By on August 9, 2010

This week’s “Haggler” column in the Sunday New York Times was ripped from the pages of TTAC’s beloved Piston Slap series, with a Wendy Marek writing in to complain that

In July 2008, I made a huge mistake: I bought a Ford Explorer. It was a 2006 model with 40,000 miles, and it cost $17,000. At first I thought I got a great deal, but after a few weeks of driving, the radiator started leaking. Then the replacement radiator started leaking. Then the radiator that replaced the replacement started leaking. To date, six new radiators have been installed in this vehicle. Six.

After some research, The Haggler found that both and Consumer Reports showed a record of radiator problems in 2006 Explorers. Furthermore, Ford issued a TSB on 2006 Explorer radiators in 2009, which the automaker insists covers its liability. Since the Explorer in question is a used car, Ms Marek’s only real recourse would have been to file a breach of warranty claim, but the statue of limitations had already run out. Since so few protections exist for used-car buyers, one has to assume that the moral of the story is that buying used Explorers is a risky business… but is that the truth? Or is the outgoing Explorer a good value that’s getting a bum rap?

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41 Comments on “Ask The Best And Brightest: Does The Outgoing Explorer Earn Its “Exploder” Nickname?...”

  • avatar

    17,000 for a vehicle with 40,000 is alot of money out of pocket to have a problem like this keep occuring. On the other hand Ford did a very good job putting the Explorer together as they had many years to work the kinks out of them. If I ever found myself like the Will Smith character in “I am Legend” all alone on the planet and being chased by Zombie like creatures, I would choose an Explorer to save my hide and look for survivors!

  • avatar

    My firm belief is that every recently made vehicle will serve you well and stay trouble-free for a long time, provided you care for it and do not abuse/neglect it.

  • avatar


    Somewhere between Radiator #3 and #4 I probably would have gotten rid of the car altogether.

    I have zero patience for recurring problems in a car, and even if it isn’t entirely financially wise, there are times when one must simply bail out of a bad situation.

    Some cars are just wrong, and no amount of costly repairs or consternation can ever make them right again. Money is money, but sanity is much harder to replace.

  • avatar

    Kramer: Anyway, it’s been two years. I mean isn’t there like statue of limitations on that?

    Jerry: Statute.

    Kramer: What?

    Jerry: Statute of limitations. It’s not a statue.

    Kramer: No, statue.

    Jerry: Fine, it’s a sculpture of limitations.

    …sorry couldn’t resist.

  • avatar

    The real question:

    Why on Earth did she stick with factory radiators?

    I would have purchased an aftermarket one from any number of online retailers and had an independent shop install it.

    Just sayin’.

  • avatar

    2 questions:

    1. I don’t get the relevance of the example. How the the (lack of) quality in a service part (here a radiator) have anything to do with the base vehicle it is installed in? (unless there is something in the vehicle that is damaging the radiator somehow.)

    2. Didn’t the seller/installer of the replacement radiator offer a warranty on the parts and service? If so, aside from the inconvenience (which I am not trying to diminish), where is the problem here? (assuming the replacements of the replacements were installed before the service-related warranty had expired.)

    • 0 avatar

      Based on the original article, it looks like the replacements were done by a Ford dealer, using original Ford parts.

      So whether it has to do with Ford vehicle design, Ford service training or Ford replacement part quality, it’s still Ford.

      If this were a Jetta, we’d have 100 comments on the reliability by now …

    • 0 avatar

      It’s sounds like the dealer she went to didn’t know what they were doing when they ‘fixed’ the problem. After the first replacement radiator failed, she should have gone to another shop to have the work done, or demanded to speak to someone competent at the place she was dealing with.

      Multiple failures of the same part means there is something else going on, you don’t just get six faulty radiators in a row.

  • avatar

    Decent vehicle. All I can say is I guess like with any used car purchase she should have done her homework. If I knew radiators were a weakness, I’d have a long hard look at the costs. And I sure as hell wouldn’t keep putting factory parts in there.

  • avatar

    lets wait and see what excuse fords press-pamphlet will have…

    nullomodo, where are you?

  • avatar

    From Fords TSB and J.W. McBride:

    One of the most common problems with 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 Ford Explorer radiators is not with the radiators themselves. It is, rather, with the starter. The wiring leading to and from the starter corrodes. When this happens, there is, of course, electricity introduced into the frame of the vehicle. Electrolysis can cause coolant to eat through a radiator faster than you can blink an eye.

    Ford has a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) out stating that anytime you replace a radiator on one of these vehicles, you should check for electrolysis in the cooling system. According to Ford, you should not ground the heater core in a 2006-2009 Ford Explorer. Rather, you should check for electrolysis. You check for electrolysis by disconnecting the battery cables, making sure they are not touching each other or the car, putting the negative DC voltmeter probe on the engine ground and the the positive probe in the coolant and checking to see if you get more than.2 Volts in the coolant. Ford says.4 in the TSB, but that is too much for me!

    If you are experiencing electrolysis in the early stages, and use a voltmeter to check all grounds. This is long and tedious, but if it isn’t done, you’ll have the same problem again. No companies will honor a warranty on a radiator that has been subjected to electrolysis. Once you have repaired issues causing improper grounding, flush all coolant.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately a lot of shops are only interested in churning through customers as quickly as possible so the TSB would not be attempted until after a few return visits.

    • 0 avatar

      Fords been going on about Electrolysis now for nearly 30 years for repeat heater core failures. You think by now theyd have a handle on aluminum components in the cooling system.

      I know this, I’ve put 4 of the damned things in my 95 Explorer, and they arent fun as the entire dash has to come out

      Mine has a cycle of heater core, 8-12 months later it’s the radiator and then 8-12 months later head gaskets, I will gladly swap radiators all day long over a heater core or head gaskets.

  • avatar

    Furthermore, Ford issued a TSB on 2006 Explorer radiators in 2009, which the automaker insists covers its liability.

    That is Ford in a nutshell. They never take responsibility for legit problems.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford found the problem, and released details on how to fix it. If a vehicle comes in for service at a reputable dealer TSBs are routinely fixed. The dealer should have caught this the first time and corrected the real problem, which may or may not have been the starter. Regardless of what was causing it, anyone with half a brain should have realized that radiators do not fail at the rate this woman was experiencing, and done a little more research into what was going on.

      Issuing a TSB does mean Ford is taking responsibility, they are acknowledging the problem, and informing the customer/service department on how to fix it.

    • 0 avatar

      And GM just ran up to the plate to cover those MILLIONS of intake gaskets that cost our family $800 to repair. Or the rotting brake lines that could have make me a widower. Or Toyota’s jumping with enthusiasm to replace my brother’s 3 litre engine.

      Nullo: Issuing a TSB and coughing up for the latent design defect is taking responsibility. Coming up with the fault and instructions on repair without paying for the bad design is not responsibility.

      I think late model Explorers are a good deal. They are mechanically sound and depreciation has made them excellent buys. Just watch those front wheel/hub assembly bearings…

    • 0 avatar


      General Motors and Chrysler never take responsibility for legit problems either. In fact, reliability data gathered by Consumer Reports show that GM is worse and Chrysler is much worse.

  • avatar

    Taking a look at the Explorer forums and other places on the internet, this is a fairly widespread issue for the 2006 4.0L models. Many people are on 3+ radiators. It is rare on the V8s.

    Aftermarket radiators don’t seem to fix the problem, and there were lots of complaints from owners claiming Ford was giving them the run around.

    DIY-ers were also complaining that changing the radiator out was a needlessly difficult affair due to the design of the side brackets. The radiator swap also caused some ATF to spill, which is a hassle because the ’06 Explorer does not seem to have any way for owners to easily add new transmission fluid.

    I didn’t see any complaints from owners of the ’07-’10 Explorer 4.0Ls, so if the hardware on those years is identical to the ’06s, then hopefully the Ford TSB requiring a PCM reflash with a (newly designed) radiator install will fix the problem. It is listed as a 1.9 hour job.

    However, one owner that had the TSB performed stated that he still had leaks. Others have seemed to have more luck, although they haven’t driven many miles yet.

    There was some discussion on electrolysis, but nothing was ever definitively decided there.

    It would be nice if Ford was willing to foot at least some of the bill for owners, but this is an auto company we are talking about here, and Ford isn’t unique in telling out-of-warranty people that they are SOL when it comes to repair/TSB costs.

  • avatar

    I’ve long been a fan of fast depreciating, late model domestic cars. I’ve also been a fan of Fords. So back when I was looking, I was seriously tempted by the Explorer. I think the Explorer is a solid vehicle, but for one problem…the spark plugs on the 5.4 V-8’s that seize/fail in the cylinder head. Look that one up.


    To me, the spark plug issue is a design flaw, and a serious one. However, it’s a flaw whose very nature benefits Ford, by presenting itself only into the later years of ownership, typically after 80-100K, when the warranty is long gone. The poor consumer gets royally screwed.

    This problem affects not just the Explorer but any of the Ford trucks with the 5.4L. Sometimes, the plugs will fail while driving down the road, a pop will be heard, then a miss…

    So does the Explorer deserve to be called Exploder? Probably not. But buyer beware, just the same.

    • 0 avatar

      Two things –

      1. The Explorer is neither currently, nor has ever been, available with the 5.4 liter V8.

      2. The 5.4 liter V8 is one of the most reliable truck engines on the market. Yes, there may have been some minor spark plug issues during earlier runs, but they have long been solved. It is also an engine that Ford uses extensively in the F-150, 2010 and earlier Super Duty, Expedition, and Navigator lines. Considering that the engine was/is used in the best selling vehicles in the country, it makes sense that you will see more people with issues than something that is not put into as many peoples’ hands. That being said, if you look at average failure rates adjusted for how many are actually in use for the 5.4 vs competitors V8 engines, the 5.4 fairs very well.

      Also – a lot of people had spark plug ‘issues’ with the engine from trying to replace the plugs themselves, and not doing it properly. It’s a tricky job, and it requires an experienced and delicate hand due to the angles and threading. Ford has admitted it probably wasn’t the easiest engine to work on, and the new 6.2 liter V8 addresses the concerns for ease of changes on plugs.

    • 0 avatar

      My ’98 F150 had the #3 spark plug go bad around 120k miles. A 200 dollar repair by my God-like independent mechanic, including replacement of the plug mounted coil . Not the major issue that most make it out to be , unless you go BACK to the Ford dealer for the repair…..then the tech will just order up a set of heads, as he figures if youre dumb enough to go to a Ford Dealer for service (with their musical chair techs, here today , gone tomorrow) then you have more money than brains. Google Calvan 38900 for the ultimate repair of this issue, which is nearly always the #3 plug. BTW, no explorer was ever produced with the 5.4 modular engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Also worth noting, I decided to check TrueDelta just to see how the vehicles compare –

      In virtually every year the Ford model, whether it be Explorer, Expedition, F-150, or Navigator, has far fewer repair needs and problems than the equivalent GM or Chrysler product. Also, oddly enough, 2007 was apparently an excellent year for pickup trucks, both Ford and GM have an almost perfect track record on trucks from that year.

      There were also no mentions of spark plug issues other than normal maintenance/replacement, save for one where it was noted that some plugs went bad after 100K miles (which is normal) and another where one of the techs broke one off (which isn’t exactly a design flaw).

    • 0 avatar

      No nullo…the self ejecting spark plug issues were not minor. That is a typical ford response…downplaying the issue then blaming the customer for FORD’S design flaw of not having enough threads in the head. And that doesn’t take into account all of the other issues with the POS modular boat anchors like the plastic coolant crossover on the intake manifold and the poor materials used on the timing chain guides…that would wear down to the metal backing then infect the oil with small metal shavings eventually clogging your oil pickup.

      Your passing these issues on as minor proves how ford infects the whole company with a terrible mindset. A mindset that doesn’t take responsibility for anything.

      And ford is having issues with the spark plugs in the 3V boat anchors as well now. The only way to remove them is to break them off…one mustang had 6 of the 8 break off…at a ford dealer…and the car only had 38k on it. Ford baselessly blamed the customer, then charged him over$ 600.00 to change his 8 plugs.

      That…is the ford way.

    • 0 avatar

      There were two problems related to 2V & 3V modular sparkplugs, well maybe three.

      One problem resulted from Ford reducing the number of threads in the head in early PI 2V heads (1999 in the Mustang, and a year or two later in other cars & trucks) which made them prone to stripping out if over tightened or the plug backing out and blowing out of the head if under tightened, sometimes taking the threads with them (check your plugs if you hear ticking).

      Ford upped the thread count later (around 2002 or 2003?) but they also went to a softer alloy which could strip out more easily than the earlier non-PI heads (1996-1998) or prehistoric pre-non-PI heads (1991-1995), neither of which had these problems as long as you remembered they’re aluminum. The higher thread count heads seem to be less trouble than the lower thread count heads and no one seems to have really noticed the softer aluminum except for some guy that rebuilds and ports modular heads.

      3V heads had a 2 piece sparkplug that if it is not installed correctly and removed correctly can seize and the lower half can break off and stick in the head. There is a torque spec and procedure that must be followed for REMOVING the plug.

      Most people don’t have a problem if they follow the procedures in the manual and use the right tools – a torque wrench is a must these days. You assume your dealer’s or shop’s mechanic is using the correct tools and procedures but that’s not always the case – sometimes they think they know what they’re doing even when they don’t.

      I presume the change to a lower thread count and the use of a two-piece plug were both attempts to control combustion chamber and cylinder head temps. They look like bad ideas in retrospect but Ford probably cut it a little too close to the edge to survive real world use and they also underestimated people’s, including their own dealers’ mechanics ability to not follow directions.

      5.4L and 4.6L heads are all identical. The only difference is whether they’re Windsor (usually trucks) or Romeo (usually cars) plant castings and those differences are fairly minor and heads and blocks are interchangeable (with a few caveats about valve covers, timing covers and flywheel/flexplates).

    • 0 avatar

      I had a plug blow out on my 5.4 Expedition that took the coil out with it. $450 (new plug, helicoil, new coil, 2 days later) I was back in business. Nullo, I have to disagree, when it happens to you it is not minor. Cruise some of the Ford truck and Expedition sites and you’ll see it’s rather common. It’s a design flaw that Ford has yet to take ownership of… I guess if no one dies then it’s OK to let it go. The fact they made changes tells me they know it was faulty. That has put me off of Ford to the point I bought a Chevy truck (used, never another dime of mine to Government Motors!) instead of a Ford.

      From what I’ve seen told is the problem is the plug working loose and the movement causes the AL threads to strip out to the point it can’t hold the pressure and blows. I was advised to keep the plugs tight and don’t run it if I hear any unusual noise coming from that area of the engine.

    • 0 avatar


      Again, what you have said isn’t necessarily untrue. However, it is important to point out that GM and Chrylser are worse- much worse. Ford and Mercury outscore all GM brands for reliability. Geez, GM and Chrylser each have three brands in the -bottom- six. Terrible.

  • avatar

    Meh I like how the 1st gen Explorer had the plastic heater core lines right above the airfilter, which inevitably become brittle and break during an airfilter replacement.

    That said the 4.0l is an archaic but reliable engine and the sealed transmission is work aroundable with some help from the Mustang’s aftermarket. That said aftermarket, and the fact that you can spit and have it land on an Explorer means parts are cheap and easy to find. So I think its safe to say an Exlorer is a decent choice for a used car.

  • avatar

    A radiator leak is not the end of the world as car problems go, but it is these kinds of stories that sell a lot of Toyotas in this world.

    • 0 avatar

      Right…..Cause Toyota makes perfect vehicles,that never break….Oh yeah and the dealers are all perfect to.

      No wonder the “Tooth fairy” drives a Toyota.

    • 0 avatar

      @LectroByte: You are right, and it’s something that car people miss: average buyers don’t really care how stout a drivetrain is if they’re being “nibbled to death by ducks” on things like electronics, plumbing or suspension components.

      One of the reasons Toyota is where they are isn’t absolute reliability, or theoretically engineering soundness, it’s total-cost-to-own, which is important when you don’t, won’t or can’t do your own wrenching.

      @mikey: to give an example that hits fairly close to home for both of us, the W-Bodies have pretty badly under-spec’ed brakes from the factory. They wear out quite quickly, and a brake job that early on is going to annoy people. For a gearhead this isn’t a big deal and they’ll let it go because they can do the work and because the rest of the car is pretty solid; for a secretary just trying to get from her house to the GO station it’s a couple hundred bucks that she wouldn’t have had to spend if she bought a Camry.

    • 0 avatar

      I tend to want to keep a car or truck for 10 years if I can, and the Fords I’ve owned tended to nickel and dime me a lot after 3 or 4 years. Not saying Toyotas or their dealers are perfect, but I suspect there’s a lot more “not done anything to it and not had any problems” stories for one brand than another, and that experience and word of mouth makes for more sales and repeat business.

  • avatar

    6 radiators? Time for small claims court and a new mechanic~! The explorer is a competent vehicle, finding a competent mechanic is another story..

  • avatar

    My wife wanted the Explorer, I bought the TrailBlazer and I’ve never regretted that decision. The Explorer always felt cheaper to me. The TrailBlazer’s Fisher-Price interior is no big deal when you consider its bulletproof drivetrain and reliability.

  • avatar

    I’ve got some personal experience here, and good and bad thoughts on a used Explorer purchase. I think first & second generation Explorers really were bulletproof vehicles, some of the most durable American cars ever made. There are tons of 200k+ mile 1st generations still on the road. In 2002, they did the major redesign and the resulting vehicle is a) designed to be serviced at dealers specifically and b) is not durable. I bought a 30k mile 2004 Mountaineer AWD V6 for $11k two years ago. Fantastic deal, no doubt about it, the depreciation on these is insane. I found out why at 65k when I needed to drop $2100 for a transmission rebuild, because the original came apart (owners can’t even check tranny fluid because it is a fully enclosed system with no dipstick). Now we’re at 80k about and the only other problem we had was a front wheel bearing and ball joint. Both transmissions and bearings are common problems in the 2002-2006 models. So $2700 in repairs over 50k miles. That is a lot, but if you factor in the original purchase cost, it eases the pain. And at the end of the day, it is a very comfortable, roomy, and nice SUV.

    Seems like they solved the transmission failures from 2006 on but there are other soft points. I’m not the least bit surprised.

    So I only recommend them used if a) you are buying an older generation low mileage, or b) you are getting an absolute steal on a 2002 or newer model. Make sure you’re spending $5-$8k less than a comparable 4-Runner, because you’re going to need it!!

  • avatar

    I doubt if even GMC would be able to use their odious lame dismal excuse of “Unable to replicate the problem” when a radiator leak is involved.

    At least Chevy/GMC used that money-saving excuse for problems that actually required some diagnosing and did not shove aside warranty repairs for obvious bit-you-on-the-nose defects.

    Yes, I am aware that the Explorer tale does not include warranty woes, apparently, but as mentioned already where are the part/labor warranties?

    And the other commentator made an excellent point with grabbing an aftermarket radiator of quality build and capable of being fit into the Explorer using competent skills and a suitable tool-set.

  • avatar

    In this Explorer case obviously it was either the radiator production run, the installation, or the mounting vibration isolation set up.

    How about a Dodge pickup truck catalytic converter replaced under warranty at 74,000 miles? Then the replacement converter fails before 135,000 or less than 75,000 miles later. Then 6 years later Dodge issues a recall on the faulty catalytic converters on vehicles with up to 150,000 miles. But then my pickup didn’t qualify since its converter was already replaced – albeit with one from the obviously faulty production period. You lose, do not pass Go, no new converter. Consequence is that the environment suffers since I live in an non-emissions test state and never had the money to buy a third converter.

  • avatar

    I think this entire issue can be abstracted. It is really the competence of the shop working on the car that we are discussing, not specfically issues with Fords (or any other maker). The shop did not read (or did not follow) the TSB. They did not do their homework to truly solve the problem.

    Which leads me to a pet peeve (and perhaps a topic TTAC should tackle), that is, paying ASE-certified mechanic shop rates but having the work done by inexperienced minimum-wage rookies. Don’t get me wrong: a good mechanic is worth their weight in gold. Also, don’t get me wrong: everyone needs a start in life, including being a minimum wage wrencher. What I object to is paying around $100/hour to the shop to have an inexperienced mechanic ‘fix’ my car. The typical fix is to replace parts until the problem goes away, all the while charging the customer for parts that didn’t need replacing.

  • avatar

    When the New York Times article begins by saying “It took a minimum of research to find that Ms. Marek has a lot of equally miserable company.” it doesn’t say much for Ms. Marek.

    I have a hard time feeling sorry for anyone who apparently did no research before buying a used car, especially when the problem is well documented and easy to discover.

    If you walk onto a used car lot and buy a car without first getting a pre-purchase inspection by an independent mechanic, don’t pay for a carfax (or similar report) and don’t hit the Internet forums that cover the vehicle in question, you deserve what you get when things go wrong.

    This isn’t even necessarily an Explorer problem, but a -2006- Explorer problem as the article points out based on Consumer Reports data. Again, basic research and a cheap subscription to would have pointed her to another model year if she really wanted an Explorer.

    This poor woman is living in a hell of her own creation.

  • avatar

    My sisterinlaw’s expedition spit out a spark plug about 4-5 years ago. I went to autozone and got a helicoil insert repair kit for about 10-12 bucks.
    It took me about 10 minutes to repair the threads and the truck still runs fine to this day.

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