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Will the Sales Champ Remain Ford’s Hot Seller?

Passenger Front Side View
Craig Perronne
| Brand Manager, Dirt Sports & Off Road
Posted April 1, 2001
Photographers: Ford Motor Company

The Scoop Behind a Makeover That Includes Four-Wheel Independent Suspension

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  • 2002 Ford Explorer.

  • Safety continues to be a major priority for Ford and 2002 Explorers will come with a Safety Canopy airbag in addition to airbags for the driver and passenger. The Safety Canopy deploys a side-curtain airbag to protect occupants from head injuries during a roll-over. Unlike conventional airbags, the Safety Canopy airbag will stay fully inflated for six seconds.

  • Both rows of seats in the Explorer fold easily and lay flat. This allows for maximum use of the cargo area.

  • Ford engineers said that using independent rear suspension (IRS) allowed for them to design a flatter frame in the rear and have a floor that was seven inches lower. These facts made it possible to have a wider third-row seat. It is an interesting design in which the halfshafts actually pass through a porthole in the frame.

  • Specs.

Since its introduction in 1990, the Ford Explorer has been the best-selling SUV ever, with more than 3.6 million units sold. However, the SUV market has undergone radical change since the Explorer’s launch, with today’s market featuring a sea of SUVs all vying for specific niches in what used to be, by itself, a niche market. With increased competition, Ford knew that it had to redesign its sales-leader, or it wouldn’t lead for long. The redesign, however, had to be more than skin-deep. So rather than just slapping a new fascia on and calling it done, Ford went for a total rework.

This new Explorer takes on a slightly larger, more rounded look that gives it the appearance of a baby Expedition. In fact, the Explorer is 2.5 inches wider than before, and has a wheelbase that is two inches longer than previously. But it maintains the same overall length and height as the previous generation.

There’s two engine options—a 4.0L V-6 or a 4.6L V-8. The V-6 is an improved version of the current SOHC V-6 and produces 210 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque. The V-8 is an all-aluminum version of the now-familiar SOHC 4.6L modular engine. This one produces 240 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Both engines will go 100,000 miles before their first scheduled tune-up, with routine fluid and filter changes called for under normal driving conditions.

The 2002 Explorer also offers two transmission choices of either a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. The manual transmission will be available only with the V-6 engine while the automatic can be found in both V-6 and V-8 Explorers. Interestingly, the automatic is sealed from the factory with 11 quarts of a semi-synthetic blend of transmission fluid that should not require service for the first 150,000 miles.

The Explorer’s four-wheel-drive system has also been refined. The Control Trac system now has its own dedicated electronic controller that allows it to do a better job of managing the four-wheel-drive system when it is in the “4x4 Auto” setting. In this setting, the controller normally delivers all engine torque to the rear wheels but when slippage is sensed, it can redirect up to 100 percent of the torque to the front wheels. The Control Trac system also has the conventional four-low and four-high settings.

Perhaps the most interesting feature, and to us the most controversial, is the new suspension of the 2002 Ford Explorer, which features independent rear suspension (IRS). Usually vehicles that have an independent front suspension (IFS) characteristically have had most of their articulation in the rear, with a solid axle providing the majority of the flex. Putting independent suspension at every corner eliminates this. We have found very little articulation on the IFS/IRS vehicles we have driven in the past, which has hurt trail performance.

So how does the Explorer actually perform? In our brief time with it, we found that the V-6 does an adequate job of moving this SUV’s 4,300 pounds. While the V-6 was nothing to get excited about, the performance of the V-8 did a lot more to get the blood pumping. At highway speeds, the Explorer is quieter on the inside than the previous generation was. The interior of the redesigned 2002 also offers more room. Ford took advantage of the extra 2.5 inches of width to give the interior a more open feel. The independent rear suspension also allowed Ford engineers room for a third-row seat that folds flat to the floor to allow room for cargo.

On-road ride and handling also seem improved but unfortunately the back roads of Arizona, where the Explorer was introduced, offered smooth surfaces that were devoid of potholes and other irregularities that might otherwise have given the suspension a workout. Our off-road expedition consisted of a snowy and muddy road that the Explorer handled fairly easily. It did a good job of finding traction and motored up most obstacles. However, the trail did not test the articulation of the Explorer, which we suspect is limited. While the off-roading was easy, it was probably the most trail work any sane person would do with a brand-new SUV.

We aren’t sold on the independent rear suspension, but overall this new Explorer is an improved package. Will it continue to be Ford’s hot seller? Only time will answer that question, but we suspect that the 2002 Explorer will continue to build upon the strong success it has enjoyed.

Explore It If:

You have been waiting for an improved version of the Explorer.

Forget It If:

You think that independent rear suspension belongs only on sports cars.