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Second-Hand: Ford Explorer

A funny thing happened on the way to the guerrilla war.

A funny thing happened on the way to the guerrilla war.

The Jeep Wagoneer, an ancient four-door behemoth, started showing up in tonier driveways in the early 1980s.

Lawyers and executives were smitten by the homely beast, eschewing their Volvos and BMWs for more upright transportation.

Detroit’s product planners detected the beginnings of a revolution.

American Motors updated its Wagoneer concept by introducing the compact Jeep Cherokee for the 1984 model year. Unlike other downsized four-wheelers (Chevy’s S-10 Blazer and Ford’s Bronco II), the Cherokee was available with four glorious doors.

AMC and parent Renault had recognized the need for a smart-sized four-wheel drive family vehicle that could do double duty ferrying the kids to school and taking the clan skiing on the weekend without worrying about the weather.

By 1990, the other manufacturers had recognized the wisdom in AMC’s way (so ingenious, Chrysler bought the company in 1987). Sport utility vehicles such as the GMC Jimmy, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4-Runner all two more doors.

Ford, well-known for its trucks, studied the segment a little longer. Instead of stretching the wheelbase of its Bronco II, it scrapped the vehicle and introduced a new nameplate for the 1991

model year: Explorer.

CONFIGURATION

The Ford Explorer arrived as a two-door Sport model and four-door family wagon. With the longest wheelbase in its class and the weightiest (almost two metric tonnes), it was better for

mall-hopping than rock-hopping.

The initial models were conservatively styled with all the aerodynamic grace of a brick of Philadelphia cream cheese. In the 1995 redesign, the truck got a droopy new face and softer

edges. The block of Philly had been in the sun.

The spacious cabin was complemented by a low beltline and tall windows. The well-trimmed interior provided a new standard in accoutrements, too.

Clearly, this was not a machine for carrying dead animals to the taxidermist. Consumers agreed, promptly making Explorer the segment sales leader.

ON THE ROAD

The first Explorer was powered by a 4.0 L version of Ford of Germany’s old 2.9 L V6. It developed 155 hp and, more importantly, 220 lbft of torque, which propelled the truck from

0-100 km/h in just under 12 seconds — midpack performance for a V6-powered SUV.

The 1995 redesign saw the V6’s power bumped up and Ford’s infamous front Ibeam suspension replaced with a control-arm design, which improved handling.

The more compact suspension allowed the Mustang’s old push-rod 5.0 L V8 to fit under the hood, optionally, starting in 1996.

The V8 could push the Explorer zero to 100 km/h in under 10 seconds — quick, but not as fast as a V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Over the years, the Explorer has employed the gamut of four-wheel-drive systems. Part-time 4WD was offered initially; its simple push-button operation made it less intimidating for

first-time purchasers.

Selectable full-time fourwheeling was introduced in 1995. This system featured a centre differential which could send power to all four wheels on dry pavement without stressing

components (the part-time system could only be engaged in slippery conditions; because all wheels spun at the same rate, it relied on slippage to protect the pricey bits).

Automatic 4WD arrived in 1996, as did a more refined all-wheel-drive system exclusive to V8 models.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Explorer owners are a fairly happy lot, citing a comfortable ride, lots of interior space, luxury features and a perception of safety.

Only those with serious off-roading aspirations have been disappointed: the limited ground clearance and wheel travel are not conducive to making like a Baja racer.

The reliability story is mixed. We heard from long-term owners who have traveled 200,000 km and more with nary a problem.

Others have had theirs only a couple of years and have gotten on their service manager’s Christmas card list.

Scott McConnell has run a premier 1991 Eddie Bauer Edition over 350,000 km. “The engine is solid as a rock but we are on our third transmission,” he noted. Rust erupted in the fifth

year, especially around the back doors and hatch. And the spare tire, suspended under the chassis by a corrosion-prone wire, has been known to fall off.

A scan of the Internet shows grinning owners out-numbering grumblers, but the complaints are significant: burned-out front axles, out-of-round wheels, leaky sunroofs, malfunctioning front

wheel hubs, transmission woes and frequent brake repairs.

One owner suggested, “Whoever designed the brakes should be beaten up by drunks.”

Reader Larry Hart wrote that his 1998 V8 model has been very reliable, except for the windshield wipers and power windows. The former was a common concern on the Internet, too. “They

never run at full speed, and have turned off twice on the Interstate during heavy rain,” complained one owner.

Our contact at Ford says the Explorer is known for two chronic problems: a seized electric motor which engages the 4WD transfer case, and broken front hubs. He recommends exercising the four-wheel option as often as weather permits (remember: slick roads are a prerequisite) to keep these parts from seizing.

“Ford does not explain how the 4WD system really works. To switch from 4WD back to 2WD you must turn the dashboard switch and drive the vehicle slowly in reverse for about 10 m,” wrote one owner on the Internet.

Another cautioned used shoppers to avoid the archaic push-button 4WD system, citing expensive hub replacement (on pre-1996 Explorers).

Beyond reliability issues, a lot of people were stung by the poor gas mileage provided by both the V6 and V8 engines. Disconcerting, especially given that some oil analysts are

forecasting lineups at gas stations this summer.

Actually, the mileage complaints are indicative of something else. As more consumers trade in their Ford Escorts and Toyota Camrys to join the SUV crowd, they bring with them some lofty

expectations.

We might humbly suggest that such people have no right to complain about the mileage or the added expense of maintaining a four-wheel drive truck. Instead, learn the intricacies of your

particular 4WD system, and grin and bear it at the gas pump.

The Explorer is a good quality twotonne truck. But like the scorpion who thanked the frog for carrying him across the river by stinging him to death: “It’s in my nature.”

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK:

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates.

* Hyundai Accent, by March 16

* Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird, by April 20

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996.

Email: toljagic@idirect.com

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