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.

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