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The Saleen Ford Explorer Was an Early Attempt at a High-Performance SUV

I recently had the opportunity to review a GMC Typhoon — which was not only a childhood dream car for me, but also the beginning of the high-performance SUV wave that we’re only now starting to really ride as a car-buying society. And this reminded me: Remember when there was a high-performance Ford Explorer?

Although many of us know about the current high-performance Ford Explorer, the appropriately named Explorer Sport — which features a 365-horsepower turbocharged EcoBoost V6 — that wasn’t the beginning of the high-performance Ford Explorer story. For that, you’ll have to turn back to 1998 and the second-generation Ford Explorer. See the 1998 Ford Explorer models for sale near you

Here’s the situation: At some point in the late 1990s, just as the whole SUV thing was really starting to take off, noted Ford tuner Saleen decided it wanted to do something other than make Mustangs look like much cooler Mustangs. So it bought a bunch of Explorers from Ford and started tuning them, adding improved brakes, wheels and a body kit that I, personally, find insanely cool.

The range of tuning was surprisingly varied. You could get a Saleen-tuned Explorer — dubbed the Saleen XP8 — in the Explorer’s 4-door body style with your choice of two engine outputs: either 222 hp, from the Explorer’s standard 5.0-liter V8, or 286 hp, using the V8 equipped with a Saleen-developed supercharger. You could also opt for rear- or all-wheel drive.

So far, none of this seems too crazy — but I haven’t yet gotten to my favorite part. That’s this: At some point, early in the run, Saleen ordered a bunch of V8-powered Explorers from Ford to turn into XP8s — but, supposedly, Ford accidentally sent them V6 models. Rather than return the Explorers or find some other use for them, Saleen decided to slap its wheels and body kit on the V6 models and sell them as the Saleen XP6.

And so, somewhere out there in Saleen Explorer world, there are three tiers of these things: the ones with the supercharged V8, the ones with the regular V8, and the ones with the V6 that Ford sent to Saleen by accident. Perhaps most hilariously, we have no idea how many of these things are out there, since Saleen didn’t keep records — but Saleen Explorer “experts” (presumably, some guy who has three of them) say the total production volume was probably close to 265 units.

Sadly, the Saleen Explorer ended production in 2001, just as the sporty SUV fad was starting to heat up — and it has never been revived. Find a 1998 Ford Explorer for sale

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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  1. I currently drive a 97 Explorer as my daily driver. It has the 210 HP SOHC V6 which was a new offering for the year. It currently has 326000 Kms on it and has been a gem of a vehicle. The motor and transmission are original and still going strong with routine maintenance which I follow religiously. 

  2. Wouldn’t you condider the Overfinch Range Rovers the first performance SUVs? They have been tuning RRs since the mid 70s including swapping the engines in RR for GM v8s since de 80s if I’m not mistaken

  3. A supercharged 5.0 making only 268 horsepower…my how far we’ve come in 18 years. 

    As for the XP6, hope it was at least the 210 HP SOHC V6 and not the 160 HP OHV one. Had that motor in my ’97 Explorer and, while reliable, it was ancient and definitely not worthy of performance anything.
    • It was most likely the 160hp one. 210hp v6 didn’t come out till 2002.

      Friend of mine actually has one. It was previously subjected to 15 buffalo NY winters. Now he drives it around his property in backyard races. 

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