Ford Explorer: Chronicling the Changes

Revised: September 22, 2023

Among utility vehicles, the Ford Explorer is one of the oldest continuing models available. Launched in 1991, this midsize model has undergone numerous changes, including transitioning from a truck-based platform to its current unibody construction. In its early years, a two-door model was sold alongside the more common four-door layout.

Ford logo

Chronicling the Changes

2023 – Minor equipment changes and availability chart the updates made this year.

2022 – The Explorer ST now offers rear-wheel-drive only. An ST-Line grade joins the product line.

2021 – A new off-road-ready Timberline grade rolls out. Package and amenity updates complete the changes this year.

2020Ford returns the Explorer to its rear-drive routes, although the unibody design remains. The look is thoroughly modern with improved driving, handling, and towing benefits apparent. Additional changes to convenience, safety, and technology features are a significant improvement over the previous-generation model.

Sixth-Generation Ford Explorer

The sixth-generation Ford Explorer
The sixth-generation Ford Explorer

2019 – This is the ninth and final year for the fifth-generation Explorer, an uncommonly long term for this model. Thus, changes are minor ahead of the next overhaul.

2018 – Modest front and rear styling tweaks mark this model. An integrated 4G LTE hotspot comes standard.

2017 — The third generation of Ford’s SYNC telematics system (SYNC 3) is now available. An SLT Sport Appearance Package is a new option.

2016 — The 2016 Explorer reflects a major refresh with the updated exterior styling, revised suspension tuning, updated safety features, and a top-end Platinum grade. The base 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is replaced by a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine compatible with front- and rear-wheel drive layouts.

2015 — Equipment shuffling and a new Appearance package for the SLT trim roll out.

2014 — Automatic headlights are now standard across the model line.

2013 — A third engine joins the model line and powers the all-new Explorer Sport model with a sport-tuned suspension. The twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. A driver’s knee airbag is new and standard equipment.

2012 — A second engine joins the Explorer product line — a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The new engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and is for front-wheel drive models only.

2011 — The 2011 Explorer is all new and is now underpinned by a car-derived platform. Slightly longer and wider than the model it replaces, the new Explorer comes in base, XLT and Limited trims. All models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Fifth-Generation Ford Explorer

The fifth-generation Ford Explorer
The fifth-generation Ford Explorer

2010 — No changes of note for the 2010 Explorer, the final year for this third-generation model.

2009 — Sirius Travel Link is added to the available navigation system. Trailer sway control is now standard.

2008 — Side curtain airbags are now standard for 2008. Ford’s new SYNC hands-free telematics system is optional. Voice activation comes to the available navigation system.

2007 — An input jack for MP3 players is now standard. Newly available equipment includes retractable running boards.

2006 — For 2006, the Explorer gains a refreshed exterior, including a new tailgate and taillights, launching this model’s fourth generation. An updated V8 engine is now paired with an all-new six-speed automatic transmission.

Fourth-Generation Ford Explorer

The fourth-generation Ford Explorer
The fourth-generation Ford Explorer

2005 — The AdvanceTrac stability control system is upgraded to include roll stability control.

2004 — Ford discontinues the two-door Explorer Sport model. Equipment changes and trim shuffling are the only noteworthy adjustments for 2004.

2003 — Trim-level equipment shuffling dominates the 2003 Explorer. Also new for this year is an off-road package and an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

2002 — An all-new Explorer rolls out, measuring slightly longer and wider than the previous model. A third-row seat option comes available. As before, the Explorer is offered in two- and four-door body styles. The two-door is marketed as the Explorer Sport.

Third-Generation Ford Explorer

The third-generation Ford Explorer
The third-generation Ford Explorer

2001 — The most significant change for 2000 was the discontinuation of the 4.0-liter V6 engine and the manual transmission. Separately, a Sport Trac pickup truck variant is released.

2000 — For 2000, the XLS is now the base retail trim. A trailer towing package is now standard with the 5.0-liter V8 engine.

1999 — The 1999 Explorer offers new fog lamps and rocker panel molding. New options include side-impact airbags, a reverse sensing system, and rear load leveling.

1998 — Minor changes accompany the 1998 Explorer, including an updated tailgate.

1997 — For 1997, a new SOHC V6 engine rolls out. All V6 choices are now paired with an all-new five-speed automatic transmission.

1996 – A 5.0-liter V8 engine becomes available. This one pairs with a five-speed automatic transmission and is all-wheel drive.

1995 – A full redesign accompanies this model, including all-new sheet-metal, a new grille, and updated exterior lighting elements. The Explorer is the first SUV to gain standard dual front airbags. The updated four-wheel-drive system includes ControlTrac, a feature that sends power to the front wheels automatically when needed. The manual transmission appears and the automatic is upgraded to five forward gears.

Second-Generation Ford Explorer

The second-generation Ford Explorer
The second-generation Ford Explorer

1994 – The lone changes this year involve the Eddie Bauer model. This one gains new wheels and an available power equipment group roll out.

1993 – New wheels, an upgraded instrument panel, and a new steering wheel chart the changes. All models now come with anti-lock brakes.

1992 – For its second year, the Explorer receives mostly token changes involving equipment availability or upgrades.

1991 – The first-generation Ford Explorer rolls out, replacing the previous Ford Bronco II. The new model shares its architecture with the Ford Ranger pickup truck. As such, it comes with standard rear-wheel drive and available four-wheel drive. Ford offers two- and four-door versions. At launch, a 4.0-liter V6 engine paired with a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic was offered.

First-Generation Ford Explorer

The first-generation Ford Explorer
The first-generation Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer Considerations

The Ford Explorer is the best-selling SUV nameplate of all time. Early on, Ford spun off several models for other brands. The Mazda Navajo, Mercury Mountaineer, and the Lincoln Aviator are among them. Ford also offered a Sport Trac model for the third generation, an Explorer with a pickup truck bed. With its latest models, Police Interceptor versions are common.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is the Explorer’s top competition. But there are many more models in this segment, including the Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, and the GMC Acadia. Shoppers will also find the Mazda CX-9, Volkswagen Atlas, Subaru Ascent, Kia Sorento, Kia Telluride, and the Hyundai Palisade. Further, the Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder should be compared.

See AlsoFord Expedition: All-American SUV

Photo Attribution

Image by Kevauto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kevauto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

IFCAR – Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

IFCAR – Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

MercurySable99 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kevauto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Matt Keegan
Author: Matthew Keegan
Matt Keegan is a journalist, media professional, and owner of this website. He has an extensive writing background and has covered the automotive sector continuously since 2004. When not driving and evaluating new vehicles, Matt enjoys spending his time outdoors.

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