In this guide, we will investigate the Ford Explorer’s generations, isolating the model’s best years to go for and the worst years to avoid at all costs.
With extensive research and a deep dive into owner-reported experiences, annual maintenance costs, safety ratings, and more, we’ve meticulously dissected the evolution of the Ford Explorer.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of which Ford Explorer generations are worth investing in and which ones to approach with caution.
Let’s dive into the different Ford Explorer generations.
Table of ContentsShow
Ford Explorer Generations
The popular Ford Explorer has evolved over six generations, with significant changes in design, technology, and safety features.
Here’s an overview of all Ford Explorer generations from 1995 up to and including the latest generation.
|2nd generation (UN105/150)||1995-2001|
|3rd generation (UN152)||2002-2005|
|4th generation (U251)||2006-2010|
|5th generation (U502)||2011-2019|
|6th generation (U625)||2020-Present|
Understanding these generations can provide a better overview, as significant changes between them might be the deciding factor in choosing the right model year for your needs.
Ford Explorer Best, Neutral and Worst Years
When categorizing the best, neutral, and worst years for the Ford Explorer, we consider several factors. These factors include:
- Owner-reported reliability (surveys)
- Annual maintenance costs
- Safety rating
- Consumer Reports reliability score
- Consumer Reports owner satisfaction score
- NHTSA recalls, investigations, and complaints
- Edmunds owner ratings
- JD Power owner ratings
- Kelley’s Blue Book (KBB) owner ratings
- VehicleHistory owner ratings
- Cars.com owner ratings
Considering the abovementioned factors and gathering all the required data points, we’ve made this graph that represents all the combined ratings from the sources mentioned above.
Here’s a table summarizing our categorizations:
|Generation||Best Years||Neutral Years||Worst Years|
|2nd generation (UN105/150)||2001||1995||1996|
|3rd generation (UN152)||2005||2003||2002|
|4th generation (U251)||2009||2007|
|5th generation (U502)||2012|
|6th generation (U625)||2022||2023||2020|
Neutral years represent those model years that didn’t necessarily excel in any specific area but didn’t have glaring drawbacks either. They offer a balanced experience, without any significant highs or lows.
It is worth noting that factors such as NHTSA recalls can negatively impact a car’s reliability rating. The greater the number of complaints and recalls, the lower the car’s reliability is, and therefore its score will be lower.
Let’s dive into the specifications of the best, neutral, and worst years.
Best & Worst Years for Ford Explorer 2nd Generation (1995-2001)
The 2nd Generation of the Ford Explorer marked a significant period for Ford, with numerous changes and upgrades over the first generation. However, this generation was not without its challenges, suffering from various mechanical and safety-related issues.
The Best Years: 2001
In 2001, Ford introduced the Explorer Sport Trac mid-size crew-cab pickup truck, based on the five-door Explorer, adding diversity to the lineup.
The 2001 model year had a relatively lower number of reported NHTSA complaints and came with improved safety features and engine enhancements.
This year also benefited from the lessons learned from the earlier years of this generation, resulting in a more reliable and well-rounded vehicle.
The Neutral Years: 1995
The 1995 model year, being the introduction of the 2nd generation, presented a mixed bag of features.
While it incorporated new design elements and technological upgrades, it also suffered from issues like tire and transmission problems.
The Worst Years: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000
In May 2000, the US NHTSA identified higher-than-normal incidences of tire failures on Explorers fitted with certain Firestone tires, resulting in 240 deaths and 3,000 catastrophic injuries. Ford found that these 15-inch Firestone tires had higher failure rates, leading to a major recall.
The 5R55 series transmissions in these models were notorious for premature failures, which manifested as servo pin bore wear, premature transmission case wear, and excessive valve body wear.
Some of these years had recurring suspension problems that were also prevalent in the 1995 model.
Specifically, the 1996 and 1997 models suffered from additional tire, transmission, and suspension problems. The 1998 model had issues with vehicle speed control. The 1999 model faced problems with visibility, including windshield wipers failing to operate. The 2000 model year had powertrain and engine problems.
Ford announced a significant recall concerning the “speed control deactivation switch” in 1995-2002 Explorers. Also, in May 2001, Ford announced that it would replace 13 million Firestone tires fitted to Explorer vehicles.
Best & Worst Years for Ford Explorer 3rd Generation (2002-2005)
The 3rd Generation of the Ford Explorer ushered in a new era of design refinements, technological advancements, and enhanced safety features. Introduced in 2002, this generation aimed to address issues faced by its predecessor while striving for better performance.
Overall, the third generation of the Ford Explorer has good ratings and a small number of complaints.
The Best Years: 2005
The 2005 model year stood out for its improvements and the fewest number of NHTSA recalls and complaints in this generation. This year saw enhancements in the drivetrain, enhanced safety features, and an updated infotainment system.
The overall performance and reliability of this model year led it to receive better ratings and fewer complaints, making it the top pick for the 3rd generation.
The Neutral Years: 2003
The 2003 model year is in the middle ground, sharing almost the same number of reported NHTSA complaints as 2002 and 2004 but with relatively higher ratings.
The design showed a few improvements in safety and technology, however, certain repetitive problems from the prior era endured.
The Worst Years: 2002, 2004
The 2002 model had a significant number of reported power train issues (1577 in total). In addition, there were notable structural and suspension problems.
The 2002 model year was also part of a recall concerning the “speed control deactivation switch” that affected 4.5 million vehicles, including Ford Explorers, due to potential fire hazards when the switch leaked internally and overheated.
This recall included 1995-2002 model Ford Explorers.
Almost one-third of the 1405 reported issues were about transmission problems in the 2004 model year. The 5R55 series transmission, known for its premature failures in the second generation, continued to plague this model.
Owners also reported concerns about the quality of the structure and interior plastics.
Best & Worst Years for Ford Explorer 4th Generation (2006-2010)
The fourth generation of the Ford Explorer, produced between 2006 and 2010, represents a critical transition phase in the Explorer’s history. Emphasizing improved structural integrity, safety, and interior quality, this generation was also plagued by specific transmission issues.
The Best Years: 2009
The 2009 model year is celebrated as the pinnacle of the fourth generation, showcasing advancements in technology, engine performance, and safety. With a refined design and upgraded features, it offered better handling and comfort.
The 2009 model experienced the fewest number of NHTSA recalls and complaints in its generation, making it a robust choice for consumers.
The Neutral Years: 2007, 2008, 2010
These model years mark a middle ground in the 4th generation, neither excelling in innovation nor suffering from significant drawbacks.
The 2007, 2008 and 2010 model years maintained steady performance with modest enhancements in safety and technology. They did not bring groundbreaking changes but were reliable choice for their time.
The Worst Years: 2006
The 2006 model year is infamously known for its severe transmission issues, where owners reported that the transmission failed unexpectedly.
This was coupled with problems related to the 4.0 L SOHC V6 engine, notorious for its plastic OEM timing chain guides, cassettes, and tensioners breaking, resulting in a timing chain rattle.
The 5R55 series transmissions, also an issue in the second and third generations, continued to be problematic in the 2006 model year, with complaints of premature failures.
The 4.0 L SOHC V6 engine’s plastic components were prone to breakage, leading to what’s known as the “death rattle.” This posed both reliability and safety concerns.
Best & Worst Years for Ford Explorer 5th Generation (2011-2019)
The fifth generation of the Ford Explorer, spanning from 2011 to 2019, was a game-changer for Ford. Representing a shift from the traditional SUV to a more modern unibody design, this generation emphasized fuel efficiency, tech integration, and safety.
The Best Years: 2012, 2018, 2019
A year after introducing the all-new fifth-generation model, Ford fine-tuned the 2012 Explorer with improvements in its performance and onboard tech.
The 2018 model year marked a continuation of Ford’s commitment to innovation with upgraded safety features like the inclusion of Ford’s Safe and Smart Package, offering lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. Improved ride quality and an emphasis on interior refinement made it a standout in its class.
As the final year of the fifth generation, the 2019 Explorer benefitted from years of refinement. With a strong emphasis on tech and safety, features like the Ford Co-Pilot360, an advanced suite of driver-assist technologies, became standard.
The Neutral Years: 2014, 2015, 2017
The 2014 model year saw consistent performance and maintained the tech and safety standards set by its predecessors.
The 2015 Explorer received a slight facelift and introduced a sporty appearance package. While it continued to perform well, some owners reported minor issues with the infotainment system.
As Ford prepared to wrap up the fifth generation, the 2017 model focused on refining existing features.
The Worst Years: 2011, 2013, 2016
As the introductory year of the fifth generation, the 2011 Explorer was marred by several teething problems. Most notably, owners reported issues with power steering, where the power steering assist would fail.
While the 2013 model saw improvements over the 2011 version, it still faced issues, particularly with power steering. The problem of power steering assist failures persisted, raising concerns about safety and reliability.
Despite being mid-generation, the 2016 Explorer couldn’t rid itself of certain issues. Alongside the power steering problems which continued from previous years, owners also pointed out concerns with the exhaust system, particularly a sulfur-like smell infiltrating the cabin.
On June 12, 2019, Ford announced a global recall of 1.2 million Explorers produced from 2011 to 2017 citing suspension issues. Ford stated if the car was subjected to frequent rides over rough terrain that the toe link on the rear suspension could fracture which would affect steering and lead to greater risks of traffic accidents.
Best & Worst Years for Ford Explorer 6th Generation (2020-Present)
The sixth generation of the Ford Explorer, beginning in 2020, represents the most contemporary version of this iconic SUV. With a return to rear-wheel drive architecture and the introduction of new hybrid models, this generation attempts to balance performance with fuel efficiency.
The Best Years: 2022
The 2022 model year of the Ford Explorer brings together many of the lessons learned from previous years. Enhanced with innovative safety features, technological advancements, and improved build quality, it represents the maturation of the sixth generation.
Key features include the expansion of Ford Co-Pilot360 technology, offering an impressive array of driver-assist features, and the introduction of new trim levels providing more customization options. Fuel efficiency is also emphasized with both EcoBoost and Hybrid engine options.
The Neutral Years: 2023
Although details on the 2023 model year are still emerging, it appears to be a continuation of the advancements seen in the best years.
While not making major leaps forward, it holds steady with proven features such as Ford’s advanced safety suite and reliable powertrain options.
The Worst Years: 2020, 2021
Unfortunately, the inaugural year of the sixth generation was beset by multiple issues. The 2020 Ford Explorer had the highest number of recalls among its generation, concerning problems such as rearview camera failure, which affected up to 420,000 vehicles.
Beyond recalls, owners reported a variety of issues ranging from transmission problems to build quality concerns. This troubled launch set a challenging tone for the sixth generation, making the 2020 model year one to be cautious about.
The problems of the previous year continued into 2021, although to a lesser extent. The rearview camera issue persisted, and some transmission issues also remained unresolved.
Ford Explorer Average Resale Values
Here’s a graph showing the average resale values of the Ford Explorer over various model years.
Now that we’ve given you an overview of all generations of the Ford Explorer as well as the best and worst years, it is now clearer for you which Ford Explore model year to go for and which to avoid.
Which Ford Explorer generation resonates the most with you, and have you experienced any of the issues highlighted?
We would like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.