"It's hard to go wrong with the Explorer...it's comfortable, powerful, practical and pretty reliable. "
Good: improved ride, roomy, fewer rollovers
Bad: hidden interior door handles

 

For the last few years, the Ford Explorer has been the most popular SUV in the country. So you can understand why Ford decided not to make any dramatic changes to the look or concept of the new Explorer. Fundamentally, it looks like the same vehicle as in previous years -- a mid-sized, boxy, four-door, four-wheel-drive SUV built on a truck chassis.

But Ford did, indeed, make significant changes. The new Explorer is longer, wider and, most importantly, has a lower center of gravity than the SUV it replaces. The result is a better ride, more room and a reduced chance of rolling it over, which became a key issue for Ford while this car was already in development.

We drove the top-of-the-line, four-wheel-drive version of the Explorer -- the Limited -- which has a Cars.com target price of $33,858. The most frugal model, the two-wheel-drive version of the XLS, starts at $24,559.


At first, the changes to the Explorer seem pretty subtle. But the more time we spent with this vehicle, the more we came to realize how much better this year's Explorer is than the one it replaces. And we came to like the new Explorer a lot.

 

So, what's new? Most significantly, the Explorer has a new rear suspension that dramatically improves the ride and handling. The old Explorer made do with a rugged, solid rear axle, like the Model T, in which bumps encountered by the left wheel were transmitted to the right, and vice versa. The 2002 Explorer has independent rear suspension, which means that one rear wheel can remain blissfully unaware of what's going on with the other.

The new suspension smoothes out the ride and allows for a lower center of gravity, which means the Explorer will be less prone to flipping over if your Firestone tires blow out. The lower center of gravity also decreases the amount of lean in corners. Does all that mean it rides like a Jaguar now? No. It's still a truck. But it's a much better-riding truck.

 

The 2002 Explorer is slightly bigger, too. It's two inches longer, about two inches wider and just a little bit heavier. In addition to making the vehicle more stable, the increase in dimensions makes for a more spacious interior. Two inches doesn't sound like a lot, but the interior feels a lot more spacious. Those who feel the Explorer has gotten too big should look at the smaller, more car-like Escape as a decent alternative.

 

The rear cargo compartment has more room, as well, having been lowered seven inches, thanks to the design of the independent rear suspension. This allows the optional third seat to drop down into the floor and leave the cargo floor flat for loading.

 

The Limited comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission and a 210-horsepower, six-cylinder engine. Our test vehicle came with the optional 4.6-liter, 239 horsepower V8, which is a very nice, smooth engine. The Explorer has an electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system that automatically switches from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive when slippage is detected. It's not the same as true, all-wheel drive, in which all four wheels receive some percentage of the power all of the time. Only the Mercury Mountaineer, Mercury's version of the Explorer, offers a true, all-wheel-drive system.

Ford is offering buyers a choice of Goodyear, Michelin or Firestone tires on the Explorer. With the highly publicized rollover accidents of Explorers and the subsequent recall of Firestone Wilderness AT tires, it should come as no great surprise that Ford reports fewer than one percent of buyers opting for the Firestones.

The redesigned Explorer scored three stars out of five in the federal government's rollover resistance ratings, which was about average for the SUVs that were tested. The Explorer earned an overall rating of "good" (the highest score possible) in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's offset crash test.


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The Explorer seats five. If you want to spend an extra $670, you can seat seven with the optional third seat that folds into the floor when not needed. But don't make anyone sit there for a ride across the country. They'll shoot you before you get there.

 

Compared to last year's Explorer, there's a little more leg room in the back. It will be much appreciated by your rear seat occupants. For another 600 bucks you can get separate rear seat heating and cooling controls -- excellent in the event you feel the need to flash freeze your mother-in-law.

Overall, we thought the interior was tasteful and well designed. The Limited's leather seats were very comfortable, though they lacked the side bolstering that helps keep you in place during sharp turns.

Storage space is abundant. There's a large bin between the front seats, a smaller bin near the dash, hard bins in the doors, and overhead compartments for your sunglasses and garage door remote control. Standard equipment on the Limited includes antilock brakes, cruise control, keyless remote entry, power mirrors, tilt wheel, and power windows with an express-down feature for the driver. Side airbags are a $560 option. (And we'd strongly recommend you get them -- especially if you're getting the Firestone tires.) An in-dash, six-CD changer is standard in the Limited; base versions have a stereo cassette player.


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Controls are in conventional locations and are generally well placed. The headlight switch is on the dash, ventilation is controlled by three simple knobs, and three easy-to-use buttons control the four-wheel-drive system. The cruise control and some buttons for the basic functions of the stereo are on the steering wheel.

 

We couldn't get used to the position of the interior door handles. They're in their own little hideaways, tucked under the power window switches, several inches forward from where you might reasonably expect to find them. We suppose that after you drive this truck for a few months, you'll get used to reaching there. But in a week or two of driving, we never did.

Ford took no chances with the styling of the new Explorer. If you liked the looks of the old Explorer, it's a pretty safe bet you'll like the new one, too. In a word, the Explorer is inoffensive looking. Its picture could go into the dictionary under the term: SUV.


The 2002 Explorer may be a new vehicle, but its 4.6-liter engine has been around for years and should perform well. We're less certain about the new transmission. If you buy a 2002 (or later) Explorer, stop by and fill out our survey so we can collect data on your experiences as an owner. Based on our past experience at the shop, we'd expect the Explorer to be about average in terms of reliability.


Service and maintenance are generally straightforward on the Explorer. We would expect service costs to be somewhat pricey, however, due to the extra components associated with four-wheel drive which are slightly higher than normal parts' costs, and the fact that the Explorer's reliability is only average.


 

The major competition for the Explorer will come from the TrailBlazer, Chevy's redesigned mid-sized SUV (and its GM clone, the GMC Envoy) which offers a straight-six engine that's more powerful than Ford's V8. The TrailBlazer, a vastly improved replacement for the Blazer, will give the Explorer some competition.

In the same price range, there are many choices. Jeep offers its venerable Grand Cherokee, which is more suitable for actual off-road driving but lacks Ford's seven-passenger capacity. Honda has its new seven-passenger SUV, the Pilot. The Pilot doesn't have the Ford's dual-range transmission for off-road capability, but does promise Honda reliability and interior design. One interesting alternative is the Mitsubishi Montero, a vehicle that impressed us with its smooth power train and comfortable ride.

But it's hard to go wrong with the Explorer if you need a mid-sized SUV. It's comfortable, powerful, practical (as SUVs go) and pretty reliable. Its handling and ride are significantly improved over its predecessors, while its price has remained roughly the same. For those wanting a smaller option, the Ford Escape is worth a look. But if you need the extra room, the Explorer is a truck you can live with.


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