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How To Buy A Used Explorer

Posted in How To on June 1, 2013
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Photographers: Brian Sumner

For years the Ford Explorer was the bestselling SUV in the country, yet you rarely see them on the trails in numbers comparable to Jeep Cherokees or Toyota 4Runners. With production spanning two decades and high sales numbers, you can pick up a used Explorer for cheap and be out on the trails tomorrow... well, exploring. Cheesy puns aside, these Blue Oval SUVs offer good dimensions for wheeling along with potent engines and capable suspensions. There are a few pitfalls though, and you need to know what you are looking for.

First Gen (’91-’94)
The Explorer was designed as a replacement for the Bronco II, and it is a vast improvement in drivetrain strength over the BII. All first-gen Explorers came with a 4.0L OHV V-6 that made 155-160 hp and was backed by either a A4LD four-speed automatic or a Mazda-sourced M50D five-speed manual. Neither transmission is particularly strong, so plan to swap them out if you are shoehorning a V-8 in your Explorer. If you are looking at an Explorer with an A4LD, pull the dipstick and smell if the fluid is burnt. They get hot and can benefit from an auxiliary cooler like those offered by Flex-a-lite and B&M.

When the Explorer debuted for the ’91 model year it was an instant hit. With high sales numbers, there’s a lot of these vehicles just waiting to be turned into trail rigs.

The transfer case is a BorgWarner 1354 chain-driven case with either a traditional lever or the electronically shifted “Touch Drive.” Both use fixed yokes and can be shifted from 2-Hi to 4-Hi on the fly. The electronically shifted case can easily be swapped with the more desirable manually shifted case with just a few parts from a donor Explorer. The floor plate with shifter boot will bolt right in with no transmission tunnel modifications.

The Explorer was available in two-door or four-door models, with wheelbases of 102 and 112 inches, respectively. Note that they were also available in 2WD, so make sure there is a transfer case when you go on a test drive!

The front suspension on first-gen Explorers uses Twin-Traction Beams (TTB) with a high-pinion aluminum Dana 35 front differential. The radius arms, coil springs, and traditional steering box all lend themselves to relatively easy solid axle swaps. If you want to stick with the TTB there are suspension offerings from James Duff, Skyjacker, Superlift, and more. Out back the 31-spline, drum-braked Ford 8.8 axle is plenty strong and uses simple leaf springs under the axle. 235/75R15 tires came stock, and 31s will fit with just a small suspension or body lift.

First-gen Explorers used a Twin-Traction Beam (TTB) front suspension that is bigger than the Bronco II they replaced but smaller than fullsize Broncos or F-150s. These suspensions can be modified for big wheel travel numbers, but the components are undersized for hardcore wheeling.

Explorer Quick Facts
First Gen (’91-’94)
• 4.0L OHV V-6
• 4-speed auto or 5-speed manual
• TTB front suspension with high-pinion Dana 35 diff
• Leaf spring rear with Ford 8.8 diff
• 32.6˚ approach angle (4-door)
• 22.3 ˚ departure angle (4-door)
• 15/19 mpg (automatic transmission)
• 19.3-gal fuel capacity (4-door)
• 34.2-ft turning radius (4-door)

Second Gen (’95-’01)
The second generation of Explorer saw the TTB front suspension replaced with more conventional IFS with torsion bars, but there are still plenty of reasons to consider this model. They did not grow in size at all and still fit on most trails, plus you can get one from the factory with a 5.0L V-8. Basically every speed part available for Mustangs fits the 5.0L in Explorers.

Second-gen Explorers have rounder body lines and more powerful engine options than the first-gens have, but they also lost the TTB front suspension for torsion bar IFS. Cranked torsion bars and longer shackles will allow room for 31-inch-tall tires. Beyond that, body lifts or larger suspension lifts become necessary.

The 5.0L was an option starting in the ’96 and came backed by a 4R70W four-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel-drive BorgWarner 4405 transfer case. The AWD transfer case does not have a low range; however, a common swap is to a manually shifted BW4406 case from a ’97-’03 Ford F-150. That not only gives you a low range but also drops the AWD function to potentially increase your mileage. The forum Serious Explorations ( has step-by-step instructions on how to perform this swap.

The Mercury Mountaineer debuted for the ’97 model year. It is a rebadged Explorer with a more upscale interior and exterior cladding, but all of the drivetrain and suspension components are interchangeable.

In the ’97 model a SOHC 4.0L V-6 was introduced that makes 205 hp and is mated to a 5R55E five-speed automatic. Both the V-6 and V-8 engines return similar mileage.

The 4.0L OHV engine was standard in first-gen Explorers and was the base model option in second-gen Explorers until ’01 models. They had cooling issues, so check for overheating and blown head gaskets before buying. The more powerful 4.0L SOHC engine had timing chain issues. Ask for documentation that the timing chain has been replaced if you’re buying a high-mileage Explorer with the SOHC V-6.

Wheelbases are unchanged from the first-gen Explorer. The rear end still uses leaf springs and a sturdy 8.8 differential. Disc brakes became standard in the ’95 model year. The IFS does limit lift options, but Superlift makes a 4-inch lift specifically for this model and most Ranger front suspension kits will fit the Explorer. Longer shackles and cranked front torsion bars are popular and inexpensive to gain 1-2 inches of extra height. If you want to make the most of that 5.0L V-8 and go fast, Dixon Brothers make a long-travel IFS kit with 14-inches of wheel travel.

The second-gen Explorer used more traditional IFS with upper and lower A-arms and torsion bars. They use a steering rack instead of a box, and no one makes an off-the-shelf solid axle swap kit, but it is still possible with some custom fabrication.

Second Gen (’95-’01)
• 4.0L OHV V-6, 4.0L SOHC V-6, or 5.0L V-8
• 4-speed auto, 5-speed auto, or 5-speed manual
• Torsion bar IFS with high-pinion Dana 35 diff
• Leaf spring rear with Ford 8.8 diff
• 32.1˚ approach angle (4-door)
• 23.9˚ departure Angle (4-door)
• 14/18 mpg (V-8 with automatic)
• 21-gal fuel capacity (4-door)
• 38.4-ft turning radius (4-door)

Third and Fourth Gens (’02-’10)
For 2002 the Explorer lost all commonality with the Ranger pickup and went to fully independent suspension front and rear, though it was still body-on-chassis construction with a true frame. While the SUV market in general has been sacrificing capability for comfort, the Explorer in particular received bad publicity related to the rollovers of the previous models. This influenced the switch to independent suspension and also had a large influence on the tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) that are standard on all new vehicles. The third and fourth generations of Explorers are difficult to modify for trail duty and have limited aftermarket support. Rancho does make a 2-inch QuickLift that allows fitment of 31-inch-tall tires.

The third-gen Explorer saw the introduction of coilovers to the front suspension, but the solid rear axle was scrapped for an IRS Ford 8.8 diff. Aftermarket support is nearly nonexistent, but we do still see them on the trail on occasion, as shown here on Imogene Pass.

Third Gen (’02-’05)
• 4.0L SOHC V-6 or 4.6L V-8
• 5-speed automatic or 5-speed manual
• Coilover IFS with Dana 30 diff
• Coilover IRS with Ford 8.8 diff
• 31˚ approach angle (4-door)
• 24.5˚ departure angle (4-door)
• 14/19 mpg (V-8 with automatic)
• 22.5-gal fuel capacity (4-door)
• 36.7-ft turning radius (4-door)

Fifth Gen (’11 and later)
The fifth-gen Explorers use unibody construction and are available in either front-wheel drive or AWD, with no low-range offered. A sad end to a vehicle that originally possessed so much off-road capabilities.

Aftermarket Support
The aftermarket support for Explorers is sparse compared to Cherokees and Wranglers, but it does exist. The Explorer uses the same 5-on-41⁄2 bolt pattern as YJs and XJs, so aftermarket wheels for these vehicles will fit on Explorers. For lower gears and lockers you have plenty of options, and D&D Machine even makes a doubler kit to put the reduction box from a BW1350 in front of the factory BW1354 transfer case. RLC Fabrication has the widest selection of armor with skidplates, front winch bumpers, and rear bumpers with tire carriers for Explorers, but James Duff makes Explorer front bumpers as well.

Solid axle swaps on first-gen Explorers are relatively easy, since the coil suspension and steering box can be retained and just the TTB needs to be replaced. With the differential on the driver side and a 5-on-41⁄2 bolt pattern, a good budget option is a Dana 30 out of a Wrangler, Cherokee, or Grand Cherokee.
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• Powerful engine choices
• Body-on-frame construction
• Plentiful
• Reasonably priced
• Strong rear axle

• Limited aftermarket support
• Lack of solid front axle
• Cooling issues
• V-6 timing chain issues
• Problematic automatic transmissions

Check Before You Buy
• Coolant in oil or overheating (cracked heads are common on 4.0L OHV engines)
• Timing chain rattle on SOHC V-6 engines
• Coolant leaking from timing chain cover on OHV V-6 engines
• Cracks in plastic engine fan
• Check transmission fluid for burnt smell or low level
• Sloppy manual transmission shifter
• Electric transfer case is functioning
• Automatic front hubs are functioning
• Wheel bearing play and/or noise
• Worn radius arm bushings
• Blend doors (HVAC) functioning


Fife, WA 98424
Superior Axle & Gear
Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91730
Dorman Products
Colmar, PA 18915
Dixon Bros. Racing
Lompoc, CA 93436
Warn Industries
Clackamas, OR 97015
James Duff Enterprises
Knoxville, TN 37921
West Monroe, LA 71294
800/763-8743 orders
Rancho Suspension Products
Monroe, MI 48161
Superlift Susp.Systems
RLC Welding & Fabrication
D&D Machine

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