How the Ford Explorer shaped the SUV market

The Ford Explorer, which can be largely credited for today’s popularity of SUVs as family haulers, is still popular almost 30 years after its introduction — despite lots of competition.

Crossovers and SUVs dominate the automotive marketplace these days, with a wide range of offerings in price and size.

But it was a far different story when the idea of a four-door SUV aimed at families surfaced at Ford in the 1980s.

It was the brainchild of Bob Lutz, who had been a top executive with GM and BMW in Europe, before taking over as head of Ford of Europe in the late 1970s. When Lutz was brought back to North America to handle Ford’s truck division in 1986, he noticed the Jeep Cherokee — with four doors and a plush interior — was taking sales from the smaller and plainer two-door Ford Bronco II.

Lutz decided it was time for Ford to produce a larger and more luxurious SUV. The target market was families who wanted lots of room and some luxury touches available on sedans.

Market research revealed there would be a market for people who wanted a vehicle that would be ideal in the great outdoors (even if they didn’t actually use it for that purpose); baby boomers who wanted hauling capacity but had a streak of rebellion so didn’t want a station wagon like their parents; and people who wanted the space of a minivan, but didn’t like the image of the minivan.

The first Explorer was based on the compact Ranger pickup and the Bronco II, and these lower development costs meant higher profits.

The Ford Explorer was groundbreaking when introduced for the 1991 model year, and proved very popular in the marketplace. Competitors quickly noticed and soon offered their own products to take on the Explorer. Throughout the 1990s, about 1,000 Explorers were sold every day. More than seven million have been produced in total since it was introduced.

The success of the Explorer — and the resulting increased competition — prompted Ford to also greatly expand its SUV and crossover offerings: the larger Expedition, the smaller Escape and EcoSport, and the mid-size Flex and Edge. As well, versions of the Explorer were offered by Mercury and Lincoln.

Car & Driver magazine commented earlier this year on the impact of the Explorer, saying: “It is difficult to envision in which way the development of SUVs would move if Ford didn’t present this vehicle … For the first time, we had a combination of driving qualities of passenger cars and capabilities of an off-road vehicle.”

I recently drove a Ford Explorer Limited four-wheel drive media fleet test vehicle.

With five trim levels, the base Explorer has a starting price of $32,365; for this mid-trim Limited model the base price was $48,899; with options, it had a list price of $57,869.

Options included adaptive cruise control and collision warning, lane keep assist, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, cameras front and back, automatic high-beam headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and active park assist for both parallel parking and perpendicular parking.

The engine was the optional 2.3 litre four-cylinder EcoBoost, which produces 280 hp and 310 lb.-ft.

Inside, the Explorer is luxurious. The massaging seats can be either heated or cooled. The controls are logically laid out and very intuitive. With an adjustable steering wheel and adjustable pedals, the Explorer has a very comfortable ride.

There’s plenty of room for carrying seven people, with three rows of seating. The second and third rows can be lowered or raised with the push of a button for lots of hauling capacity.

However, some additional legroom for the driver and front seat passenger would be welcomed.

In recent years, consumers have been moving away from sedans and coupes and showing a clear preference for crossovers and SUVs. Ford announced earlier this year that it will be getting out of the car business by 2020 (with the exception of the Mustang and the new Focus Active) to concentrate on making trucks, SUVs and crossovers. Ford is even bringing back the Ranger compact truck and the Bronco — the two vehicles that were the basis for the original Explorer.

That could not have been imagined when the Explorer was launched.

“Certainly back in 1991, I had no idea the segment would grow to be this big,” says Trevor Boquist, president and CEO of the Driving Change Automotive Group, which includes Bennett Dunlop Ford in Regina.

“I think out of the gate the Explorer was more family-focused with its seating, and it certainly was a hit with people that need a vehicle for tougher weather. Certainly it has changed significantly as people enjoy the higher sight lines, additional space and all-wheel-drive,” Boquist adds.

With its long list of options, the Explorer can be anything from — in base form — a large, economical family hauler, to a sporty or luxurious model that rivals some premium SUVs. There’s even a Police Interceptor Utility version that is popular with police forces.

Although increased competition means the Explorer no longer dominates the SUV market segment the way it did in its early days, its impact has been immense — and the Explorer will no doubt be a key part of the Ford lineup for a long time to come.

Dale Edward Johnson is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The test vehicle was supplied by Ford of Canada, and the automaker did not review or approve this article before publication.

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