The Ford Explorer’s Transmission History; Successes and Failures

Body: The Ford Explorer became a wildly popular model that helped to cement the SUV class as a permanent fixture in dealership showrooms around the globe. Since its first introduction in spring of 1990, the Explorer has become one of the all-time best-selling SUVs ever built – and it still is in production.

While the Explorer remains a very popular SUV, like many long-time models that represented a new direction when first introduced, the Explorer has had plenty of teething problems. When you make something for the very first time, odds or some small things did not work out as intended. That is where the debugging process comes into play and greatly can improve an initial vehicle.

Explorer’s History of Automatic Transmission Problems

Unfortunately for Ford Explorer owners, continual transmission problems have afflicted the model since the original 1991 model debut. The most recent transmission-related recall for Explorer models occurred in November 2020 due to problems with the drive shaft fracturing along a weld seam. That recall targets a faulty driveshaft on Explorer models equipped with the 10-speed automatic with all-wheel-drive and either a 2.0-liter of 3.3.-liter engine.

While that recall specifically cites the driveshaft, it illustrates continued problems Ford has experienced with transmission and related drivetrain problems that have triggered recalls for as many decades as Ford has produced the model.

Third Generation Especially Troublesome

Ford debuted a redesigned Explorer in 2002 that included a new five- or six-speed automatic transmission mated to a V8 motor that put out  up to 292 horsepower. The third-generation Explorer also featured a bigger

 body that enabled a third row of passenger seating. The combination of a new transmission, bigger body and the inevitable weight gain that went along with it proved especially problematic.

The third generation Explorer is the one whose transmissions caused the most problems and triggered the most recalls. The third generation remains the one that used car buyers and Explorer enthusiasts advise extreme caution when buying a third-generation model that Ford produced from 2002 through the 2006 model years.

Early Explorer Transmission Problems

The Explorer was an entirely new vehicle when Ford first introduced it with a 4X4 drivetrain and a four-speed automatic with overdrive. That early transmission worked fine for many earlier production pickups that made good use of the wide-ratio transmission. But the transmission proved inadequate for the general driving preferences of Explorer buyers who used the vehicles more for daily transportation and highway travels than the more work-oriented pickups in which it debuted.

The problems that Explorer owners reported are typical of a transmission that is overmatched and wears out too quickly, including:

  • Gears slipping.
  • Fluid leaking.
  • Grinding noise.
  • Clunking sounds.
  • Will not change gears.

The solution typically is to either completely rebuild the transmission or replace it with either a new or refurbished unit. The cost to do so generally runs around $3,000 and mostly varies based on the extent of rebuild that the transmission needs to work again.

Two Transmission Upgrades

The 1993 Explorer model year featured the new 4R70W transmission that helped to smooth out power delivery to all four drive wheels but still suffered from teething problems. Burned out clutches eventually would seize and require significant repairs. The transmission improved steadily over the model years as various recalls addressed issues with it.

An improved 4R75Wtransmission in 2003 quadrupled the number of lugs and improved the torque converter to improve power delivery. The additional gears also help the 4R75W to smooth out the power delivery while reducing stress on the drivetrain.

But with the new transmission came new teething problems, which Ford has worked out with the fifth- and sixth-generation versions greatly improved over the debut version. The continual demand for innovation and improvements add new issues that Ford addresses with more recalls like the one issued in November 2020 for related drivetrain issues.

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