I never thought I’d say these words, but: I’d rock the shit out of a Ford Explorer Sport Trac. I know, know! It’s just a boring 2000s-era Explorer with a bed on the back, and the interior — like many American cars from the 2000s — is not great. But hear me out on this: This machine has some great ingredients that make it a legitimately decent option as a daily-driver.
You know what’s hot right now in the truck space? Crew cabs with four-wheel drives. You know what else is hotter than it has been in the past? Mid-size trucks.
But prices are high right now, and inventory is a bit spotty, so if you want to save some cash by purchasing a used mid-size truck, you’re likely typing these names into your Craigslist search bar: Tacoma, Frontier, Colorado, Canyon, Ridgeline, Hummer H3, and maybe even Dakota.
One name you’re probably not typing in is “Explorer Sport Trac,” and I’m not entirely sure why not. During my daily ill-advised Craigslist search, I recently learned that these machines came with stick shifts. Look at this thing!:
If you never liked the looks of a Ford Explorer with a bed grafted onto the back, that’s fine and I can respect that. But if you doubted that this thing would be a compelling truck that would meet your needs, just hold on a second and hear me out. [Editor’s Note: I mean, it’s kinda like the Maverick! – JT]
Under the hood of the Explorer Sport Trac was the same 4.0-liter “Cologne” V6 found in lots of Ford products back then — the Explorer, Ranger, Mustang, Mercury Mountaineer, and even Land Rover Discovery 3. And while in the 2002 Explorer Sport Trac above it only made a modest 210 horsepower and decent 240 lb-ft of torque, it was known to be a solid, reliable motor. The Mazda-designed M5OD (R1HD, with “HD” standing for “Heavy Duty”) never really had a great reputation for durability (its clutch hydraulics have been known to give some folks grief), but it’s fun enough to shift and is generally considered an “OK” transmission with decent parts availability.
The transmission could be optioned with a two-speed transfer case bolted to the back, making the Explorer Sport Trac a decent off-road machine for moderate trails.
The 6.7 inches of ground clearance won’t blow you away, but the 23.1 degree approach angle, 26.7 degree departure, and 22.4 degree breakover angle are actually fairly decent for a truck. This thing should be okay off-road.
The truck has some fun features. It apparently had a 50-inch “industry-first all-composite cargo bed.” So you can throw your stuff back there without worrying about dents; also, your bed won’t rust. The rear window is also electric, which is cool, and there was an optional hard, foldable tonneau cover. Oh, and if you’ve always been curious about what those things are on the tops of the bedsides, they’re tie-down hooks (see number five below):
Between that rear window, the moonroof, and the greenhouse, I bet the Sport Trac felt quite airy inside:
[Editor’s Note: The “venting” option really feels like something designed to dissipate farts. – JT]
Oh, and check out the 60/40 flat-folding rear seat:
The Sport Trac had its issues; for one, it had a tendency to roll over. Plus, at 17 MPG combined for the manual two-wheel drive model (like the one for sale) and 16 MPG for the 4×4, you weren’t exactly saving the environment or your pocketbook. Still, Motor Trend seemed to like it during a first-drive review back in the early 2000s:
Though the Sport Trac is intended for people and their lifestyle gear or home improvement trappings, as opposed to a pure workaday tool, payload and tow ratings are certainly adequate at (up to) 1500 and 5260 pounds, respectively. The V-6/automatic is relatively smooth and quiet. Ride quality is better than we’ve come to expect from leaf-sprung, pickup-class vehicles, emphasizing the Sport Trac’s “people and stuff” nature. Wind noise is commendably low, and cracking open the power rear window brings a welcome breath of fresh air. This will make an exceptional family traveler.
There are people who want sport/utility attributes-like room for five and aggressive styling-combined with some outside-the-cabin cargo capacity. The Sport Trac packs it all into one slickly designed, neatly styled, and attractively priced rig-no matter what you call it.
If I could actually find a 4×4 with a stick, I’d be tempted, especially if I could snag one for a decent price. Ford Explorer Sport Tracs aren’t exactly a hot commodity these days, though I’m still unsure why. I kind of dig them now that I’ve learned a bit more.
Fun fact: 2002 was the last year you could get a regular explorer with a manual. It is also the first year they offered 4 wheel independent suspension. So it’s one of the TWO 4 wheel independent suspension 4x4s with low range that were ever available with a manual in the US. The other being the 1st gen cayenne.
If anyone would like to correct me I will obsess over the third. The Suzuki grand Vitara is very close, but low range and the manual were mutually exclusive in the States from what I can tell.
Also, if the second gen sport trac was available with a manual I would probably own one.
My parents neighbor still has a late model of these and it’s still in great shape. It’s not a stick shift of course but I’m continually amazed at how good it still looks. I was always a fan of these.
We had one and loved it but as it’s mileage crept up things started to cascade fail, radiator leak, master brake cylinder failing, steering unit/linkages failing, might as well have been making payments on a new vehicle.
Also abysmal mpg, it really was more Explorer than Ranger that way. It’s amazing that the Maverick hybrid, at about the same size, can get over 40mpg, that still just boggles my mind.
I had two of these back-to-back in the ‘oughts and loved them dearly.
Sadly, the poor MPG and Ford’s announcement that they weren’t going to make it any more forced me into a Hyundai Sonata (whose lack of rear visibility quickly forced me into something else.)
And yes, @Jason, the Maverick definitely hits the same notes. Once Ford actually gets it out of vaporware status, I might get one.
Why are the youth of America, including blog writers, shocked by this? Stick shifts were the best cost option back then. Cheaper too.
While being a teenager in the 70 ‘s allowed us first hand experiences at the decline on automotive enjoyment, at least we had manuals….
I’ve owned two first gen Sport Tracs, along with several normal Explorers, and loved both of them. I never owned a manual one, but I owned a 2001 XLT a 2004 Adrenalin and thought they were pretty good for what they were (and weren’t). I used them both for normal truck things like trips to Home Depot as well as hauling around my dirt bike and sport quad. Granted, the beds weren’t huge, but they were big enough for most city-folk things and were a lot more pleasant to drive around and park in the city than my 3/4-ton trucks. The 2001 also had an aftermarket locker in the rear (the 2004 only had a limited slip) and was surprisingly capable off-road. I’ve more than once looked at a second gen Sport Trac, but any that were priced anywhere near what I found reasonable were also beat to snot. Quite a shame, as they rode pretty nice and the second gen Adrenalin looked pretty nice.
These things were actually more Ranger than Explorer. Pretty cool vehicles, though…
Yeah, I guess I could search for hen’s teeth on Craigslist too.
aka Holy Grails