The Ford Explorer is one of the SUVs that are easily recognizable on America’s roads. The blue oval regularly sells nearly 200,000 Explorer models each year, giving the brand great success. While it is a favorite family SUV, there are some model years that have suffered failures.
After carefully looking at all of the data, we’ve narrowed down the best and worst years of the Ford Explorer. This is information you want to know if you are shopping for a used Explorer or considering whether or not you should keep the one you have. Our data comes from thousands of FIXD car scanners installed in Ford Explorer models, along with hundreds of owner surveys and information retrieved from published sources on safety tests, recalls, fuel economy, and other essential factors.
|Best Years||Why?||Worst Years||Why?|
|2020-2021||Low cost per year, high reliability score among owners, good safety scores||2002-2005||Poor reliability scores, high cost of ownership, weak safety ratings|
|2015-2019||Good reliability scores, fuel-efficient powertrains, lower cost of ownership||2001||Mediocre reliability ratings, high cost of ownership, dangerously low safety ratings|
|2011-2014||Above average reliability scores, high safety scores, better fuel economy||2006-2010||Average cost of ownership, reduced fuel economy numbers, high chance of expensive repair|
Ford Explorer MPG, Engine Reliability Score, & Safety Ratings Year by Year
Before we examine why each particular year is considered a winner or a dud, it’s important to get an overview of the data. To determine which models are better than others, we are looking at reliability scores based on FIXD app data and owner surveys, safety ratings, cost of ownership and mpg. Keep in mind that the first car of a generation can often have some bugs that need to be worked out. For that reason, you may see a couple of these models dip in the ratings.
If you’re in the market for a car, take a look at our article on the USAs’ most reliable and cheapest to repair cars in the U.S. Don’t get stuck with a lemon, use our data to help you shop.
Engine Reliability Score – Over The Years
To determine the engine reliability score, we used two different sources. First, the FIXD engine reliability score (Green) is based on how many Check Engine Lights are thrown based on the model year. There’s also a survey score (Gray) where we collected data from owners of these model years. We use a relative score, giving 5 as an average, with 1 at the lowest and 10 the highest for both scores.
Based on reliability alone, it’s clear that the older models are the ones to avoid. In particular, the 2004 through 2010 models seemed to score the lowest overall. As far as higher reliability, the newer models seem to be among the best.
NHTSA Safety Score – Over The Years
Most Ford Explorer years earn a minimum of a four-star safety rating from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). However, the 2001 and 2002 Ford Explorer models dip below that rating with 3.67 out of 5. Those ratings are disturbing and prove that these models might not be the best option for families.
Aside from those lower scores, the rating tends to get better as the Explorer becomes newer. In fact, the 2020 and 2021 Ford Explorer models have earned 4.8 out of 5, which is nearly perfect.
It’s important to consider safety ratings if you want to get cheap car insurance. The insurance providers take these ratings into account, so you could save money by choosing a safer model.
If you live in one of the states listed below, we can show you the cheapest vehicles to insure in yours.
|What Used Cars Are the Cheapest To Insure In:|
MPG – Over The Years
When figuring out ownership costs, it’s also important to look at fuel economy. A fuel-efficient SUV is going to save you money because you won’t be filling up the tank as frequently. It’s true that the older Explorer models leave a lot to be desired in the fuel-efficiency department. However, this is a three-row SUV that we are looking at, so we can’t be too judgmental.
If you want a Ford Explorer (Green line) with the best possible fuel economy ratings, you would be better off looking at the 2020 and 2021 models. At an average of 23 miles per gallon, this is just one more reason we picked these two models as our top choices.
There’s also the newer option of choosing a hybrid Explorer. The 2020 and 2021 Ford Explorer hybrid SUVs average 26-27 mpg, which is quite impressive (Gray line).
Current Market Value of All Ford Explorer Years & Cost Per Year to Repair and Maintain Each
Reliability and the cost of ownership tend to go hand-in-hand. With the Ford Explorer models, the average cost of maintenance and repairs (Gray) annually falls between $250 and $1,094, so there’s quite a bit of difference between the years. The lowest cost options include the 2020 and 2021 Ford Explorer, while the more expensive models tend to be the 2001, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2019.
Looking at the value of the Ford Explorer (Green), we see a couple of other interesting points. With most vehicles, the KBB value tends to go up as the car is newer. However, there are a few dips in value that are alarming. Most notably, we see dips with the 2003, 2013, 2015, and 2018 models. If you wanted to save some money, you could get a deal on these used, but you would want to research why they are cheaper first.
When shopping for a used Ford Explorer, it’s important to keep in mind that not all vehicles are cared for equally. To protect yourself from lemons, take along a FIXD Sensor on your test drive. FIXD connects to a free app on your smartphone to tell you more about the vehicle you’re checking out, including check engine lights and other hidden issues that the owner or dealership may be attempting to hide. Click here to learn more and get FIXD for only $19.99 (regular price $59)!
Important Features Timeline
1996: XLT trim offers a V8 AWD variant
1997: New SOHC V6 engine with five-speed automatic transmission
1998: Restyled tailgate debuts
1999: Exterior upgrades include updated fog lamps, new rocker panel moldings, a variety of wheel moldings, new running boards, and updated wheel designs
2000: XL becomes available only for fleet sales, XLS debuts as the base model
2001: SOHC V6 engine comes standard, 4.0-liter OHV V6 and manual transmission are discontinued
2002: Launch of 3rd generation includes a 2.5” wider stance and 2” longer wheelbase, and a new independent rear suspension
2003: Sport versions of the XLS and XLT join the lineup, plus the NBX (No Boundaries Experience) trim level debuts
2004: AdvanceTrac electronic stability control available on all models
2005: Available AdvanceTrac stability control system received new roll stability control technology
2006 :4th generation arrives with a bold grille design, updated tailgate, and better headlights; new standard features include AdvanceTrac stability control and front-seat side airbags
2007: XLS trim level discontinued, MP3 input jack now standard
2008: Newly standard side curtain airbags, new capless fuel filling
2009: Standard trailer sway control, new XLT Sport trim
2010: Last model of 4th generation remains mostly unchanged, except the 4.6-liter V8 engine is only available with Eddie Bauer and Limited models
2011: Start of 5th generation comes on a new car-based platform
2012: Optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine debuts
2013: New Sport trim level released, front passenger knee airbag comes standard
2014: Automatic headlights come standard, Limited trim includes second-row heated seats
2015: Appearance package arrives for the XLT trim
2016: Available 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder debuts, 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder is discontinued
2017: XLT Sport Appearance package is released, Sync 3 infotainment system becomes available
2018: Integrated 4G LTE hotspot released
2019: Final model in 5th generation remains unchanged
2020: Release of 6th generation includes added passenger and cargo room, standard safety features included with Co-Pilot360 suite
2021: Sport Appearance package available on XLT trim, Timberline off-road model released
2022: ST trim can be equipped with rear-wheel drive
The Best Years of the Ford Explorer
Based on the information provided through the engine reliability data, owner surveys, safety scores, and fuel economy ratings, we see some Ford Explorer models rise to the top. Let’s look in-depth at the various model years to determine the best Explorer SUVs. We also include some of the diagnostic trouble code (DTC) data and some recall information that’s provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
2020-2021 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 8-9/10
Owner Reliability Score: 9-10/10
KBB Value: $24,939-$26,594
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg (gas), 26-27 (hybrid)
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $250
Safety Rating: 4.8/5
Typically, the newer a car is, the better it’s going to perform and that’s certainly the case with the Ford Explorer. Hitting the top of our list is the 2020 and 2021 Ford Explorer models. It earns superior reliability ratings, both from the FIXD app and users. Plus, it’s not ranked high for cost of ownership.
With close to a perfect 10 in both reliability surveys, we knew these models had to be the best.
Additionally, the 2020 and 2021 Explorer has earned a 4.8 overall safety rating (out of 5) from the NHTSA for safety.
The average fuel economy isn’t bad, considering this is a larger SUV. At 23 mpg, these are the most efficient gas-powered models to date. Plus, you have the option of choosing a hybrid powertrain to achieve 26-27 mpg.
Even with so many things going for it, we can’t say these Explorers are perfect. While the cost of ownership appears to be on the lower side, the chance that an unexpected repair will cost more than $500 is high.
It’s also possible that we don’t have a lot of data for these models yet and more information will come in during the next few years. In the meantime, we do see a higher chance of the EVAP Flow During a Non-Purge Condition (DTC P0496), but this may be fixable with something as minor as an EVAP line, costing $20 to $100.
Sadly, the 2020 Ford Explorer is subject to 14 recalls by the NHTSA, which is a little concerning. It gets a little better with the 2021 Ford Explorer, only facing six recalls. Thankfully, all recalls are paid for by the manufacturer, so these don’t require more money. Plus, these models are still covered by the Ford factory warranty.
2015-2019 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 5-6/10
Owner Reliability Score: 8-10/10
KBB Value: $9,709-$19,885
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $563-$1,000
Safety Rating: 4.6/5
Just slightly older than our top choice are the 2015-2019 Explorer models. The reliability ratings are just slightly lower and you can still expect decent fuel economy numbers.
Owners can’t seem to say enough good about these SUVs, with the ranking sitting between 8 and 10. The FIXD app reliability is only slightly lower.
Plus, the safety rating from the NHTSA continues to be good, with a 4.6 score (out of 5).
The fuel economy does take a small dip to about 20 mpg, but that’s still not bad considering the size and power of this SUV.
What’s interesting about these Explorer models is the Kelley Blue Book (KBB) value. The 2015 Ford Explorer shows a value of $9,709, because mileage tends to be higher on these models. Just a few years later, the value averages $19,885 with a lower mileage Explorer. You can save $10,000 by choosing an Explorer that’s a few models behind, if you are willing to deal with having more miles on the odometer.
The biggest downfall to these Fords is the price for maintenance and repairs. The 2018 Explorer has an average cost of only $563, which is the lowest in the bunch. The second lowest is the 2017 Explorer at $600 per year. The 2015 and 2016 models creep up even more ($722-$807, respectively), while the 2019 has an annual cost of $1,000. That’s a big difference in just a few years, so choose your model wisely. Sadly, the 2019 Ford Explorer also shows an uptick in transmission and brake problems, but still remains a great option when evaluating based on safety scores, fuel economy and overall reliability.
Looking at the top problems, we see the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 2) (DTC P0430) as one of the most common. This issue may require a catalytic converter replacement, costing $1,538 to $2,041. There’s also the chance of the Cylinder 6 misfire detected (DTC P0306), but that would be a much cheaper fix, possibly requiring a coil-on plug replacement that averages $54 to $163.
As far as recalls, NHTSA data shows seven recalls with the 2015 Ford Explorer, 11 recalls for the 2016 Ford Explorer, ten recalls for the 2017 Ford Explorer, and only three recalls with the 2018 Ford Explorer. The good news is that the 2019 Ford Explorer only has two recalls, which is one of the least of all models.
2011-2014 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 4/10
Owner Reliability Score: 8-9/10
KBB Value: $4,907-$10,504
Fuel Economy: 16-21 mpg
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $250-$969
Safety Rating: 4.33-4.6/5
Dropping slightly lower in rankings while still remaining reliable is the 2011-2014 Ford Explorer. It still has good reliability ratings and decent fuel economy numbers but dips a little in safety scores.
Overall reliability ratings are 4 (out of 10), based on FIXD app data. However, the survey data shows a much higher score of 8 to 9 (out of 10).
The NHTSA safety ratings do take a little bit of a hit, dropping to 4.33-4.6 (out of 5).
We also see some of the Explorer models drop to 16 mpg. The most efficient from this bunch is the 2012 Ford Explorer, with a rating of 21 mpg.
There’s also a wide fluctuation in Kelley Blue Book (KBB) values among this grouping. The value of a 2010 Ford Explorer averages $4,907, while the 2014 is rated at $10,504. Again, going with an older model could save you a lot of money.
Overall, the cost of ownership also remains relatively reasonable. However, there’s a higher chance of engine trouble with the 2011 Ford Explorer.
The top faults include the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 2) (DTC P0430) or the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 1) (DTC P0420), both of which might require a new catalytic converter. You can expect to spend $1,538 to $2,041 for this repair. Additionally, the Evaporative emission control system leak (medium) (DTC P0442) seems to happen often. The most common fix is a fuel level sending unit replacement for $151 to $323.
The 2011 Ford Explorer is subject to 11 recalls. In addition, the 2012 Ford Explorer has six recalls, the 2013 Ford Explorer faces 11 recalls, and the 2014 Ford Explorer takes part in six recalls, many of which have to do with the suspension.
The Worst Years of the Ford Explorer
Even though there are some Ford Explorer models that stand out, they can’t all excel. With the same data used to find the best models, we’ve also discovered some that should be avoided. These are the Explorer models you may decide to pass over if you are shopping or pay closer attention to if you are already an owner.
2002-2005 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 1-3/10
Owner Reliability Score: 5-7/10
KBB Value: $1,813-$2,382
Fuel Economy: 15-16 mpg
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $528-$1,200
Safety Rating: 3.67-4.17/5
Based on reliability ratings alone, these models tend to fare the worst. Plus, the value is low and the safety ratings aren’t favorable.
Reliability rankings are 1-3 (out of 10) from the FIXD app data and 5-7 (out of 10) from owners. Our data lists the 2004 and 2005 as the worst models, while the owners tend to see the 2003 Explorer as the least favorable to own out of all models.
Additionally, the NHTSA safety ratings are on the low side. With numbers only reaching up to 4.17 (out of 5) on the 2004 Ford Explorer, we aren’t impressed.
The 2002 to 2005 Explorer models do remain consistent in fuel economy ratings. On average, these models get 15 to 16 mpg.
The Kelley Blue Book value is also consistent. Between the four model years, you are going to see values of $1,813 to $2,382.
Cost of ownership with the 2002 Ford Explorer is only $528 a year, but that average goes through the roof with the 2003 Explorer, estimated at $1,200 a year.
We also have several trouble codes worth looking at with this grouping. There’s still the chance of the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 2) (DTC P0430), costing $1,538 to $2,041 for a new catalytic converter. Aside from that, we see Bank 1 has too much air or not enough fuel (DTC P0171) or Bank 2 has too much air or not enough fuel (DTC P0174). Both of these are commonly fixed with an intake manifold gasket replacement, costing $357 to $746. Finally, there’s a high probability for the Engine Misfire Detected on Startup (DTC P0316). This fault could require a new fuel pump, averaging $457 to $617, or spark plugs for $58 to $167.
The NHTSA lists 14 recalls for the 2002 Ford Explorer, as well as a serious safety concern, eight investigations, and more than 3,600 complaints. Additionally, the 2003 Ford Explorer faces seven recalls, the 2004 Ford Explorer has five recalls, while the 2005 Ford Explorer only has three recalls.
2001 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 3/10
Owner Reliability Score: 6/10
KBB Value: $1,842
Fuel Economy: 16 mpg
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $1,094
Safety Rating: 3.67/5
From reliability scores to the safety rating, the 2001 Ford Explorer is ranked one of the lowest. Not only that, but the average annual maintenance and repair cost goes far higher than some other models.
Starting with the reliability rating, we found the 2001 Explorer to earn a 3 (out of 10), while owners ranked it at 6 (out of 10). Neither one is favorable when compared with other models.
The safety rating is another aspect that plummets. At 3.67 (out of 5), we don’t see this being a favorite option among families.
Fuel economy isn’t terrible, considering the size of the Ford Explorer. However, at 16 mpg, it is rated as one of the lowest.
The Kelley Blue Book (KBB) value shows that you could get a 2001 Explorer for very little money, but you might spend $1,094 a year to maintain and repair it. Plus, there’s a higher than average chance of an expensive engine, transmission, brake or AC/heat repair.
There are three common trouble codes with this Explorer. The first two are Bank 2 has too much air or not enough fuel (DTC P0174) and Bank 1 has too much air or not enough fuel (DTC P0171), both of which could require a new fuel pump. This fix might cost $457 to $617. The other common code is H02S2 Heater Control Circuit Low (Bank 2, Sensor 2) (DTC P0136). Oftentimes, a new oxygen sensor is needed to reset this code and that might cost $153 to $306.
It’s not enough that the 2001 Ford Explorer has 14 recalls, but the NHTSA also has two investigations on the model, dealing with spark plug ejection and a poor seat design.
2006-2010 Ford Explorer
FIXD Reliability Score: 1/10
Owner Reliability Score: 7-8/10
KBB Value: $3,138-$4,907
Fuel Economy: 15-16 mpg
Annual Maintenance/Repair: $592-$1,050
Safety Rating: 4.33/5
There’s a discrepancy between the FIXD app reliability rating and what owners think, but these models are still some of the worst on the road. Fuel economy is at its lowest and the cost of ownership can be quite high.
Our FIXD app data rates the 2006 to 2010 Explorer models with a lowly 1 (out of 10). However, owners are more forgiving, scoring the lineup with a 7-8 (out of 10).
The safety ratings do rise higher than some of the other models, with an NHTSA score of 4.33 (out of 5). If you are traveling with a family, these numbers are important to you and make a difference in your car insurance premiums.
The fuel economy rating is among the lowest, meaning you will spend more fuel on these models than the others we’ve talked about.
Additionally, the Kelley Blue Book (KBB) value remains quite low. You could get a bargain on this, but you must factor in the $592 to $1,050 average of repairs and maintenance per year.
The top codes on these Explorer models include the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 2) (DTC P0430) or the Catalyst system efficiency below threshold (Bank 1) (DTC P0420), both of which may require a new catalytic converter. You can expect to spend $1,538 to $2,041 for this repair. Another top code is Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) Flow Insufficient Detected (DTC P0401). This seems to be most common with the 2009 and 2010 Ford Explorer but might be fixable with a new Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) Valve. Expect to spend about $151 to $389 for this repair.
Looking at recalls, the 2006 Ford Explorer only has six recalls, 2007 Ford Explorer deals with three recalls, and 2008 Ford Explorer has even less with three. Additionally, the 2009 Ford Explorer comes with two recalls and the 2010 Ford Explorer includes two recalls and one investigation.
What years of the Ford Explorer have engine and/or transmission problems?
The models that face the most trouble with engine problems costing more than $500 to repair include the 2003-2004, 2006-2007, 2011, and the 2017. When it comes to transmission problems, you may want to stay clear of the 2002-2008 or the 2019 Ford Explorer.
What is considered high mileage for a Ford Explorer?
It’s not uncommon to see a Ford Explorer go more than 200,000 miles, but the lifespan depends on how the SUV is taken care of. If the Ford is well-maintained and used mostly on the highway, it’s going to last a lot longer than one that’s been neglected and used for city driving. Only a thorough mechanical inspection reveals the integrity of the engine and transmission.
What other vehicles should I consider?
There are plenty of other reliable options from Ford to consider. Sticking with the SUV lineup, you could go larger and choose a Ford Expedition or scale it back a notch with the Edge. Ford also offers the Escape, as well as a newer Bronco and Bronco Sport model. If you are ready to electrify your travel, we recommend looking into the Ford Mustang Mach-E.
You also have the option to choose a car or truck. The only remaining car left in the lineup is a Ford Mustang. However, there are plenty of trucks. Look at the Ford Ranger, Ford Maverick or the Ford F-150. If you need something with more power and capability, there’s also the Ford Super Duty. For commercial usage, there are also some vans to consider. With the Ford Transit Connect, Transit or E-Transit, you could haul a lot of cargo.
If you are ready to make the break away from Ford, there are some comparable models to consider. We recommend looking at the Toyota Highlander, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Pilot, or the Hyundai Santa Fe. You may also evaluate the Mazda CX-9, Chevrolet Traverse, Kia Telluride, or Nissan Pathfinder.
What Owners of the Ford Explorer Like to Use Their Car For:
|Frequent Use Categories:||How Useful? (Out of 5 Stars)|
|Lots of Driving (travel/long commute)||***|
|Office on Wheels||*|
A Note About Data and Information Sources
This article has many details about Ford Explorer reliability; here’s what we used for our assumptions and recommendations.
- FIXD Reliability Score & Data: Engine reliability information is captured via the FIXD App.
The FIXD Reliability Score is calculated using the number of DTCs per year, weighted by mileage. This is then turned into a scale of 1-10 for easy graphing.
This is an objective score.
- Owner Reliability Score & Data: This data is the result of surveying Ford Explorer owners who use FIXD.
The Owner Reliability Score comes straight from owners of the Ford Explorer.
This is a subjective score.
To determine the Owner Reliability Score we ask each car owner:
How reliable would you say your Ford Explorer is?
a. Just point A to point B driving
b. A Daily Commuter
c. Good for a 100 mile road trip
d. Good for a 500 mile road trip
e. I could take a cross-country road trip, no problem
From here we translate their answers into the Owner Reliability Score:
a. = 2
b. = 4
c. = 6
d. = 8
e. = 10
Keep in mind, owners may think their car is more or less reliable than it actually is.
One potential problem is that people often buy the same make or model they are used to when they go car shopping, just a newer year.
Ford, for instance, has a number of consumer loyalty awards for the Ford F-Series, Ford Mustang, and Ford Expedition.
Car owners may be so loyal to the make or model they currently own that they would have trouble accurately comparing their cars’ reliability to others.
It’s for this reason that we intentionally ask car owners a question that is relative to mileage rather than relative to other cars.
Still, be mindful of the accuracy of these Owner Reliability Scores, people’s perceptions and unconscious blindspots can skew data.
We suggest looking at both the FIXD Reliability Score and the Owner Reliability Score for this reason.
- KBB Value: Average private-seller valuations as supplied by Kelley Blue Book (KBB), based on a Ford Explorer with typical mileage for that respective model year.
- Fuel Economy: Mileage-per-gallon estimates according to the EPA MPG on Fueleconomy.gov
- Annual Maintenance/Repair: Upkeep expenses as reported by surveyed Ford Explorer owners
- Safety Rating: Crash test data collected and reported by NHTSA. We average all ratings for each year to come up with a simplified, average safety score. This makes it easier to look at on a graph.
- Ford Motor Company Explorer Sales Numbers, Fordauthority.com. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://fordauthority.com/fmc/ford-motor-company-sales-numbers/ford-sales-numbers/ford-explorer-sales-numbers/
- Ford Explorer, Edmunds.com. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://www.edmunds.com/ford/explorer/
Brian Jones owns a used car dealership outside of Dallas, Texas. He has also worked for decades as an ASE Certified Master Technician for a variety of new car dealerships. Now he spends his time consulting dealerships and writing for some renowned publications, such as Motor1 (https://www.motor1.com/info/team/brian-jones/). When he’s not working, he’s tinkering around with pickup trucks and traveling with his family.