Every once in a while some magazine or newspaper gets the idea to write an article about a high profile public figure that ponders whether the individual in question can balance parenthood and a demanding career simultaneously. Traditionally, these hard-hitting examples of investigative journalism phrase the query as something like “can Natalie Portman have it all?” The question is obviously ridiculous for several reasons, most notably because it tends to assume that very successful women have a hard time managing a proper work life balance, and also because millions of women without the resources of an A-list actor have no problem raising kids on their own.
But the “having it all” question is relevant to the Ford Explorer, which exited the 90’s with strong sales and a solid reputation. Multiple factors insured that wouldn’t last.
Is the story of the Explorer also the story of late twentieth century America? Both found themselves in very favorable positions at the dawn of the 21st century. Even without counting sales of the Mercury Mountaineer, the Explorer dominated the SUV segment, becoming an institution ten years after its debut. The United States similarly experienced a largely successful decade, as the dissolution of the USSR extinguished any fears that communism could present a viable alternative to the western ideals of democracy and capitalism. In 1992’s The End of History and the Last Man political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared ideological conflicts a thing of the past. The relatively short Gulf War, which occurred a year before the publication of Fukuyama’s book, was the exact kind of international cooperation envisioned by scholars and policymakers in the new world order of the post Cold War era. But events like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the attack on the USS Cole, the Hainan Island incident, and September 11th, 2001 demonstrated the fallacy in believing the United States and its western allies could permanently alter global affairs simply through economic and cultural hegemony.
Similarly, the Ford Explorer couldn’t have it all. Neither could Ford, although not for lack of trying. CEO Jacques Nasser took the George Lucas approach to the Blue Oval by replacing a tried and true formula with complete excess. To be fair, some of his business moves were downright prescient: his focus on e-commerce, satellite radio, and more broadly, efforts to make Ford Motor Company something other than a manufacturer of vehicles. Considering what Ford is currently planning for the future, Nasser’s moves look like smart business decisions when viewed through a contemporary lens.
Nasser’s folly was with the big ticket items. The nearly perverted fascination Lucas exhibited toward Jar Jar Binks resulted in the Gungan’s antics being the most visible fault in a movie filled with mistakes. Premier Automotive Group served the same function within Ford. Although the $6.45 billion acquisition of Volvo continues to benefit the company, the combined expense of also purchasing Land Rover and the subsequent launch of the Premier Automotive Group strained resources, which diverted attention away from Ford’s core products.
Amidst all the corporate reorganizing, acquisitions, and business experiments that characterized the tumultuous Nasser era, the Firestone recall debacle stands out as the most damaging to Ford, and more specifically, the Explorer. It’s worth pondering if a less chaotic Ford could have tackled the situation with more urgency, but regardless of the counterfactual, the upheaval at Dearborn and the incidents of rollovers created the perfect storm of crisis that no doubt made a number of consumers reconsider their desire to own an Explorer.
As for the tire controversy itself, all of the back and forth between Ford and Firestone makes it hard to singularly blame one party for the mess that resulted in tragedy for some and inconvenience for others. Both companies knew the Explorer didn’t handle adverse conditions with the utmost confidence. From there the narrative gets considerably more fragmented. While Ford pointed to evidence that the Explorer apparently experienced far less trouble with Goodyear tires, Firestone claimed their tires showed no issues when equipped on the Ranger. Despite other charges each levied at one another, no definitive conclusion was reached, but Ford did take a $3 billion hit to its bottom line when it recalled the tires in question.
Outside of the spat between the two formally cooperative companies, the handling of truck based utility vehicles presented a natural liability in emergency maneuvers, especially when compared to regular cars. In the days before standard traction and stability control, this presented a real problem that didn’t limit itself to the Explorer. But Ford’s SUV was the most popular and therefore the most visible by default.
Our featured Explorer is an XLT, which improved upon the base XLS by adding a tilt leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, cloth sport front bucket seats with manual lumbar support, 6-way power driver seat, high series floor console (armrest, cupholders, rear radio/air conditioning controls), overhead console (compass, outside temperature display, front and rear reading lights), remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD player, illuminated visor mirrors, cargo cover, floormats, fog lights, and a roof rack. Notable options included the 5.0 L V8 paired with a 4 speed automatic transmission and a permanent all-wheel drive system, a reverse sensing system, front side-impact airbags, and leather bucket seats.
Aside from the regular four door model, Ford also continued producing the two door Sport. The 2001 model year saw the Sport gain some Ranger inspired styling and a new tailgate.
Ford also debuted the Sport Trac, which would only share the Explorer name for its first year. This cult favorite rode on a lengthened second gen Explorer platform and stayed in production even after the 2002 redesign of the four door model.
Just how competitive was the Explorer at the very end of its second generation? Its primary competitor, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, had less horsepower and torque with its standard inline 6 when compared to the Ford, but the optional 4.7 L V8 had an output slightly higher than the aging 5.0 that had been a staple in the Ford lineup for quite some time. In terms of dimensions, the Explorer measured 190.7 inches in length, a bit over 9 inches longer than the Grand Cherokee. The Explorer also had a longer wheelbase to the tune of about five inches, although the Jeep had about two inches of width over the Ford.
The Dodge Durango, which surfaced in 1997, bested the Explorer in every dimension and by 2001 also came equipped with the same 4.7 L V8 found in its corporate sibling, the Grand Cherokee.
Around this time a number of other SUV’s in what I like to call the “178 in” class (referring to total length) also fought for attention.
The Honda Passport/Izuzu Rodeo combo, Nissan Xterra, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota 4Runner all fit this general size category.
Chevy’s Blazer and its badge engineered stablemates, along with the Jeep Cherokee, also soldiered on, but by this point in their life cycles they were considerably outdated and quite a bit smaller than their counterparts.
With the exception of the Pathfinder, all of these vehicles sold less in 2000 than they did the previous year. Shoppers bought roughly 17,000 more Explorers during the same time period.
While the Explorer won the sales battle of 2000, storm clouds gathered on the horizon in the form of the crossover.
Subaru continued to eke out small sales gains with the Forester.
The Santa Fe did the same for Hyundai.
Ford fielded its own crossover with the Escape.
The SUV dominated paradigm couldn’t last forever.
Just as the end of the Cold War presented America with a brief honeymoon period in the 90’s, the Ford Explorer entered a changing landscape after enjoying a successful decade of growth. The Explorer’s comeback from near irrelevancy probably stems from the positive interactions car shoppers had with this generation, and should serve as a reminder that even if you can’t have it all, you can still get by just fine.
Curbside Classic: 1992 Ford Explorer by Brendan Saur
Curbside Classic: 1997 Mercury Mountaineer by Brendan Saur
COAL: 1998 Ford Explorer XLT V8 by Jim Klein