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Trail’s End: April 2001, We Drive The New IRS Ford Explorer

Ken BrubakerPhotographer, Writer

The all-new third-gen Ford Explorer debuted as a ’02 model, and we trotted out a First Look at the SUV in the Apr. ’01 issue of Four Wheeler. This new Explorer was a significant change from its predecessor. It continued to be a body-on-frame design with independent front suspension (IFS), but the body of the five-door was 2 1/2 inches wider overall, the vehicle had a 2-inch-longer wheelbase and an independent rear suspension (IRS). The change from solid axle and leaf springs to IRS was a first for Explorer, and it allowed Ford engineers to integrate a third-row seat (also a first for Explorer) that folded flat to the floor when cargo space was needed.

Two engines were available: a 4.0L V-6 that made 210 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque or a 4.6L V-8 that made 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Interestingly, the V-6 could be paired with a five-speed manual transmission. The V-8 engine was mated to a five-speed automatic that was “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,” we were told.

The four-wheel-drive system was “refined” for the ’02 Explorer in the sense that the Control Trac system was given its own dedicated electronic controller, which was designed to do a better job of managing the four-wheel-drive system when in 4x4 Auto mode. The ’02 Explorer was fit with a two-speed transfer case with 2.48:1 low range ratio.

We wrote that the Explorer was quieter on the inside than its predecessor and the extra 2 1/2 inches of width gave it a more open feel. When it came to driving impressions we wrote, “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 also wrote that we weren’t sold on the Explorer’s IRS due in part to a lack of wheel travel.

The ’16 Explorer is now in its fifth-generation of production, and it’s dramatically different than previous generations of Explorer. It uses a unibody structure and available all-wheel drive (no two-speed T-case). However, Ford’s website says “When the pavement ends, the adventure begins,” when referring to the Explorer, which indicates that the vehicle is being marketed as a capable on- and off-road vehicle. An example of this is the Explorer’s available Hill Control and Terrain Management System.

Over the years we’ve had some great off-roading trips in first and second-generation Explorers. Soon, we’re getting seat time in the ’16 Explorer and we’ll report back, good or bad, on Ford’s newest version of the storied Explorer nameplate.