Think back more than a decade ago and try to remember the very first time you laid eyes on the then-brand-new '90 Ford Explorer. At the time, you may have thought, "Wow, that sure is a good-looking vehicle." The pickup craze was just hitting its stride, and the only decent SUVs for the era were of the fullsize nature.
Now, fast forward 10 years and 3-1/2 million Ford Explorers later, driving around the local backcountry roads and highways, and you can suddenly understand there certainly is a reason to change. However, with those 3-1/2 million vehicles running around, can there be an argument for why change is really needed? With those kinds of sales numbers backing up the Explorer, it does seem logical to not want to tweak the styling too far to the right. (Think of the old Ford Taurus and the redesigned '99 Ford Taurus.) So when the recent invitation came to attend the introduction of the all-new 2002 Ford Explorer, apprehension shone through on all the marketing and design engineers' faces.
Not until the vehicle was actually unveiled and some gasps of excitement were perceived from the keen automotive journalist world did sighs of relief sweep over the room. The brand-new 2002 Ford Explorer carries on where the past models have seemingly left off. Plus, with numerous additions and even more safety built into the vehicle's platform, a Taurus-like meltdown surely won't occur.
This explains why the new Ford Explorer resembles so much of the old. With several years of sales numbers in the more than 400,000-unit range, sales such as these are unprecedented. After all, it is a known fact: The '90 Ford Explorer reshaped the way the entire automobile industry viewed sport utility vehicles. In 1990, there were only a handful of players in this large, overgrown station-wagon-on-steroids market. Today, there are more than 50 different types and styles of SUVs on the road, and by the time the actual production 2002 models hit the streets, those numbers are expected to rise to more than 70 models of SUVs.
Reshaping the Future
Part of what defines a new vehicle is the amount of change or new features associated from past models. The 2002 Ford Explorer follows the same path as most new vehicles offering more than its predecessor does. Such changes are what make Ford want to build upon those 400,000-units-a-year sales figures. For the next-generation Explorer, expect to see the vehicle hitting the dealership showrooms with a 2-1/2-inch-wider stance and a 2-inch-longer wheelbase. The overall length of the new 2002 model, however, stays the same as the 2001 version, due in part to moving the front wheels 2 inches forward. It is this wider stance and longer wheelbase that is supposed to translate into a better-handling vehicle, an improved appearance, and more roominess. A unique feature that carries over from Ford's other recent vehicle announcement: The Escape has independent rear wheel suspension standard on both 2WD and 4WD models. Die-hard 4x4 enthusiasts may cry foul, but the inherent nature of these new SUV models is not for hard-core off-road endeavors anyway. However, for light-duty off-roading, Ford has positioned the Explorer with better ground clearance than any past models and offers Control Trac on all 4WD systems. The independent rear wheel suspension does, however, allow for a rear third row of seats, affording the Explorer seven-passenger seating comfort.
Ingress and egress is also supposed to be much-improved thanks to the reshaping of the doors. By offering larger openings and lower step-in heights, getting in the biggest of fullsize adults, even in the third row, should be relatively easy. More interior upgrades include a tilting and telescoping steering wheel. However, one of the biggest changes in the air involves safety. Standard are driver- and passenger-side airbags. But even more important is the soon-to-be-standard side-impact curtain airbag system deploying from the headliner in the event of an accident, as well as rollover protection sensors, which will also be made available on later 2001 models. Ford's research and design team's case studies showed that despite the low rollover tendency of all SUVs, something needed to be done to counteract these measures. The company's answer is the safety canopy. These side canopies deploying from the headliner cover approximately 75 percent of the side glass area and help protect first- and second-row occupants in the outboard seats during a side-impact collision. The side-curtain bags are deployed independently of each other and from the driver- and passenger-side bags. Each is deployed within 25 milliseconds and can fully inflate in 15 milliseconds, thanks in part to side-impact door sensors located directly in the middle of the crash beam bar on all four doors. These sensors relay a signal to a transmitter located under the center console that deploys the side air curtain.
The engine motivation is also brand new. An improved 4.0L SOHC (single overhead camshaft) engine producing 210 hp at 5,250 rpm and 250 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm will be standard. That is the norm on the 5.0L V-8 currently listed as the largest motor on current models. Optional will be an all-new 4.6L SOHC all-aluminum V-8 delivering 240 hp at 4,750 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm with more low-end response and midrange power. In addition to refined powerplants, brand-new transmissions back up these engines. A more sophisticated five-speed manual will be offered on the V-6 models, delivering car-like shift points. While a new 150,000-mile maintenance-free, wide-ratio five-speed automatic will become the optional transmission of choice on V-6 models and will be standard on all V-8 Explorers, the automatic's all-aluminum casing offers less noise, vibration, and harshness than ever before and requires no servicing for the previously stated 150,000 miles. In fact, Ford is so sure of its new 11-quart semi-synthetic blend of specially formulated transmission fluid, the company doesn't even offer an underhood transmission dipstick.
Fit behind the two choices of transmissions are more choices in rearend axle ratios. Standard on all 4x2 XLS and XLT models will be a 3.27:1 gear ratio. A slightly lower 3.55:1 ratio becomes standard on all 4x4 manually shifted XLS models, 4x4 XLT five-speed automatics, Eddie Bauer, and Limited models. An even deeper 3.73:1 gearset is optional when ordering the Class III and IV towing package as well as a limited-slip differential. Also increased on the V-8 models is the Explorer's ability to tow. The standard receiver hitch that is part of the frame offers Class II towing capabilities of 3,500 pounds. However, order up the optional limited-slip rearend and Low 3.73:1 gears, and the towing capacity improves to 7,300 pounds. That is enough to tow most intermediate ski boats. Tire selection being big right now, especially out of the Ford camp, Explorers will still rely on the venerable Firestone-branded radials. Standard on all Explorers will be 16-inch models in sizes P235/70R16.
Is it our imagination or does it seem that with more and more intermediate SUVs offering third rows, the advantages of the fullsize SUVs may become a thing of the past? The 2002 Explorer is no different. With the option of a third row of seats, the Explorer can offer seven-passenger seating. To keep the third-row seats actually functional for fullsize adults, careful attention was made to the floorboards. Yes, they are flat, and by lowering the rear floorboards, the third-row seat occupants now have just as much interior headroom as the second-row occupants. Ford was able to lower the floorboards by using the independent rear suspension setup, thus eliminating the need for a large solid axle and leaf springs (think Dodge Durango). And when both the second and the third row of seats are folded down, the floor also remains totally flat. In fact, flat enough to hold a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood.
One other exciting feature found on the backend is the brand-new liftgate. When it is open, it resembles something you may see from a minivan, but make no mistake, when it's closed, it looks nothing like your grandfather's minivan. The liftgate features a lower lift-over height and is designed for the grocery shopper in mind. When open, the gate allows for ease of entry of groceries and other home essentials.