Former Ford CEO Jac Nasser’s abrasive public persona during the Firestone tire debacle makes him the most memorable chapter in the Ford Explorer story. Like many famous Blue Oval products, the bean-counted SUV that rode on “traction B, temperature C”-rated donuts suffered a never-ending assault from the Big Chief himself. And now that the Explorer is gasping for breath, waiting for a Flex-based CUV to snatch its storied past, its nice to know the original never forgot its mission.
Like any segment buster, the Explorer wins style points for putting this genre on the map. It paved the way for the F150 and Expedition: a sleek chrome bumper meets an anti-truck aerodynamic nose. Other non-truck cues include an open greenhouse, low beltline and thin roof pillars, offering the best visibility this side of the Griffith observatory. The rear hatch is designed with purpose, thanks to a prominent lever with idiot-proof markings: turn left to open the rear glass, right for the hatch.
Forget about the Hummer H2. No modern SUV is this open and inviting. And honest: no plastic pretenses to off roading prowess or wannabe big-rig nose jobs. The Explorer was a siren song for status seekers weary of sedans and the (yet to be catch-phrased) American MILF desperately seeking an end to her minivan.
Inside, the Explorer strikes a balance between a self-starter’s rugged individualism and a trust fund baby’s BMW X5 Individual. The interior has inconsistent panel gaps worthy of its Ranger cousin and the leather-wrapped wheel is thin and rubbery. But the vinyl-overlaid plastics feel almost as rich as the Audi from whence it came. The rear seat’s secondary audio controls musta been cool ten years ago, keeping younger members of Generation Y content without a “Barney & Friends” fix for, like, five minutes.
But true to form, the Explorer’s guts are simply functional. The rear bench isn’t a passenger’s best friend but it folds completely flat for a more usable load floor than many of its successors. The standard audio system is far from today’s ICE-induced shock and awe. But those XLT-grade bucket seats are worthy of The Commander in Chief: the power side bolsters, adjustable thigh, butt and back rests are some of the most luxurious and refined chairs to grace a family hauler. It’s the lipstick that turns a pig into a princess.
Which also explains the 5.0-liter engine: yesteryear’s gas hog comes correct with higher flowing greasy bits than those seen in Vanilla Ice’s videos. There are only 210 horses even if it feels like more; and with less than two tons of weight and optional AWD, the small-block’s pushrod thrust makes for giggle-inducing jackrabbit launches without voiding one’s warranty.
Sure, the motor is a disappointment. But wait ’til you hit a bumpy road. With a confidence-inspiring A-arm affair up front and an oxcart-worthy system in the rear, any pavement blip sends shudders down the Explorer’s spine, jiggling occupants like molded Jell-O. The ride is unacceptable by today’s standards; who knows why suburbanites liked this when new? But with lovable (so to speak) truck dynamics and 6000 lb of towing, there’s nary a squeak or rattle after thirteen years and 85k miles of use. Not to mention its supremely quiet highway demeanor. What gives?
The Explorer’s Jekyll and Hyde persona is best told in the handling department, which was obviously a small and underfunded place.
Grocery getting gives an overinflated sense of well being, thanks to amazing visibility and well-disciplined body motions. Which leads to the inevitable pushing of one’s luck. Cue the chassis’ narrow track and 75-series tires breaking free. Match that with balding tires and we have the worst nightmare for many Explorer owners. And, for those who didn’t buckle their seatbelt, something far more tragic.
That said, this is the mountain goat of family haulers. Never meant to be a lap dog, the Explorer goes from timelessly appealing to WTF-ish in less time than it takes to say “Wilderness A/T.”
At our as-tested price of $5000, the SUV that started it all gets away with showing its durable truck roots, proving it can git ’er done like the best of them (for cheap). And it’s still a preferred family car: the Explorer simply caters to a lower socioeconomic class of families these days. The reason why people (like the cool kids in school) flock to this machine is not hard to understand. The Ford Explorer never tried to be cool. It just was.