Upgrading Performance Without Downgrading Comfort
Hard to believe it's been nearly two years since the new-generation Ford Explorer rewrote the rules for the nameplate that became probably the most synonymous with the acronym "SUV." The 2011 Explorer took the tried-and-true, body-on-frame Ford SUV that for more than a decade was America's station wagon and turned that formula on its head. The new unibody Ford Explorer became a crossover.
With the Explorer's transformation came definitively more acceptable road manners and ride quality. But nobody was going to accuse the three-row, wide-body — and nearly 2.5-ton — Explorer of offering any sort of enthusiast appeal. And why should it?
Because there are Hemi-powered Jeep Grand Cherokees and Range Rover Sports, that's why.
Hold People, Haul Stuff, Go Fast — Pick All Three
Our point is not to question the rationality of a "high-performance" crossover. They're oxymoronic, yes, but they exist. They exist because people — mostly fairly affluent people — want to buy them.
An even more puzzling proposition is the high-performance, three-row crossover. This is an even rarer bird, and with the exception of the Dodge Durango, you have to look to V8-powered European stuff, thus the reason Ford's people have the temerity to mention the Range Rover as a competitor for the just-released 2013 Explorer Sport.
The 2013 Ford Explorer Sport certainly is less costly. Base price is $41,545 (including destination) and even though the one you'd want will bring you close to $50 grand, that's still $35,000 less than the three-row Mercedes-Benz GL550 and probably $20 thou less than five-seater Mercedes MLs, BMW X5 and the Range Rover Sport.
Then again, you say, a Ford is not a BMW.
Consider, then, that the 2013 Explorer Sport, with the same 365 horsepower/350 pound-feet 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 we know from the Taurus SHO, doesn't hold up too shabbily to the high-powered Euro competition, whose V8s churn out significantly more power but also are markedly porkier on the scales.
If you consider the Sport's most likely competition to be domestic, the EcoBoost is 5 horses stronger (though down 40 lb-ft) than the Hemi-powered Dodge Durango RT and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Explorer Sport is 75 hp mightier than the standard V6-powered Explorer and produces fuel economy ratings of 16 city/22 highway mpg — just 1 mpg thirstier than that vehicle and still near the top of this not especially environmentally concerned class. The Explorer Sport's chief engineer proclaims it to be "the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered high-performance SUV out there."
Whether all this will impress the seat of your pants is for now subjective, as we've yet to test it. But, when pressed, engineers say there might be as much as a 2-second reduction in 0-60-mph time — a handy thing given the noncommittal 8.3 seconds we got from the conventionally aspirated Explorer Limited.
What the seat of our pants told us: The Explorer Sport's EcoBoost propulsion makes a huge difference when midrange thrust is what you seek. Passing back road dawdlers will have all occupants (as many as seven) checking the tightness of their seatbelts far less than in, say, the Scion FR-S.
That's gotta be good for something, right?
Higher Performance Through the Steering Wheel, Too
Stop us if you've heard this before, but the engine may not be the best part. The Explorer Sport's chassis upgrades are at least as gratifying as the extra engine grunt, even though we'll allow that they don't make the 4,921-pound Sport the slot car of crossovers.
Ford engineers know the standard Explorer's electrically assisted power steering isn't the paragon of tactility, but the Explorer Sport's steering gear is solidly mounted to the front subframe and the steering's programming has been retuned. Then they did something nobody typically associated with improving steering precision or turn-in ever does: They replaced a bushing at each rear-wheel knuckle with a bearing.
Result: steering that's at least responsive and locked in on center, if still not particularly alive with feedback. We wouldn't call the Explorer Sport's steering radically better than the standard Explorer's, but it's close — close enough that the chassis gang got the hard-mounted steering gear and the rear suspension revision approved for all Explorers as a running change.
It Won't Float
What we like about the Sport's improved handling is that Ford engineers didn't stiffen the stabilizer bars or go overboard in jacking up the spring rates in pursuit of sports-car cornering. There are Sport-specific springs and dampers, but the result is merely better body control, such that low-frequency humps taken at high speed on a back road are pleasingly and efficiently absorbed, never affecting the steering or allowing the Sport to get floaty.
Yet there's still a large degree of comfort orientation: Without overly stiff tuning, the wheels don't crash and your head doesn't toss when the road gets rough. There still could be more assertive rebound damping, though, and the Sport continues to exhibit uncomfortable body lean in more-abrupt corners.
The Explorer Sport's front brakes are beefed up by 1.1 inches to 13.9 inches, with 19 percent more thermal mass, 67 percent more swept area and improved venting. Diameter for the rear discs increases from 12.8 inches to 13.6 inches and thickness increases, too, delivering a substantial 53-percent increase in thermal mass. Yet we still think there's work to be done here. Why does everybody but the Germans chintz out on something so vital yet so essentially cheap as brakes? The Explorer Sport's 9-inch-wide 20s replace 8.5-inch jobs for the standard Explorer, although the 265/45 rubber is only marginally wider. Don't want fuddy-duddy all-seasons? Summer rubber is optional.
All Explorer Sports are fitted with a specially tuned all-wheel-drive system that includes the standard Terrain Management selections. A paddle-shifter six-speed automatic transmission remains as well. The Sport rides so marginally lower at the front your eye will never notice.
I Want It To Turn Black
The 2013 Ford Explorer Sport's strategy on visual differentiation can be summed up with one word and one color: black. So if you want folks to know you've popped for the Sport, you'd better hope they notice the black grille and the all-over black exterior accents, including the lower body cladding and Explorer-specific alloys.
Some may question the very notion of high-performance utility vehicles, but with the 2013 Explorer Sport, it's hard to argue the balance of Ford's approach. The Sport is not about off-the-charts acts of violence like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. Rather, it's just enough of a boost to keep Mom or Dad interested in the upcoming corner without beating them up later this evening on the grocery run.
The Explorer Sport is effective even when viewed as little more than a new trim level for the Explorer lineup, given that it's not much more expensive than a similarly equipped Explorer Limited.
The takeaway is that the overall performance envelope of this new Explorer feels just about right. There's enough power to flex it when needed, and the Explorer Sport's handling feels tidier than the V8 Grand Cherokee or Durango RT. If you sometimes want to haul six or seven and always want a dose of performance, the Explorer Sport expands a small class.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.