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Used car review Ford Explorer 1996-2002

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Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used Ford Explorer 96-02: its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when buying it.

It looks tough but it's really a softie.  Rightly or wrongly the Ford Explorer is much maligned, tarnished by being the vehicle that brought the mighty Ford Motor Company to its knees and hastened the end of Aussie Jac Nasser's time as head honcho.

The Explorer was America's third-best-selling passenger vehicle and its top-selling four-wheel drive. But it started popping tyres and several people died in the resulting accidents.

Ford blamed the Firestone tyres fitted to it; Firestone blamed the Explorer. It was a mess of monumental proportions, not helped when the Explorer became known as the Exploder.  But when it arrived here, it entered a quite different market.

Model Watch

There were three models at launch: the entry-level XL, the XLT mid-range and the Limited, which came with everything.  Power was provided by one of two V6 engines, depending on your choice of transmissions.

The five-speed manual had a 4.0-litre overhead valve unit that supplied 119kW at its peak.  If you chose the five-speed auto trans, you'd get a much more modern alloy-headed single overhead camshaft engine that offered 153kW at 5250 revs and 339Nm of torque at 3000 revs.

The big news with the Explorer was its Control Trac full-time four-wheel-drive system.  It's not so new now, but the Explorer was the first model sold here to offer an intelligent electronically controlled on-demand 4WD system that apportioned drive to the front and rear wheels as needed to maintain traction.

The suspension on the first Explorers was a combination of independent front with a solid axle slung on leaf springs at the rear. Brakes were discs at all corners, with the assistance of ABS, and additional safety from dual airbags.

The range-starting XL came with cloth trim, aircon, power steering, limited-slip diff and four-speaker sound.  The XLT also got central locking, leather steering wheel, power driver's seat and power mirrors, windows, and sunroof.

The Limited got alloys, auto aircon, CD, leather trim, roof racks and traction control.  The US-coded model arrived in 2000 and with it came many equipment updates before it was replaced in 2002 by the all-new UT.

On the lot

Expect to pay $17,500-$20,000 for manual XL Explorers from 1996-2000, add $1000 for the auto, $2000 to upgrade to the XLT, and $5000 for a Limited.  For a later US model you'll part with $25,000-$27,000 for an XL, add $1000 for an auto, $6000 for an XLT, and $10,000 for a Limited.

In the shop

Generally the Explorer is sound, though its driveline is suspect under heavy load, as when towing.  The thing to remember is that the Explorer was built as an SUV for the US market, and while its size suggests brawn, it's really a bit of a soft-roader at heart.

Owners' views

John Thompson has had two Explorers, and both have been used for heavy towing around the country as he's gone about his work on the V8 Supercar trail.  The first was a manual which he says wasn't up to the job of towing and he had to replace the clutch, which was the weak link.

His latest, a 2001 XLT, is an auto which until recently has been faultless, but at 128,000km the auto trans had a meltdown, requiring an expensive rebuild.  In his view, the auto isn't strong enough to do the heavy towing he needs it to do. He'd never own another one.

Lawrie Dughetti owns a 2000 US Explorer Limited which had 6500 km on it when he bought it.  Overall he says it has plenty of grunt and every luxury he could ever need, but he rates the finish and feel of the plastic as ordinary, and the interior is too tight for three adults in the rear.

Problems have been fairly minor and overall he's happy with it.  Bob Lorich bought a new XLT Explorer auto in 1999. He has since travelled 140,000 km and had no problems worse than a faulty thermostat at 95,000km.

He often uses his Explorer for towing and rates it highly. It gets about 12 litres/100km on the highway at 110km/h. Even when fully laden and towing, it still manages about 18 litres/100km.  Julianne Gould and her husband bought their Explorer to visit family living a long way away.

She says they have had a few hiccups, but Ford's service has been tremendous.  They say it has plenty of get up and go and there are no problems towing a trailer. They chose a manual for fuel consumption, which is heavy around town but good on the open road.

The bottom line

Well-equipped and solid around-town soft-roader that can handle a bit of bush bashing but doesn't like heavy towing.

Look for

  • Smooth, comfortable ride around town
  • Capable off road, with smart electronics for assistance
  • Avoid if you do heavy towing
  • Troublesome clutch on manual
  • Undersized automatic trans can mean trouble
  • Wwell equipped with standard features

Rivals

Toyota Prado RV6 (1996-2002) $22,500-$31,000
Jeep Grand Cherokee ZG (1996-1999) $23,500-$29,000

Comments on this story

Displaying 3 of 5 comments

  • dont buy. i own a great looking 2000 ford explorer. but the timing chain needs fixing. my local mechanic will not touch it and ford pretty much said dont bother or it will cost you $6000 to fix. that is fords way of saying we dont want to touch it.

    john green of sydney Posted on 27 October 2012 9:52pm
  • I have a 1996 Explorer Manual 4.0 XLT, which has 7 seats which I just love.  On a recent trek up north in WA towing a boat laden and the vehicle full I averaged a little over 14.5 l/100km.  It is pretty much rock solid, but at times I yearn for a V8 version and have thought about upgrading.  I should add that I just added some Nexen 31x10.5 inch tyres and it just chews up the sand with out a trouble in the world.  Also towed the boat along the beach as without any trouble at all.  I would like to get any advice from others on the sort of side steps that i should affix to it and also what kits I should look at in raising the height.

    Andrew Crisp of Perth Posted on 06 May 2010 1:47pm
  • Thank you for the feed back , I’m about to purchase a vech to tow a van around oz and I had made my decision to buy an Explorer , but I certainly wont now . Thank you for saving me some money

    Don Chamberlain of Rockingham WA Posted on 11 March 2010 4:51pm
  • I bought my 99 Explorer (UR designation) last year.  It had one previous owner and 158000 on the clock.  Log books showed dealer servicing right up to 150000.  I have spent about $3000 on it having new ball joints on the front, new front disc rotors and pads, transmission flush and service, HR towbar and replaced the noisy Goodyear Wrangler tyres with Yokohamas, plus extras like a roof basket, UHF radio.  I get it serviced every 10,000 kms.  It has now done 186,000, with 15,000+ towing a 2200kg caravan around lots of Australia.  The car has not missed a beat, drives beautifully, tows well and I averaged 19.6 litres per 100km for the 12,400 km big trip.  I normally get between 11.5 and 15 litres per hundred not towing, depending on how I drive.  As a 4WD it is adequate, not a world beater like my previous vehicle, a long wheelbase GQ Patrol, but much more comfortable and easier to drive.  No problems with the drivetrain or auto transmission whilst towing.  I think the secret to that is regular servicing for the engine and transmission.

    Rick Bedford of Gold Coast Posted on 18 October 2008 10:26pm
  • I have had 2 Explorers, A 1998 XLT auto 7 seater & currently a 2000 XLT auto 5 seater & so far have only had minor (but annoying) problems. I found that when I lifted my 98 by 40mm & put some decent shocks (EFS) & reset the rear leafs, that the handling improved out of sight on-road & most definitely off-road. I could do most things & go most places other IFS 4b’s could, as long as you remember they are not a hard-core 4b you’re right.
    I found ( to the amusement of others) that they do not like water crossings at all as some of their electrics are quit low, even beneath the low air filter. Once said electrics were wrapped in a couple of plastic bags it wasn’t so bad.
    My 2000 hasn’t got a lift as yet, but will soon, instead it has an extra fuel tank (now it can carry over 140 litres),  a rear swing-out spare wheel & a centre roof console for the UHF.
    They are a comfortable 4wd tourer that are quite capable of towing an off-road caravan or camper most places, especially with the above mods.

    Steve Steel of Hervey Bay Posted on 23 July 2008 11:13am
Read all 5 comments

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