First Drive: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

The last time Ford affixed a “SPORT” badge to its Explorer sport-utility vehicle, it was to distinguish the two-door model from the four-door.  Some two decades after that vehicle’s launch, for 2013, the range-topping Explorer has been fitted with a hi-po, EcoBoost V-6.  Would it be sufficient oomph to allow the Explorer to compete with the current crop of full-size SUVs?

Looks fast, but it’s not an SRT-8

I was sipping coffee last Tuesday morning at the regional launch of the 2013 Explorer Sport at a venue on Manhattan’s West Side as fellow journalists ogled the bright red Explorer Sport given the spotlight in the center of the room.  Everything about it seemed to glisten darkly, from its unique, blackout grille, to its enormous, 20-inch wheels.  It’s an effective go-faster appearance package.

The Explorer Sport’s true transformation, however, occurs under the skin.  The details read impressively: Ford’s 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged EcoBoost engine, which produces 365 horsepower, takes the place of the base, naturally aspirated powerplant.  Unlike lesser Explorers, the Sport routes its power exclusively through a six-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels.  To help

“I’ll be honest,” said Ford’s representative seated at my table, “it’s not going to be like Jeep’s Grand Cherokee SRT-8.”

Hopes not dampened, at least not by the impending rainstorm, my driving partner and I set out north toward pastoral Bedford, N.Y.

Less ponderous in the city, faster on the back roads

Let’s be clear: the Explorer Sport is, literally, light years ahead in refinement and driving enjoyment than its progenitor introduced some 20 years ago, when the sport-utility vehicle landscape was still in formation and body-on-frame beasts roamed the land.  And based on its framework, this shouldn’t be shocking.  The current Explorer sits on a unibody chassis derived from the Taurus sedan, as does its boxier sibling, the Flex.  It has the road manners of a car, but the high-riding feel of a much larger vehicle.

The drive route began in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and quickly segued onto the West Side Highway.  Those familiar with the terrain understand that “highway” is something of a misnomer for the stop-and-go traffic along a row of cruise ships, car washes and gentlemen’s clubs that litter the road until 59th Street.  When the traffic cleared, and the road opened up, the Explorer Sport’s punchier throttle response made itself known.  Arbitrarily low speed limits along New York City’s parkways did not allow for high-speed testing, but the Explorer was calm and collected while cruising up to 80 mph.  Blind-spot monitoring helped keep the wide Explorer within the narrow lanes, though I prefer the larger convex mirrors fitted to Ford’s other, recent cars and trucks.

The conclusion of the highway portion of the route, which included stints along Connecticut’s ideal and idyllic Merritt Parkway, led to driving on country roads along the New York/Connecticut border.  Steering and braking, as Ford contends, were respectively sharper and stronger than non-Sport Explorers’ along the twisty roads.  Unlike its ilk created with a mandate for sporty performance, the Explorer Sport falls short of a true pedigree for performance.  There is little pitch and dive through the corners, but it is nearly impossible to ignore the Explorer’s sheer size and weight.

At the end of the day, it’s still an Explorer

For better or worse, though mostly for better.  While the over-exaggerated exterior styling might not appeal to all tastes, the interior is a serene place to spend time.  Material quality is above average when compared to other sub-$40,000 sport-utility vehicles.  As top-of-the-range models, Explorer Sports come loaded, standard, including the frustrating MyFord Touch interface.  If it were up to Autosavant, we would skip the second-row bucket seats, and add the panoramic sunroof.  As opposed to an actual sports car, it’s important to remember that plenty of shoppers will choose the Explorer based on its capacity to entertain in the rear seat.

Choices, choices

With the improvements made that turn an Explorer into a Sport, Ford has made the Explorer an even more attractive choice to buyers.  To obtain similar horsepower figures, buyers would need to step up to both the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee’s V-8 options.

The addition of the EcoBoost engine presents a winning formula for buyers looking to match or beat the Explorer’s major competitors’ figures.  And Ford should know, as it already sells one: the Flex.  Putting aside fears of self-cannibalization — Ford unofficially estimates a take rate of under 15 percent for the Sport — the Explorer Sport finally lives up to its nomenclature, and offers the upgraded performance to match.

Autosavant tested the Explorer Sport at a manufacturer-sponsored event, which included lunch at a rustic Italian restaurant in Bedford, N.Y.

Author: Jeff Jablansky

Jeff Jablansky was born with his hands planted firmly at 10 and 2. He has written for automotive enthusiast publications in the United States and abroad. His favorite road trip memory involves a Hyundai, a winding desert road and a herd of sheep. He is convinced that there is a car culture that goes beyond taxis in his current city of New York.

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