Who here remembers the original Explorer? If there was an SUV mascot for the ’90s in the US, this was it. I remember them being brand new, I remember the fancy Eddie Bauer editions with their 2 tone paint, embroidered seats, and ruched leather?! Take my word for it if you weren’t there, it was part of the landscape and you couldn’t avoid it. Even if you weren’t alive, you probably have at least one certain 1st gen Explorer seared into your mind at some point as T-Rex bait (spared no expense).
It’s been 30 years since then and while it never went away, the Explorer today is a very different beast today. The heyday of the body on frame SUV, for good or ill, is behind us replaced by the dawn of the crossover – a hiss and a byword among enthusiasts. Crossovers are generally seen as neither here-nor-there compromises, the soulless by-product of targeting the fat part of the sales curve. While there is a lot of truth in that, I think it’s a little unfair. Common yes, but for a good reason.
Still, the Pathfinders have found their paths, the trails have been blazed, and the Troopers have been honorably discharged. So, if the Explorer is all done exploring, what’s left to take up its mantle? This:
BS! I hear you say, and you, my friend, are right! I know it might not make sense that a crossover like the new Ford Bronco Sport could possibly be the spiritual or actual successor to the venerable Explorer but stick with me, I think you’ll be surprised. I was.
Jump ahead to any category you want here.
Here is something I think we all know at heart, though maybe have never articulated – cars are bigger than they used to be. For example, the Corolla is the size of the old Camry, the Renegade is the size of the former Cherokee and, you guessed it, the Explorer and the “small” Bronco Sport are closer in dimension than you might initially guess.
Take a look at this scaled drawing I made. The Explorer is longer, at 184″ to 177″, making it 11.3″ more wagon but it’s also less tall and narrower than the Bronco Sport (6.7″ inches and 3.8″ respectively). The Explorer also has 6.8 more inches in wheelbase and is 300 lbs heavier. Unibodies certainly have their advantages.
What’s more interesting than their exterior dimensions is how alike they are in other areas. Did you know the explorer came with 235/75R15 tires as their “big” tire. 28.9 inches in diameter. The biggest tire available on the Bronco Sport? 235/65R17, or 29 inches.
The explorer had a torque focused engine, the “high-torque” cologne 4.0 V6 in Ford speak, with 220 lbs-ft @4000 rpm. Compare that to 275 lbs-ft @3000 rpm with the “EcoBoost” 2.0 in the Bronco Sport Badlands. High-torque indeed. In the area of horsepower, it’s even more lopsided in favor of the supplanter with the Bronco Sport making a healthy 245 horsepower to the Explorer’s wheazy 155. It shouldn’t be a surprise that cars get more with less today, this is just to illustrate how favorably you can compare the two in power class.
“Okay, but it doesn’t have a real 4wd system, no low range, no off-roader.”
It’s a fair point. Without a transfer case, a second gear reduction set meant for slow-speed work, can the Bronco Sport really hope to compete off-road?
Well, yes actually.
The Explorer with its BW1354 2-speed transfer case and A4LD 4-speed automatic had 8 forward speeds, available as 2 distinct sets, and a crawl ratio of about 23:1 with the tow package (2.47 1st gear, 2.48:1 low range, 3.73:1 axle ratio). The Bronco Sport also has 8 forward speeds, all as one set. This enables a crawl ratio of 18:1 (4.69 1st gear, 3.81 final drive). Crawl ratio is the ratio between 1 turn of the crank and the rotations of the wheels in the most aggressive gear ratio. 23 or 18 times respectively per one revolution of the crank. This slows vehicle speed down, and more importantly, multiplies engine torque by that same ratio.
It’s that wheel torque that makes low range such a potent off-road ally. So, 18 is less than 23, Explorer wins? Remember that the Explorer could produce only 220 lbs-ft (@4000 rpm), which multiplied 23 times is roughly 5060 lbs-ft of torque to divvy up between the wheels. The Bronco Sport makes more torque at lower engine speeds (275 @ 3000 rpm) for a total 4950 lbs-ft of wheel torque to share. Pretty dang close.
Sure, but what about speed? Well, at peak torque, the Explorer with the optional 28.9 inch tire and 3.73:1 axle ratio is going 15.06 mph in low range 1st gear (4000 rpm) vs 14.49 mph 1st gear in the Bronco Sport with the optional 29 inch tires (3000 rpm). They are very comparable, even taking out of the equation altitude compensation benefits of turbocharging in the new engine and the EXTREMELY dubious power ratings of the 90’s working against the old 4.0. The Bronco Sport is nearly on par with the Explorer for total torque and is actually moving slower at peak torque.
I will be the first to admit that a traditional 4WD system is more tolerant of abuse, but it needed to be as abuse was the only kind of traction control available at the time. Any test of an AWD vehicle today seems to be about testing the system by delicately sneaking up on a hill and stressing the engine, transmission, and grip. Before the age of traction control systems to test, off-roading a stock vehicle used to involve a lot more speed, and bouncing around to get the job done. Take a look at this Motorweek SUV battle for a dose of retro to get into the 90’s frame of mind.
Tread lightly principles say “as slow as possible, as fast as necessary”, I guess what I’m saying is “fast as necessary” used to be faster and I think we’ve forgotten how good we have it now. Traction control limits wheelspin and prevents shock loading the drivetrain, saving parts and tracks and it’s good that we have it by-and-large.
More than traction control, new AWD systems are getting very good at optimizing traction. Take for example the Bronco Sports optional AWD system. Supplied by DANA, it’s an on-demand AWD system. The Bronco Sport with this system uses a cooled Power Transfer Unit or PTU that attaches to transaxle and sends power to the Rear Drive Unit, or RDU.
The RDU has 2 clutches, one on each axle shaft that takes the torque from the prop shaft and distributes it to the wheel that needs it. These 2 clutches handle front-to-rear as well as side-to-side speed and torque biases, effectively eliminating 2 differentials, the center, and rear. When AWD is commanded, such as when the “center lock” button is pressed, the 2 rear RDM clutches engage at the same time, allowing torque to go to the rear axle. When turning sharply, the computer partially disengages the clutch on the inside wheel of the RDM allowing it to slip to deal with the speed difference a differential would normally handle. When you “lock” the “rear diff” you are commanding more pressure more often to those clutches. The buttons are programming tricks to tell the computer you prefer traction over smooth on-road driving but “lock” nothing, not really.
Even when “locked” the systems will know to allow the required slip for turning for example. Despite this, the system is very effective, allowing for at least half and probably more up to 70% or so of the engine torque to go to the rear axle and “almost all” that torque to go to a single rear wheel according to Ford. The front differential is your run-of-the-mill open type and is managed through braking individual wheels to simulate traction on a slipping wheel and allow more torque to go to a gripping one.
The old Explorer was locked into part-time operation, which meant slick surfaces only. This lets the old beast send more torque to the secondary axle compared to the Bronco Sport, all of it in fact. However, the front differential was open with a limited-slip rear as optional, which meant that no more than 50% engine torque could ever make it to a single front wheel and only a little more than that to the rear. Without knowing the bias ratio of the diff I would guess about 70% to a single rear wheel worst case. In the Bronco sport, if 70% could make it to the rear axle, most of that could go to a single rear wheel and unlike the Explorer, this is still true even if one rear tire had no traction, where the Explorer’s limited-slip would let it down. In practical terms, it’s pretty much a wash for traction and torque biasing with a slight edge to the Bronco Sport’s far more advanced and active system.
The Explorer did have its advantages though, even in comparison to modern vehicles. It’s solid rear axle and twin traction beam front axle allowed for better suspension articulation than the independent suspension on the Bronco Sport.
Towing and capacity
The Explorer could also out utility the newcomer as well, as the Bronco Sport sucks at towing. 2200 lb compared to the Explorers max of 6000. That being said, The idea of towing 6000 lbs with a 3800 lbs SUV with 155 HP was probably never a good idea. Tow ratings are now certified by an SAE standard which involves braking, acceleration, cooling, and other factors. In the Explorer’s day, it was…I don’t want to say pulled out of a hat, but it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination.
We also don’t know what the payload is, but it’s likely that it won’t exceed the old Explorers limits.
There is another part of the SUV craze in the 90’s I remember well, I called it “the migration”. It was the time you sold your Cherokee, Pathfinder, 4Runner, Wrangler, etc, and bought a Subaru Outback. Why? You still wanted to play outside, but you needed a car that made more sense for your life and wallet. Did it take you to the same trailheads? Yes. Did it get you to the campsite? Yes. Did it rock crawl? No, but you did that once or twice a year at best and as a college student/young person/couple, you needed a smooth ride and MPG out of the teens.
This is how it played out for me. I loved my Rodeo, but my Rav4 was something I could afford on a daily basis and it could still take my bikes, my friends, and me to the trails.
Look, the crossover makes more sense for more people more of the time and it’s been that way since it first came on the scene.
When people get all sorts of ways about the crossover I remind them that people fell in love with the SUV for a reason and not just delusions of grandeur. Space, adaptability, ease, and capability were all part of the appeal. The SUV was all of that and then some, but kind of a terrible car – Terrible ride, terrible mileage, terrible handling. The car, likewise, lacked all the things that made SUVs appealing. The truth is the crossover is what most people have actually been looking for in a daily drivable do-anything. We now have the technology to deliver on that promise. I guess what I’m saying is the Bronco Sport is everything the Explorer wishes it was and I for one welcome it to the trail.
Now fix that maddening door chime, Ford and we can talk.