The Explorer was released in March 1990 as a 1991 model. It was equipped with a 4.0-liter 16-valve OHV 155 hp (116 kW) V6 engine and either the 4-speed A4LD automatic transmission or 5-speed M5OD manual transmission. Like the Bronco II it replaced, it was an SUV derivative of the Ranger pickup. It was available in both 2-door and 4-door body styles, and with rear or four-wheel drive. The four-wheel-drive versions were equipped with a Borg Warner 13–54 part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case. The 13–54 was available with "Touch Drive" electronic push-button shifting or manual lever-operated shifting. Both were "shift-on-the-fly" designs that allowed the Explorer to be shifted from two-wheel drive to "four-high" at any speed, although "four-low" was only available when the vehicle was stopped. All Explorers were equipped with the Ford 8.8 axle in either a limited slip or open version with a variety of available gear ratios. Four-wheel-drive front axles were the TTB ("Twin Traction Beam") Dana 35 with some Dana 44-spec components.

The Explorer saw significant exterior, interior and suspension updates in 1995. The 4.0L Cologne OHV V6 from the previous generation Explorer carries over. The former "Twin Traction Beam" (TTB) front suspension was replaced with a more carlike independent front suspension.