Ford puts the "sport" into its Explorer sport ute
By Jim Bray
Ford's big Explorer "crossover" has taken a decidedly sporty turn, with a hot engine that ups the power ante substantially.
Sport, of course, is subjective, and it's hard to take a vehicle as big as the Explorer seriously as a sports car. On the other hand, since it is a so-called "Sport Utility Vehicle," maybe it's only appropriate that Ford has finally dropped its marvelous twin turbo V6 EcoBoost engine into it. And what a difference it makes!
I believe this is the same engine that launched the Taurus SHO so adroitly when I drove it a while back, as well as the one Ford also makes available for the Flex crossover. It's certainly an excellent addition to the big Explorer which, in its other, naturally aspirated V6 guise, I found to be just a tad wanting in the get up and go department. Not a lot, but a bit.
You can forget about that now! Thanks to the EcoBoost V6, the Explorer has prodigious poop – an estimated 350 horsepower that Ford says is still expected to deliver "top fuel economy among gas-powered performance SUV's." This engine is perfect for this vehicle and I can't imagine ordering it any other way.
The other engine choices include a 3.5 liter V6 rated at about 290 horses, and a four cylinder EcoBoost that manages to crank out 240 Shetlands. I haven't driven the little EcoBoost version – and to be fair it does manage to cram a lot of ponies into its small size – but I can't imagine it being nearly as smile-inducing as even the base V6 engine, let alone this fantastic EcoBoost V6 with its outrageous output of oomph.
So if you're the type who likes your SUV to leap to attention at a command from your right foot, this is definitely your baby.
Well, unless you want the self parking feature or bi-xenon headlights, which a Ford person in my town told me you can't get on the Sport version. The lack of a parking robot isn't a big deal, despite the size of the Explorer (sport aficionados undoubtedly know how to park without robotic assistance), but no HID headlights? That seems like something that sport-minded SUV aficionados would want.
Anyway, that peach of an engine is mated to a six speed automatic with a real manual mode that includes paddle shifters that work nicely. Couple that to the Explorer's all wheel drive system and you're off to the races. Or wherever else you want.
Explorer Sports sport 20 inch wheels as standard equipment, a stiffer chassis, sport-tuned electric power steering, and bigger disc brakes, all of which appear to work as advertised, making this Explorer the most entertaining of the series to drive. Differentiating the Sport from "lesser" Explorers are such cosmetic touches as a low-gloss "Sterling Gray mesh" grille with "contrasting Ebony high-gloss bars to establish strong exterior cues." The interior gets contrasting stitching and two-tone Charcoal Black and Sienna leather-faced seats.
It's a nice vehicle to spend time in, with comfortable seats and lots of creature comfort.
My sample Explorer Sport, from Ford of Canada, also had such stuff as a blind spot warning system, rearview camera, and a power lift gate (though not with the neat "wave your little foot to open" feature Ford now offers on some vehicles, such as the C-MAX).
The Sport also gets the latest generation of Ford's Sync and MyFord Touch, with Wi-Fi capability, text-to-voice, HD Radio with iTunes tagging and voice-activated navigation. The Sony audio system is okay. It works fine and sounds adequate, but I must admit to not being a fan of most Sony audio systems, and this one continues that impression.
One thing my middle row passengers (the Explorer has three rows of seats) appreciated was having their own HVAC controls to keep them cozy in the cold weather. One thing they didn't appreciate was the optional inflatable seat belts, however, complaining that they were uncomfortable.
The third row seat folds down flat into the floor, nicely out of the way and available for storage when you need it. Access to the third row, for those times you need to punish some ankle biters, is actually not too bad. Nor are the seats themselves, though I'm not sure an adult will want to take a cross country trip back there. Steerage class seating will work fine for shorter distances and/or emergencies, however.
We took the Explorer Sport into the Rocky Mountains on a chilly winter morning and hit a pretty decent snowstorm on the way. This wouldn't faze any all wheel drive Explorer, thanks to all-wheel-driving settings designed to handle everything from snow to sand, but the vehicle is such that we didn't have to go that far: I just left the system in its default mode, turned off the adaptive cruise control and used the paddles to keep the engine and transmission where they needed to be for maximum stability on the slippery surface. It worked just fine.
Granted, this was on multi-lane paved freeway, but at the time it was reasonably hairy multi-lane paved freeway. Yet the Explorer handled it almost as if it were summertime. Almost.
The Ford Explorer starts at under $30,000, but if you want the Sport version you'll have to dig a lot deeper than that: it starts at just over $48,000. And it goes up from there. My sample included such options as a lovely, dual panel panoramic sunroof , towing package, the aforementioned rear seat belts/passenger annoyers and adaptive cruise control, and sundry other stuff that brought its sticker price to about $53,500, not including shipping, etc.
The Ford Explorer is a bigger vehicle than I like but, despite that, this Sport model is about as delightful to drive as I can imagine any vehicle of this size could be. If I were looking for a big SUV in this class, the Explorer Sport would be at or near the top of my list.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
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