I just completed a two-week test of the all-new Ford Explorer Sport. It was a revelation. The last time I spent two weeks with a Ford Explorer—or, indeed, any time at all with an Explorer—was in 1996. I rented a handsome ice-blue version of the then-innovative SUV and drove from my new home in south-central Texas to do some book readings and meet up with family members in Washington, D.C.. (Ah, those were the days. K Street! The Mall! Billary in the White House!) It took, if memory serves, most of three days, with stops on the way in Hope, Arkansas, where a cornucopia of kitschy Clintoniana greeted the visitor to the great man’s birthplace, and the following night in some dump in Tennessee whose name escapes me because I deleted it from my memory banks as soon as it faded into the distance; I remember a dank motel, surly desk manager, ominous sounds in the night.
I also remember the frequent expostulations of my traveling companion, Jack, a feisty, loyal poodle-schnauzer hybrid who, later in the trip, saved my sorry ass at an isolated rest area in Virginia when, as I napped, a long, needle-pitted arm attached to a resident drug expert reached through the half-open driver’s window for the door handle, intent on who knows what nastiness. Jack made his presence known by rocketing out of the back seat and biting down firmly on said arm. The miscreant cried out and beat a hasty retreat as Jack’s imprecations filled the air. By the time I’d fully woken up, the wretch was disappearing at great speed into the rolling fields of old Virginny. Jack got an extra bone that day, and I a double Scotch.
ANY-way…where was I? Ah, yes, the Ford Explorer. The ’96 was a fine truck for its day, and I enjoyed all 2000 miles there and back. It was solid, it looked good, rode well, and accelerated with a willingness far beyond the mere 160 horses that animated its ancient 4.0-liter V6. It was a gas-guzzler, of course, but not out of line with other SUVs of the day. And, most importantly, it got me and Jack to D.C. and back with nary a mishap—bar the near-mishap described above, my own fault entirely.
Now to its descendant. Things have moved on. The new Explorer Sport is, quiet simply, a great vehicle. My tester looked great, for starters. “Tuxedo black” in hue, with blacked-out head- and taillights and a mesh grille with horizontal glossy black slats, it managed to be menacing and elegant at the same time. It rode on fat (9-in. wide) 20-in. black alloy wheels that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Ford GT. And the high-performance look is justified by the truck’s muscle. The Explorer Sport hauls the mail like nobody’s business, and with a smaller but much more efficient powerplant under its hood than the ’96’s 4-liter: a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 borrowed from the Taurus SHO that makes 365 horses (205 more than granddad back in ’96), and 350 lb-ft of torque, enabling your dynamic driver to move his withers from 0 to 60 in just about 6 seconds. This endows the Sport with some true sportiness, in contrast to the previous Explorer Sport, which was just a two-door version of the regular four-door and no sportier than a windsock.
And overall comfort was good. Even after a long day’s belting hither and yon from Austin to Blanco and back across the spectacularly scenic but sidewinder-curvy Devil’s Backbone, I experienced no discomfort, no lumbar aches, nothing that wouldn’t have allowed me to keep going for another 200 miles. The heated power-adjustable front seats are clad in black-and-tan leather with contrasting black-and-tan inserts, and combine plushness with firm lateral support. Two rows of similarly shod seats are aft of that, the third row, suitable for kids, soon disappearing with a deft wrist movement or so into the floor and yielding a big flat cargo space that easily accommodated a week’s groceries. Onboard equipment is luxury-level, and includes keyless access with pushbutton start, dual-zone automatic climate control, a backup camera, the MyFord Touch infotainment system that I circumnavigated warily, not being much of a tech guy, a crystal-clear 12-speaker Sony audio system, Active Park Assist self-parking system, blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert, and inflatable rear seatbelt airbags and power pedals, liftgate, and side mirrors. A Class-III towing package is an available add-on; the Sport is rated to tow 5000 lbs., like its common-or-garden Explorer brethren.The ’13 Sport is no economy car, I grant you that, but EPA estimates of 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway are only 1 mpg less than those for the regular Explorer AWD V-6, and the 24.4 mpg I averaged over two weeks of mixed driving is far from the worst you’ll find in the SUV class. Of course the new Explorer, like most SUVs nowadays, is a unibody crossover vehicle, not a body-on-frame passenger truck like its ancestors, allowing for greater maneuverability and a lighter payload, which enhances fuel economy; but impairing fuel economy somewhat, however, is the fact that all Sports come with all-wheel drive to manage the higher torque. No complaints there: Ford’s AWD system is top-notch, distributing the power appropriately for maximum traction, its various modes accessed via an idiot-proof knob on the center console. Turning the knob to “rough road conditions,” I went mildly off-road across a muddy field and adjacent trails and accelerated and turned on a dime with no extra effort, aided by the electric power steering, which, unusually for an SUV, is crisp and accurate. Overall comfort was hardly affected off the blacktop.
Paddle shifters on the steering wheel are a Formula One-like feature of the Sport. I usually prefer to leave automatics alone to do their job, and this one, a 6-speed, shifted smoothly and promptly, but the car performed so well otherwise I was intrigued, and used the manual feature several times. The paddles work well, snapping out instantaneous shifts on command. When the M function is selected on the shifter a small tach magically appears in the place of the driver’s info readout next to the speedometer. It’s a nice touch, except that the trip odometer simultaneously vanishes, suggesting to me that Ford doesn’t expect Explorer Sport drivers to be using Manual mode for too long. Anyway, all other relevant driver info can be found on the central display screen.
That central display screen is quite busy. It always takes me, a dyed-in-the-wool old fogey, awhile to warm up to such things. I tried out the nav system, and was never led astray; it even sorted out the correct freeway exit and directed me to 202B, not 202A. Controls—mostly touch-screen “buttons”—are all logical enough, once you take time to memorize them, and they work efficiently. Storage space is more than adequate, much of it concealed beneath the nice soft-touch phony leather of the sweeping dashboard and center armrest. And with all those muted shades of chocolate and ebony, the cabin’s a pleasant place to while away a day.
At a base price of $41,545 (including destination), with some of the above options pushing the real-world total not far off $50K, the Explorer Sport isn’t exactly a bargain—until you look at the competition, especially the Europeans, who come closest in terms of comfort and performance. The Mercedes-Benz ML, BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport all command around $20K over the Explorer Sport. The Mercedes-Benz GL550 stickers at a jaw-dropping $35K more. That means you could buy a couple of standard Explorers for the price of a GL550 and have change left over.
Or you could just write the check for $41k+ and get yourself a fine new Explorer Sport. Toss in a loyal dog and before you know it you’ll be on your way to Washington, D.C. Just watch those rest areas in Virginia.