2003 Ford Explorer XLS 4.0L V6 from North America
Mall-terrain vehicle that runs great
Rear wheel bearings.
LF tie rod boot.
Front upper ball joint boots - replaced control arms.
RR toe link wore out causing weird handling.
Parking brake shoes.
Rear window's rubber gasket shrunk significantly off the opening. Replaced and fixed the whole disaster of a design as described in the next section.
Rear washer hose came apart inside of the quarter panel, causing flooding in the RR dead pocket. Panels were easy to disassemble.
Replaced by previous owner:
A couple of studs on the exhaust manifolds.
Front wheel bearings.
LF CV shaft.
If you research around the Internet, all of the above are mostly standard wear parts for the 2002-2005 generation.
It is quiet and rather peppy with the V6. My research indicates the V6 is far superior in reliability to the 4.6L V8, plus it's easy to service. Engine compartment spacing is much more reasonable compared to the 4.6L or the 1st gen. 5L V8 Mountaineers for example.
5-speed computer-controlled automatic is rather sloshy. Its action seems more related to the weather than specific well-defined shift points. When speeding up or slowing down using cruise control, it will shift into 4th-lockup, adjust the speed, then shift back into 5th.
One advantage here is that the first 3 gears are manually shifted: 1, 2, 3 positions select those specific ratios and they don't shift up or down. Convenient for starting out on wet ice for example or for bragging to friends that you have a manual-shift option in a base model :-) Then the D position is full auto + overdrive button on the lever.
Transfer case on the base model is part-time without the center diff and has 4-automatic, 4 high, and 4-low switches. The default "unwired" mode is 4-auto, which means if the rear wheels slip (rear output shaft turns faster than the front), the front driveshaft is engaged through hydraulic pump action to the front clutch, much like in an automatic transmission. Then when front pulls and hydraulic pressure bleeds down, the front is disengaged again. The computer modulates this process when connected.
If the wiring fails you won't be left without traction in the village. This also means there's no 2WD mode and you have to lift up all wheels when troubleshooting driveshafts and whatnot in gear.
Front differential is always connected to the wheel hubs unlike the Chevy S-10 or the older Traction-beam Fords. So having a part-time automatic 4WD is really a crutch since the front axle is gobbling up some fuel all the time anyway. If you never use 4-Low you could install a full-time T-case from a junkyard, but it only gives you technological excellence with high range, so you may or might not want to dig that far.
Differentials on base model are 3.55:1 open. With a transmission jack you could easily swap in 3.73 LSD set from a premium model found in a junkyard. I probably would if I had a couple hundred to spend on toys and games.
Radiator seeped coolant but not enough to drip - I found out by the smell. Cooling system did have a lot of mineral crud in it, especially the lower crossover pipe that connects to the recovery tank, but it flushed out well. I refilled the new radiator with G-05, which in my experience is the best antifreeze ever.
I would recommend installing a battery cut-off switch on the negative cable. It can be conveniently placed on the plastic radiator cover right by the battery. The reason is that the radios nowadays don't have real power switches and consume enough current to drain the battery if stored for a couple of months. The factory security system is always on too.
The battery in this truck is jumbo commercial size and I replaced it with a reconditioned one for only $40; way more sane than paying $120+ for a brand new one. It's from Battery Specialists on 112th and Powell Blvd. I've used this battery rebuilder for years and they are good.
Front seats are rather uncomfortable. There is no lumbar support and the shoulders are squeezed together. You are seating kind of curled up towards the steering wheel. The front edge of the seat is too low. It can be painful for long drives so I'd bring a pad for the back. It is a far cry from the ergonomic contoured seats of the late '80s. I've owned a great variety of vehicles in my life and I've definitely noticed a shift in American models from ergonomic seats made through 1990 or so, to completely misshapen seats that came on new models since then. The new seats seem to be optimized for porkbarrel-backed fatsos. I guess the marketing departments anticipated the fattening of U.S. consumers after a decade of excess and adjusted accordingly. Some references of excellent seats: 1988 Sundance RS, 1993 Suzuki Swift, 1994 Protege LX, 1988 Regal W-body, 1st gen. Saturns, '80s Saab 900, 1979 Chevy pickup bench, 1974 Plymouth Valiant bench, 1970 Fleetwood, 1960 El Camino, K-car "premium" buckets, 1st gen. Caravan base model buckets, late-80s Escort, 1st gen. Explorer, Bronco 2, Sunbird J-body, '80s Buick Skylark, '80s Grand Am, you get the idea.
Contrasted with some bad ones: 1991+ Caravan (gen.1.5 and 2), 1996 Corolla, 1991 Regal W-body sedan, Ford Excursion and F250-350 pickups, 1998+ Hino and Isuzu trucks, 2001+ new Suburban.
Even my 1st gen. Nissan Quest minivan is in between the two styles - I can live with that, but for the Explorer I purchased high-density foam to rebuild the seat properly.
Overall this generation of Explorer is relatively easy to work on. I guess the marketing department figured since the unions want to reduce robotization of factories, the next best thing is to design car parts to be wide-open and easily assembled. Now if you watch YouTube you'll know that the rear wheel bearings on this model are about the most difficult part to replace ever. Knowing better, I swapped the knuckle/spindle assemblies with recently serviced junkyard units and I didn't go broke (as would be if I bought parts from a Ford dealer). That's the great thing about shopping in a junkyard - you get new parts that somebody paid a small fortune to install on a car, then some pulley starts squeaking and the owner just can't take it any more and junks the car.
The ride is quite stiff. It has 4-wheel independent suspension and body-on-frame, but you wouldn't know it if you hit some washboard corrugations. It has a sports car suspension not suitable for off-pavement; you can only go 15-20 MPH on gravel in relative comfort. It's the springs that are too stiff, more like an F350, not Lincoln Town Car. That said, the strut assemblies are easy to swap for proper soft ones if you can find them in the aftermarket. They are mounted pretty much like traditional shock absorbers. I installed Monroe Reflex front struts that didn't seem to make any noticeable difference because they use the same springs. Need more coil turns or thinner gauge. Rides smooth on flat pavement though.
The rear glass window has wimpy hinges that loosen up and let it rattle against the tailgate. I disassembled the cover panels, cleaned and epoxied glass to the hinges and bolts, removed support struts (that push it down when closed!), and just left it shut permanently. Opening the whole tailgate is easy enough.
Overall I deem it reliable enough to travel far, as long as there's no rock crawling or a mud bog on the way. It averages 19 MPG, a bit lower than my previous '91 S-10 extended cab 4x4 that got 21 with a manual trans. Nissan Quest gets 23, Grand Caravan LE 3.3L got 21, and Turbo-2 Caravan with 3-speed AT got 21 as well. The Explorer is well in the ballpark considering it's one of the two quickest in this group.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 16th October, 2016