The SUV that helped start it all became a crossover.
Ford was the first of the three Detroit automakers to fully comprehend a financial collapse was coming unless drastic measures were taken. Immediately. Chairman Bill Ford took on the job of CEO after firing Jacques Nasser to help save his great-grandfather's company, but he knew early on a turnaround expert was needed. Someone with the skills beyond his own. That guy was Alan Mulally, who joined Ford as CEO in 2006.
He previously had a 30-year career at Boeing, but was passed over twice for CEO, hence the golden opportunity at Ford. Recognizing Ford's dire condition, he leveraged all of the automaker's assets to borrow $23.6 billion in order to stabilize its finances. While some industry analysts interpreted the move as desperate, it was, in fact, brilliant. Mulally did literally everything right, and that also included re-thinking some of Ford's most popular vehicles. The Explorer SUV is the best example. Even before Mulally's arrival, Ford was debating a plan to dramatically overhaul the Explorer. How come? Because of an SUV popularity decline as a direct result of high gasoline prices.
America was also in the midst of the Great Recession, and car buyers were also keen on downsizing, hence the decision to sell the European favorite Fiesta in the US. But Ford, under Mulally, was not about to let go of a potentially money-making nameplate. It was Mulally who changed the Taurus replacing 500 name back to Taurus because he couldn't understand why the automaker, prior to his arrival, ditched a best-selling nameplate. The first time Ford publically indicated a dramatic Explorer change was coming was at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show with the debut of the Explorer America Concept.
Unlike the then current Explorer body-on-frame underpinnings, this concept was built on a unibody platform to help shave weight, improve fuel economy, and for a more comfortable ride. It was also important to maintain the Explorer's rugged looks and not let it become too minivan-like. Rugged. Modern. Muscular. Those were the instructions given to the design team. The result was far different than the aging Explorer still on sale. The bold front end may have looked overly dramatic at the time, but today such styling is common for Ford and automakers in general. Notice the three-bar grille styling, power dome hood, and wrap-around rear glass panel – all of which, in some form, are in production today.
The Explorer America has emphasized an active lifestyle with its sliding rear door allowing for easier access for people and their gear. Aside from that door, the Explorer America clearly previewed the fifth generation Explorer, revealed just over a year later in 2010. Compare the two side by side and the similarities are vast. The concept also ditched the V8 in favor of a turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder and the familiar 3.5-liter V6. Both engines made production. The V8 was gone, and still is. The 2011 Explorer featured a watered-down version of the concept's three-bar grille, the angled C-pillar and wrap-around rear glass.
The unibody platform was not actually new, but rather a heavily revised version of the D3 platform (now called D4) that underpinned the Taurus. Interestingly, this platform traces its roots back to Volvo, which makes sense considering Ford owned the Swedish automaker until Mulally sold it to current parent company Geely in 2009. The Explorer was built and remains on a front-wheel drive platform that can be converted to all-wheel drive. Remember, it's a crossover now, though one with impressive off-road capabilities. General reaction to the completely new Explorer was generally very positive, with Mulally bragging about its 20-percent improved fuel economy.
This design was good enough to keep the vehicle looking fresh until 2016 when it received its first update. The front end was toned-down, eliminating the three-bar grille in favor of a mesh grille. Along with powertrain and other relatively minor changes, the Explorer has remained competitive till this day. Only in the past couple of months have we learned about plans for a sixth generation Explorer, said to ride on a rear-wheel drive platform, though one capable of a hybrid powertrain. Interestingly, the just revealed Lincoln Aviator Concept is that replacement, though this is the more luxurious version of the next Explorer. Expect the next Explorer to appear in concept form in the near future.
Now that Alan Mulally is retired and his successor's successor is now at the helm, the future Explorer's future is still looking solid, as Ford relies on its SUVs, trucks and crossovers for a good chunk of its profits. But the gamble to turn the Explorer into a car-based crossover worked amazingly well, and it'd been a shame to see the nameplate get killed off entirely.