In honor of the Explorer's first foray into the world of unibody vehicles, for this issue, we decided to look at the third generation of the SUV. For those who want the capability associated with body-on-frame construction, this generation of Explorer is affordable, reliable, and readily available.

Ford's first Explorer, introduced in late 1990, edged the Bronco II out of the lineup and quickly made a name for itself. Nicely sized, decently equipped, and ready to ride the wave of SUV popularity, the Explorer became the de facto choice for hauling gear and outdoorsmen.

Two generations later, the Explorer shed its brick shape for muscular, honed styling evocative of the larger Expedition. Brought to market in late 2001, this third-generation Explorer offered many refinements, though it kept its trucklike body-on-frame construction. Indeed, that basic layout was about all that remained of the first two generations of Explorer. The wheelbase was stretched 2 inches, and the body was 1.9 inches wider, improving interior volume. That more welcoming interior was dramatically redesigned, and the equipment levels continued to escalate. The trim packages included the base, XLS, the nicer XLT, Eddie Bauer, and Limited.

All Explorers of this generation could be had with the carryover 4.0-liter, 210-horsepower SOHC V-6, mated to a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic. Manuals are available only on the low-line XLS trim and only with the V-6. Also in the lineup: a new (to the Explorer) V-8. Where the previous generation got the well-regarded 4.9-liter (aka 5.0, nee 302) V-8, the new Explorer got the 4.6-liter SOHC engine shared with the F-Series trucks. Smooth, modern, relatively efficient, and torquey (the 239-horse V-8 put out 280 pound-feet), the 4.6 made the Explorer pleasingly quick, though certainly not fast.

Farther back in the driveline came a new independent rear suspension, the benefits of which included improved ride quality and much more compact packaging. This move allowed the rear floor to be dropped 7 inches, making a third row of seats possible. Rear drive was standard, and Control Trac four-wheel drive (with low-range gearing) was optional. By 2003, an automatic all-wheel-drive system was added to the options list.

In general, the Explorer has been reliable. Both engines are mature and durable. But a significant number of reports cite transmission problems, particularly with the 2002 model. As reported, these are not minor problems, but major transmission blowups, some with as few as 44,000 user-reported miles. One symptom is that the Overdrive light flashes while the vehicle is driven. There are dramatically fewer reports of this problem with 2003 Explorers.

Another common problem is a cracked trim piece below the rear window; reports of this issue, said to cost $1000 to repair, are widespread.

As with any used vehicle, a close check of the service records is warranted, and a thorough test drive should be considered mandatory. If you're eyeing a 2002 model, it would be a good idea to look for transmission problems in particular.


2002-2005 Ford Explorer
Body type 4-door SUV
Drivetrain Front engine, RWD/4WD
Airbags Driver, passenger
Engines 4.0L/210-hp SOHC V-6; 4.6L/239-hp SOHC V-8)
Brakes, f/r Disc/disc, ABS
Price range, whilesale/retail (est) $4150/$8610 (2002 RWD XLT); $12,775/$19,365 (2005 4WD Limited)
Recalls Too many to list; see www.intellichoice.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/pass Five stars/five stars

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