Used Review: 1996 Ford Explorer

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Copy Chef Copy Chef on Oct 20, 2009

    Accords: Do you call yourself that because you deem Honda products to be the pinnacle of automotive design - like every other sheep who reads "Consumer Reports" while diddling his laptop in Starbuck's? My faithful '99 Explorer Sport just took my 12-year-old and I up into the Idaho mountains to bag his first buck last weekend (and me up by myself to fill my doe tag 2 days later). We actually spend time in the saddle using the 4Low, so we know from where we speak. Our valiant little Explorer never gets stuck, never bottoms out, and gets us there and back safely and comfortably. So before you go shooting your opinionated delitante mouth off about something you have absoloutely no concrete, real-world experience with, why don't you stick to reviewing the cupholder placement in foreign econoboxes and leave the off-roading to those of us who actually have the skill, experience, and equipment to do it. Any vehicle is only as safe as the nut behind the wheel. Driving a Honda to and from your cubicle in rush hour traffic probably requires a certain set of gerbil-like skills that you have undoubtedly polished to a high gloss. Personally, I wouldn't own a clown car, but if that's what flips your skirt up Barbie, go for it. It's a free country - or at least it was up until recently.

  • Shooter04 Shooter04 on Oct 21, 2009

    Accords, I'm not trying to start an argument here, I am just stating my personal experience with this particular year and model vehicle. As I have stated, it served my family very well. And as for rollovers which seem to be your biggest roll an SUV or any other top heavy vehicle you need to be driving erratically. A vehicle doesn't just roll over in a ditch if your driving safe, it takes an idiot cutting lanes and running lights to do that. The Firestone tires may be to blame, but as with most vehicles...who keeps stock tires anyways? Heck, I drive a lifted F250 (6" lift with 35" tires) which is most definitely more prone to rollovers than my old Explorer, and I do just fine. I take corners slow, accelerate properly, and when off-road I only take inclines at angles I know I won't roll. With vehicles my size...It's all about enjoying the ride. Something I presume you can not do in your ricer. Until you pull up to an intersection and have people looking UP to you, giving you the thumbs-up when you roll coal, then you can't really complain. One of my ex-girlfriends drove an Accord actually and quite frankly, I didn't like it. Sure it was quiet, the ride was like i was on a cloud, and the sound system was nice but...It's just not my "cup-o-tea". I like sitting high, I like rough suspension, and I like me engines loud. Just my preference. Guess it comes with being raised in the south haha. -Shooter04

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.