Cars and Drivers

The 5 Worst Ford Explorer Years To Avoid and 5 Years to Own

Ford dealer
jetcityimage / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

First released in 1991, the Ford Explorer is one of the most popular SUVs on the market today. Ford has even gone as far as to say the Ford Explorer is the most popular SUV of all time. 

Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t mean perfection as the Ford Explorer has not been perfect every year. With millions of vehicles sold, it should come as no surprise there are both good and bad years for the Explorer. After reviewing websites like CarComplaints.com, fixdapp, copilotsearch, and Automotive Links, 24/7 Wall Street can identify the five worst and best Ford Explorer model years. 

Avoid: 2002

2002 Ford Explorer
Source: Jeremy / Wikimedia Commons
The 2002 Ford Explorer has a large amount of NHTSA complaints, especially around the vehicle’s transmission.

There is almost no argument when it comes to the statement that 2002 was the Ford Explorer’s worst year. Part of the vehicle’s third generation, CarComplaints.com indicates the 2002 model year received over 3,900 NHTSA (National Highway and Safety Administration) complaints. Chief among these complaints with just under 1,000 filings are problems around the Explorer’s transmission. 

Between transmission failures, difficulties shifting gears, or the transmission just hesitating in general, it was a bad year. The bad year continues with a separate set of complaints related to a whining noise from the rear differential. Plus, you have an issue with a cracked panel right below the rear window on 2002 Explorer models. The bottom line is that 2002 is a model year Ford would like to forget. 

Avoid: 2003

2003 Ford Explorer
Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Over 1,800 complaints surfaced around the 2003 Explorer along with 7 recalls.

Fast forward one year and the 2003 Ford Explorer doesn’t do much to turn things around. With well over 1,800 NHTSA complaints filed, Ford had still not resolved its cracked panel issue from 2002. As a result, customers were complaining in droves though none of the 7 recalls issued during this model year were related. As such, you can also focus on the multiple complaints filed around transmission failures. Again, a 2002 issue carries over into the 2003 model year. 

While 2003 did show a few improvements in safety and technology, the repetitive problems from years prior sank the 2003 model. Engine failures were reported in high numbers in 2003 because of a bad timing chain with the V5 engine. Last but not least, problems with the wheels coming off while driving also surfaced for many Explorer owners. 

Avoid: 2004

2004 Ford Explorer
Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
It’s safe to call 2004 the second worst year for the Ford Explorer in its history.

On a three-year run of bad model years, the 2004 Ford Explorer is worse than the previous year. Along with 2002, 2004 will go down as the worst model years to own the Explorer. Over 2,400 complaints were filed with the NHTSA and, surprisingly, many of them carry over from 2002 and 2003. The 5R55 transmission Ford used had become well-known for prematurely failing and it showed in 2004. 

Additionally, the rear window cracked panel was still present in 2004. For reasons unknown, Ford had not yet addressed this issue in the Explorer, much to the frustration of owners. Even the introduction of AdvanceTrac electronics stability control wasn’t enough to outshine other problem areas for Ford. As areas of concern in 2004 continued, customer complaints also extended to the quality of interior plastics which felt cheap and cracked after a few years of ownership. 

Avoid: 2005

2002-2005 Ford Explorer
Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Transmission failures declined in 2005, but it was still a rough year for the Ford Explorer.

For the fourth year in a row, 2005 continued a difficult streak for Ford with the Explorer model. Even though the car continued to sell well, it was still facing numerous issues. On that note, there is no question that problems did decline from 2004 to the point of NHTSA complaints falling to under 1,000. This marked a high point for this generation of the Ford Explorer as it also marked a year with the lowest number of recalls since 2002. 

Enhancements in 2005 included a new drivetrain and updated infotainment system, but it didn’t defeat all of the transmission problems. Transmission failures did decline, though transmission slipping did increase. Add in other issues like excessive rust, peeling paint, and broken hinges for the rear hatch, and customers were frustrated by 2005 model-year problems. 

Avoid: 2013

Ford Explorer XLT 3.5 2013
Source: order_242 / Wikimedia Commons
With over 2,000 NHTSA complaints, 2013 remains a model year to avoid.

As the fifth model year to avoid, 2013 stands out with just a few more NHTSA complaints than 2005. Moving into a new vehicle generation, Ford had found a bit of its groove between 2007 and 2012. However, in 2013, enough issues bubbled to the surface to give the Explorer over 2,000 NHTSA complaints. Among the top issues were bubbling paint, rust bubbles, or water leaking into the interior of the vehicle. 

In addition, 2013 also saw a rise in concerns over power steering. With this issue, concerns over the safety and reliability of the Ford Explorer became a major talking point. Some issues can be chalked up to the 2013 model being a newer entry in the 5th generation, but that argument only goes so far. Instead, things like cabin odors also became a top talking point as complaints about exhaust smells inside the vehicle increased. 

Own: 2009

2009 Ford Explorer
Source: order_242 / Wikimedia Commons
The 2009 Ford Explorer is considered one of the best model years with a refined interior.

With only a small number of reported issues, 2009 ranks as a solid year for Ford Explorer owners. Considered the top model year of the Explorers 4th generation, 2009 marked a high point in safety, technology, and engine performance. Ford also gave the Explorer a bit of a refined interior which allowed for slightly better handling and overall comfort. With less than a few dozen NHTSA complaints, 2009 turned a corner for Ford. 

While vehicle speed control issues persisted, the 2009 model only had one recall issued. With this said, the J.D. Power report for the 2009 Ford Explorer gives it an 83 out of 100 score. Best of all, J.D. gives this model an 85 out of 100 for reliability and quality which is considered “Great.” Factor in an 83 out of 100 resale score and it’s clear why the 2009 is a model worth owning. 

Own: 2018

Source: Tramino / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
A refreshed front end marks a highlight year for the 2018 Ford Explorer.

An easy choice for potential Ford Explorer owners, the 2018 model is another opportunity to purchase a well-built SUV. Among the highlights this year was a refreshed front end that included changes to the LED and fog lights. Ford also included a new interior design, which wasn’t huge but added some additional plastic and leather refinements making the car feel more comfortable to drive. 

Like the 2009 model, J.D. Power awarded the 2018 model high marks. This includes an 82 out of 100 score for both overall performance and the same score specifically focused on quality and reliability. The reliability here speaks to the overall Explorer changes that have been made. While over 100 NHTSA complaints were filed, it’s still a far lower number than in previous model years. 

Own: 2021

Source: shaunl / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
As part of the Ford Explorer’s sixth generation, the 2021 model is very refined and capable.

The second model in the Ford Explorer’s sixth generation, the 2021 model escaped many of the issues that plagued the 2020 model. In this regard, the 2021 model was praised for its high-reliability scores and low cost of maintenance. With only less than 75 NHTSA complaints, the 2021 model certainly proved that Ford was finding its stride with this new body style and engine. While some electrical and drivetrain problems persisted, they were mostly kept in check. 

In total, according to ALM Cars, over 96% of 2021 Ford Explorer owners would recommend the vehicle. Combine that with a J.D. Power score of 82 out of 100 and you have something really great. Considering the resale value of the Explorer in 2021 is also rated 86 out of 100 (according to J.D. Power), it proves this vehicle not only holds its value but maintains reliability for years. 

Own: 2022

Source: Artistic Operations / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
In 2022, the Ford Explorer gets even better with J.D. Power awarding it an 83 out of 100.

Fast forward to 2022 and you’re seeing slightly better Ford Explorer performance over 2021. This is true with J.D. Power, which gave the Explorer an overall score of 83 out of 100. This was one point higher than the year prior, but it speaks to the strong driving experience, quality, and overall resale value. It’s believed that with maintenance costs of around $700 per year, the Explorer isn’t any more expensive to maintain than its strongest competitors. 

Where 2022 stands out is with the Explorer only receiving less than 30 NHTSA complaints. The chief issue focused on drivetrain concerns, but there was no identifiable problem spread across the 12 NHTSA complaints focused on drivetrain. Given this, it’s more likely these issues were related to individual cars rather than a broader concern with the 2022 Explorer in general. 

Own: 2023

2023 Ford Explorer
Source: Alexander Migl / Wikimedia Commons
The 2023 Ford Explorer is the best model yet with a great infotainment experience.

Last but not least, the 2023 Ford Explorer is worth owning. As it can be found with strong lease pricing, the 2023 J.D. Power rating kept the Explorer sitting pretty with an 80 out of 100. Resale value and reliability scores stayed close to the 2021 and 2022 models, which was a good sign. As the Ford Co-Pilot360 technology package improved, the 2023 Ford Explorer continued to make the case to hold its position as the best-selling SUV. 

While it’s too early to indicate whether NHTSA claims will be filed against this model, so far nothing major has popped up online. There were no early indicators the 2023 Ford Explorer had any major issues impacting vehicle ownership. Separately, there are also no signs of increased maintenance costs or problems carrying over from the 2022 model like the drivetrain.

 

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