• BY CSABA CSERE
  • Although “sport” is right there in the term “sport-utility vehicle,” those vehicles’ inherently heavy weights, higher centers of gravity, and blocky shapes usually preclude sports-car fun, no matter how much power you shoehorn under the hood. Most SUVs are little more than shuttle buses, a task for which they are well suited.

    Still, there are some loons who want their family hauler to haul ass—witness the chariots of lunacy in our most recent hot-rod SUV comparo. To tap this market, Ford has introduced the Explorer Sport.

    In a nutshell, the Explorer Sport is simply an Explorer fitted with the Taurus SHO’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. Here it makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Hit the throttle, and it’s pretty clear this is not your usual seven-seat Ford—it rockets to 80 mph before the acceleration starts to tail off. Zero-to-60 times fall from about eight seconds for the naturally aspirated V-6 Explorer to around six for the Sport.

    The powertrain is quiet and smooth. Only at low speeds do you hear much engine noise, and what you do hear sounds angry enough for a family vehicle. To handle the elevated engine torque, the Explorer Sport only comes with all-wheel drive, and Ford’s system allocates the power as needed to maximize traction. Even so, a full-throttle launch reveals traces of torque steer, although this disappears once the transmission shifts into second gear.

    In addition to the potent engine, the Explorer Sport gets stiffer springs and shocks, an uprated strut-tower brace, the solidly mounted steering rack now fitted to all 2013 Explorers, a new cross-tunnel brace ahead of the rear subframe, and larger front brake rotors. The wheels are unique 20-inch pieces, and at nine inches wide, they’re a half-inch wider than the biggest available wheels on the standard Explorer. A set of 265/45 high-performance summer tires are available.

    On a combination of Michigan back roads and freeways, the Sport felt very Germanic, exhibiting tight body control, a supple ride, and a quiet cabin. The electric power steering is accurate and naturally weighted, and its solid mounting does not transfer any shocks or vibration to the steering wheel. The system is a noticeable improvement over the tiller on the XLT that finished second in a comparison test. Only heavily patched pavement reveals any ride harshness, and the chassis is sufficiently refined to be adopted across the Explorer line, so it makes sense that some of the changes will be filtering into mainstream models.

    The Sport’s special wheels are a bit garish to some eyes, but the rest of the special treatment—consisting mostly of black trim applied to the lower cladding, fender lips, side mirrors, and lights—is attractive. Inside, the Sport has a higher level of standard equipment, with special leather upholstery and paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Space-wise, nothing changes in the package, which is pretty roomy in the first and second rows and a bit tight in the third.

    The Explorer Sport has the full Ford in-cabin electronics suite—some of which works well and some of which doesn’t. For example, we noticed that when we changed the left-side cluster display to show a tachometer, the trip odometer disappeared. Apparently, you can’t have both. And our radar detector’s power cable sent the HVAC system into deep freeze every time it came into contact with the capacitive temperature controls. Which was often.

    The Explorer Sport is on sale now, with a base price of $41,545. Someone who wants a roomy and practical SUV with power but doesn’t want to spring for something actually Germanic might be pleasantly surprised by the Sport. And true to its engine’s EcoBoost promise, the EPA-estimated fuel economy—16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway—is down only 1 mpg each from the regular Explorer AWD V-6. That said, we often find the real-world fuel economy of EcoBoost V-6 engines to be less miserly than the official EPA estimates. Especially if you put your right foot into them—but isn’t that the point of this Explorer?

    Specifications >

    VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 5-door wagon

    BASE PRICE: $41,545

    ENGINE TYPE: twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection

    Displacement: 213 cu in, 3496 cc
    Power: 365 hp @ 5500 rpm
    Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm

    TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

    DIMENSIONS:
    Wheelbase: 112.6 in
    Length: 197.1 in
    Width: 78.9 in Height: 71.0 in
    Curb weight (C/D est): 4500 lb

    PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
    Zero to 60 mph: 6.2 sec
    Zero to 100 mph: 18.2 sec
    Standing ¼-mile: 14.7 sec

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway driving: 16/22 mpg

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    By CSABA CSERE

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