 to $33,760 (including a $995 estimated destination charge), but the sixth-gen SUV with no options will be a lot nicer than an option-free fifth-gen. First, it'll have more power in the form of an EcoBoost 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder making 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque sent to the rear wheels via a 10-speed automatic transmission. That's enough power and torque to tow up to 5,300 pounds, or 2,300 pounds more than this year's four-cylinder Explorer.

The new SUV will be able to haul more inside, too. With cargo space up 6.1 cubic feet to 87.8, it's now roomy enough to haul a 4x8 sheet of plywood. Passengers will also benefit with best-in-class second- and third-row headroom.

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No, that's not an iPad. That's the new Explorer's available 10.1-inch touchscreen.


Tech also gets a major upgrade. The new Explorer comes standard with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Waze navigation on an 8-inch touchscreen, along with in-car Wi-Fi and four USB ports. Standard safety tech is also boosted to more competitive levels, thanks to collision-mitigation braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, blind spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beams and a self-washing rearview camera.

That's a good amount of content for a base model, but for those wanting to extract more out of the new platform, the Explorer Platinum (likely to start around $56,000) will come with a 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 making 365 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. The beefier engine is also connected to a 10-speed automatic, but is paired exclusively with all-wheel drive featuring a front axle disconnect. The extra power means an additional 300 pounds of towing capacity to 5,600.

Available tech and safety features will include embedded navigation on a vertical, 10.1-inch touchscreen featuring pinch-to-zoom functionality, a 360-degree camera, automated parallel parking, adaptive cruise control with speed sign recognition, evasive steering assist, and rain-sensing wipers. For even more information about the new Explorer, check out our first-look.

Ford will also be offering a hybrid version, as well as a performance-minded Explorer ST, but details about those won't be released until the full 2020 Explorer lineup is unveiled at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show.

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Don't you love a good-ol' generational family photo?