Besides being just the right size, Ford's smash-hit, compact SUV, the Explorer, has sold well enough and long enough to warrant a good amount of attention from the aftermarket. Some of this has been in performance parts, but most of it has come as practical accessories. Now a third level of attention has arrived, an Explorer specialist called Explorer Express.
Explorer Express is the product of Dave Vanek, who no doubt hit on the idea based partially on the success of his other business, The Z Doctor, which specializes in Nissan Z-cars. In Explorer Express, Vanek has worked the same formula, combing the aftermarket for existing or his own exclusive parts deals, which combine into a wide variety of practical upgrades for the Explorer along with a good cross section of chassis and engine enhancements. As shown here, he's also assembled a good number of those parts onto a 5.0 powered show vehicle. Upon sampling Vanek's V8 Explorer recently we found its performance and practicality wonderfully capable without it asking us to bend ourselves to accept the usual performance car bullying.
The Explorer Express demonstrator begins with the simply, but very effectively, improved chassis. A 1 3/4-inch lowering via Eibach springs coupled with Ricor shocks from Edelbrock is the major change here. Because Explorer's are tall enough to begin with, and feature more suspension travel than a passenger car, the lowering delivers more of the handling promise typically associated with letting the center of gravity down closer to the pavement. With adequate suspension travel and ground clearance remaining, the lowering doesn't result in a vertebrae compressing ride, body roll is reduced and ingress and egress are noticeably improved.
Handling is further augmented with larger sway bars. Stock, the Explorer employs 23 and 16mm bars front and rear; the Explorer Express parts are much larger at 28.5 and 22.5mm. Such large bars play an obvious roll in flattening roll response, and will also introduce ride stiffness on uneven pavement. Luckily, the Explorer is so soft and tall to begin with that the desirable effects of the larger sway bars well outweigh the more minor ride trade-off.
Of course, shorter sidewall tires figure prominently in both ride and handling. Normally, the blue demonstrator wears 265/60-17 Yokohama AVS/ST rubber, but during our drive and photo shoot, it was shod with Pirelli Scorpion Zeros. The wheels are Team Dynamics 17 x, 7 1/2 inch castings.
Explorer Express addressed Ford's tendency to under-brake their vehicles with 13-inch Cobra PBR units. This is a prototype of a future kit which should prove easy enough to install. A hole in the spindle needs to be drilled larger and a bracket installed for the caliper. The rest is bolton, and uses OEM parts. In the rear, Explorer Express offers Stainless Steel Brakes' rear disc conversion for '94 and earlier Explorers; on the '95 and later trucks, like the demonstrator, disc brakes are standard from Ford. Explorer Express fits Performance Friction pads and Power Stop drilled rotors to these.
With the chassis ready to exploit more power, Vanek has turned to bolt-on supercharging as the most convenient and efficacious method of increasing real-world thrust. The Explorer Express catalog lists both the low-cost centrifugal Powerdyne and Vanek's own Eaton kit for the 5.0 engine, the later appearing in semi-prototype form on the demonstrator. A 6 lb. system, the kit uses the "S" variant of the Eaton blower, meaning it has been detailed by Magnuson to produce approximately 12 more horsepower than the standard Eaton. Other system highlights include retaining the stock Ford fuel pressure regulator, no electronics, no FMU and a built-in bypass. Explorer Express' production kit will include their own air inlet and plenum adapter (upper intake manifold) castings. The nose support bracket will likely be laser-cut steel. The prototype shown uses all CNC-milled parts. Emissions certification was underway as we went to press; Vanek estimates a $3000-$3200 retail price and notes he's working on a similar kit for the 4.0 liter V6 engine.
One supercharger consideration the Explorer is the small diameter blower pulley due to the small crank pulley. Vanek has achieved sufficient belt wrap on the small pulley, but would like a bit more yet is already using the longest available belt. The hot rodders in the crowd should also note the crank pulley includes an angle sensor so swapping to a smaller crank pulley in search of increased boost is not so simple.
Otherwise, the engine is bone stock, which is the beauty of the blower. Fitting the supercharger is pretty simple, and it's not necessary to fiddle with cylinder heads, intake or even exhaust manifolds. This is possible because the stock parts are enough for the more modest rpm the Explorer 5.0 and E40D automatic combination allow compared to Mustangs.
The boosted powerplant in the demonstrator is backed up a by a Trans-Go shift modification kit for the E40D automatic transmission, along with an Explorer Express muffler and tailpipe assembly. The result is an Explorer that runs like you want it to. It's willing and able to work like a truck, duke it out in traffic or hold your interest in the hill country. We booted the test truck multiple times on a test track's long straights, and can say it runs hard at least up to the century mark where we backed off, and that's plenty, for the speeds this sort of vehicle is asked to produce. Our concern with the Eaton blower on a 5.0 is the power laying down at higher rpm, but because the automatic transmission won't allow 6000 rpm shifts anyway, the combination is perfect.
Concentrating too much on the performance is to miss the point here, as Explorer Express's truck sports plenty of practicality to go with its eager running ways. Inside, Flofit seats replace the front stockers. A notch softer then the Flofit cement benches found in Saleen Mustangs of yore, the fabric buckets do a fine job of keeping the driver behind the wheel, and they seem to sit a tad higher then stock. This helps with leg room for taller drivers who have discovered Explorer seats are typically too close to the floor, and given the Explorer's adequate head room, shouldn't cramp anyone's style against the headliner, either. Clambering in and out is easy over the low bolsters, but these are sport seats and will wear a bit hard on the bottom after hours and hours of touring.
Between the seats is a Covercraft center console inset with Dakota digital boost vacuum and fuel pressure instruments. These gauges are low, forward and quite difficult to read from the standard seated position, but do give a more accurate peek at the engine than Ford's "don't scare 'em" instrumentation. In any case, the Explorer Express catalog is full of center consoles should this one not be quite what you're looking for. Floor mats from Niftyliner and remote keyless entry from Designtech round out the passenger compartment.
Outside, an Explorer Express grille and air dam set the demonstrator off from the squadrons of soccer-mom minivans. Cord built the running boards; the rear deflector is from Accent Appearance. Vanek also opted for PIAA Pro90 lights in front and Catz XSL backup illumination in the rear bumper. Combined, the changes are subtle enough, but add the desired aggressiveness.
This is the best all-around Explorer we've sampled to date. The entertaining power is well matched by the vastly improved chassis and all the utility of the Explorer survived the transformation and apparently at not too great a financial burden. You can't ask for much more than that.
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