For 2002, Ford introduced a third Generation Explorer. With a longer wheelbase, wider stance and independent rear suspension that provided better ride and handling than previous versions, it addressed rollover concerns on earlier models that surfaced during the Firestone tire congressional hearings. Further bolstering the 2002 model’s safety cred was standard 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and the availability of extra-cost roof-rail airbags and a backup camera. The 2002 Explorer also was the first of its kind to offer optional 7-passenger seating in three rows. Ford spun off Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator versions of the 4-door Explorer, covered separately. Also detailed elsewhere, Ford built a 2-door version of the previous-generation Explorer for the 2002 and 2003 model years.
Why You Want It
The midsize Explorer was the best-selling SUV of all from its inception in 1991 through 2004. With a vehicle that could park in the same space as a Honda Accord sedan, the Explorer gave SUV buyers a rugged, truck-based machine able to tackle the worst roads, roomy and flexible enough to swallow gear for an active lifestyle and luxurious enough for a night at the theater. Yet because it derived many of its components from Ford’s vast truck inventory, the Explorer was affordable to buy on a family budget. The 2002-2005 model has a roomier cabin than earlier Explorers and for those who appreciate the tough SUV look, this vintage Explorer mimics the styling of the more substantial full-size Expedition. Available with 2WD, 4WD or all-wheel drive, the Explorer can tow up to 7100 lbs with the optional 4.6L V8 or 5700 lbs with the standard 4.0L V6. Fold down rear seats create over 80 cubic feet of flat load floor space for hauling large items.
Notable Features and Options
With as many as seven trim levels to pick from some model years, there is virtually an Explorer for every purse and purpose. Even in base XLS trim, Explorer is no stripper including items such as standard A/C, cruise, tilt wheel, 4-wheel ABS discs, keyless entry and power windows, mirrors and door locks. XLT adds a power driver’s seat, front seat lumbar, alloy wheels, leather-wrapped wheel, foglamps, overhead console, compass and body-color bumpers and moldings. Eddie Bauer nets 2-tone paint, heated leather front buckets, keypad entry, dual-zone A/C, premium audio, running boards, power adjustable pedals, satin nickel trim and more. The Limited goes monochromatic and dollops on the chrome trim plus premium leather and Mandarin Teak trim inside. There are also Sport dress-up packages on the XLS and XLT, plus in 2003-2004 the off-road tough NBX (No Boundaries Experience) model with all-terrain tires, Yakima roof rack and rubber floormats and cargo liner. Desirable options worth seeking out are second-row captain’s chairs on Eddie Bauer and Limited, Class III/IV towing packages, reverse sensing, power moonroof and rear-seat DVD entertainment.
2003: The slow-selling manual transmission for the 4.0L V6 is dropped and 5-speed automatic made standard on all models. XLS Sport, XLT Sport and NBX trim are introduced. An all-wheel drive system is optional on all trims but NBX. Available on NBX is an off-road package with skidplates, beefed-up suspension, front tow hooks and unique wheels. Also, optional on Limited only is a tire pressure monitoring system.
2004: Eddie Bauer and Limited get a quad bucket seat option. Tire pressure monitoring becomes standard on all but the base XLS model. Advance Trac stability control availability is expanded from V8-only to all Explorer engines, but not with AWD. A rear cargo shade option is added for XLS and higher trims.
2005: Advance Trac is upgraded with standard Roll Stability Control featuring sensors to determine the truck’s roll angle and roll speed. If it senses a wheel is about to leave the ground, it cuts engine power and applies brakes strategically for active rollover prevention. Sirius Satellite radio and MP3 capability is standard on all audio systems.
Engines and Performance
At 210 hp and 254-lb-ft of torque, the base 4.0L V6 delivers adequate performance, but gets noisy and coarse when pushed. More confident and mellow-sounding is the optional 4.6L V8, sporting 239 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque. The V8 is much better for towing and carrying carloads of passengers, and is a pleasant cruiser the rest of the time. Both are backed with a 5-speed automatic transmission, except for a small number of 2002 V6s with the 5-speed manual. At an EPA-rated 15-16 mpg city/20-21 mpg highway, the fuel economy of the 4WD V6 was not much better than the 4WD V8 (14-15 city/18-19 highway), and neither were good by today’s standards. However, the V6 was available in a flex-fuel configuration that allows use of cheaper E85 ethanol,
widely available in the upper Midwest. Remember that running E85, fuel economy drops big time, the Explorer V6 to 11-12 mpg city/15-16 mpg highway. 2WD models get about 1 mpg better fuel economy regardless of the engine.
Consumer Reports readers report above average reliability for the engine mechanical, cooling, fuel and exhaust systems of Explorer V6s and V8s engines. The magazine called Explorer a well-rounded package, vastly improved over previous editions with a stable ride, predictable steering and comfortable seating. Off-road performance was not strong, however, on pavement the full-time Control Trac 4WD seamlessly sent power to the front wheels if the rears started slipping.
Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties
NHTSA has announced the following safety recalls involving the 2002 to 2005 Ford Explorer:
2002: Possible fire due to faulty cruise control deactivation switch, with or without the engine running.
2002-2003: Liftgate glass struts may disengage, causing glass to fall and break.
2002-2003: Dealer-installed illuminated running boards may overheat and melt when exposed to moisture and road salt.
NHTSA gave the Explorer 4-door SUV a 4-star rating for the driver and 5 stars for the front passenger in frontal impacts. For side impacts, the agency awarded Explorer its top 5-star rating for both front and rear seat occupants. As for rollover resistance, NHTSA rated 4WD versions and 2004-2005 2WD models with stability control at 3 stars, but pegged 2002-2003 2WD Explorers without stability control at just 2 stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2002-2005 Explorer 4-door a good rating for frontal offset collisions.
Ford covered the 2002 to 2005 Explorer with three-year/36,000-mile basic and powertrain warranties, including roadside assistance.
Word on the Web
Automatic transmission shift problems, slipping, clunking and outright failures were the most frequent issues on 2002-2005 models, the worst occurring in 2002. Other owner issues according to CarComplaints.com included cracked liftgate interior panels in 2002-2005 models, wheel bearing failure and differential whine on 2002-2004s, 4.0L V6 engine failures on 2003-2005s, climate control issues on 2003-2004 Explorers and broken sun visors on 2004-2005 models.
Consumer Reports gave the 2002-2005 Explorer 4-door SUV generally good marks for driving position, front and second-row seat comfort, control layout, cargo access and rolling quiet, but took issue with third-row access and comfort, and emergency handling characteristics. Consumer Reports readers reported worse than average reliability on 2002-2005 Explorer transmissions, drive system, brakes, interior trim and climate control systems.
For shoppers looking for a pre-owned midsize SUV, there are several alternatives to the 2002-2005 Ford Explorer. While the Toyota 4Runner hasn’t depreciated in price as much as the competition, it offers hardcore off-roading ability and ultimate reliability. The Dodge Durango is both larger and less expensive than the Explorer, and the GMC Envoy can be better-equipped than the Explorer, but is happier cruising down the road than it is playing in the mud.
Auto Trader recommendations
As always, stick to low-mileage and/or one-owner examples whenever possible. 2002s had the most problems when new and 2005s the least. All things being equal, a 3-row Explorer with V8 power gives great versatility for family or cargo hauling and any kind of weather or roads. If you live in the Southwest and don’t go to the mountains or desert, a 2WD Explorer will do just fine, will get better fuel economy and has fewer components to wear out. For winter operation in the snow states, 4WD can be a life saver. Don’t bother with the manual transmission; it’s no fun in a big truck anyway.