• BY ALEXANDER STOKLOSA
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL SIMARI
  • With the introduction of the Explorer Sport, Ford’s stable of sleeper family trucksters has doubled to two. The sportiest iteration of the blue oval’s biggest three-row crossover shares its 365-hp powertrain with the company’s other hot-rod, three-row crossover, the lower-slung Flex EcoBoost, as well as the Taurus SHO sedan. We really like the Flex EcoBoost, which reminds us of a late-’60s-era Country Squire big-inch V-8 wagon digitally remastered for the 21st century; it’s not overtly sporty, but it strikes a nice balance between being fun to drive and comfortable. The Explorer follows a similar path, delivering a more relaxed brand of sportiness.

    Like the Flex EcoBoost, the Explorer Sport was designed to go after seven-passenger crossover shoppers who want more oomph for their daily slogs. Until now, this buyer had only Dodge’s manly, V-8–powered Durango R/T to consider as a souped-up seven-seat alternative. The Sport is the only Explorer model to get Ford’s twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 engine; non-Sport Explorers are available with a 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo four or naturally aspirated V-6. There are Sport-exclusive stiffer springs and dampers, quicker steering, uprated brakes, additional chassis bracing, and meaty, standard 20-inch tires. (Summer rubber is available, although our tester rode on Hankook Optima 255/50 all-seasons.) All-wheel drive is standard, as is a six-speed automatic that can be manually shifted via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. The Explorer’s body is butched up with a black-painted grille and trim, darkly tinted headlight and taillight bezels, and Taurus SHO–like aluminum wheels with black-painted inserts.

    Even though this author didn’t use the Explorer Sport as Ford’s intended buyers might—he wheeled the big crossover to Chicago and back for a long weekend, alone, mostly at a brisk clip, and didn’t attend a single youth soccer match—the experience behind the wheel (and at the test track) confirmed that the Sport is no Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 challenger, and that isn’t really a bad thing. Although certainly zestier to drive than a regular Explorer, the Sport—like the Durango R/T—is really more of a mild makeover with a hot engine than it is a blood-sizzling super-SUV.

    Despite boasting a more comprehensive list of go-faster upgrades than the Flex EcoBoost, the base Explorer’s good traits (roominess, quiet cabin, and comfortable ride) still dominate here. We didn’t shovel a bushel of children and their detritus into this Explorer, but they’ll fit easily. When properly equipped, the Sport is rated to tow up to 5000 pounds. The Sport even maintains what feels like 90 percent of the regular Explorer’s cushy ride comfort, in spite of its giant wheels. In our testing, the Explorer Sport bolted from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and clawed around the skidpad at 0.84 g—not bad for a 4947-pound beefcake. Those numbers trail the much-lighter Taurus SHO’s by 0.7 second and 0.02 g and the fire-breathing Grand Cherokee SRT8’s by a mere 0.9 second and 0.03 g—particularly surprising considering the Sport’s unpretentious and well-mannered character around town. Oh, and as for the Grand Cherokee’s platform-mate, the Durango R/T, the Ford kicks its butt in the stoplight drags—the all-wheel-drive iteration of the Dodge hit 60 mph in a lazy 7.4 seconds.

    Specifications >

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

    PRICE AS TESTED: $46,640 (base price: $41,545)

    ENGINE TYPE: twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum and 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: 4947 lb

    C/D TEST RESULTS*:
    Zero to 60 mph: 5.9 sec
    Zero to 100 mph: 15.3 sec
    Zero to 120 mph: 25.0 sec
    Standing ¼-mile: 14.5 sec @ 97 mph
    Top speed (governor limited): 122 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
    Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway driving: 16/22 mpg
    C/D observed: 18 mpg

    *A software error precluded the recording of reliable rolling-start and top-gear acceleration data.

    Continued…

  • BY ALEXANDER STOKLOSA
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL SIMARI
  • Out in the real world, the Explorer Sport suffers from the same elephantiasis as do regular Explorers, and it feels enormous from behind the wheel. The quick steering (2.8 turns lock-to-lock) provides reasonably quick turn-in, but abrupt lane-change maneuvers are met with a pronounced sashay from the rig’s posterior: The rear tires seem to take a moment to follow the fronts, leaving enough time for body roll to join the party before all four contact patches register the change in direction. Once in the new lane, the motion repeats (in the other direction, and snappier) when straightening the wheel.

    Even so, the powerful engine is a willing partner when squirting in and out of traffic, but that’s assuming the Sport fits in and out of traffic. In crowded downtown Chicago—especially trundling along Lake Shore Drive’s tight lanes—the Explorer left little room to spare. On more open roads, there is ample grip during hard cornering, and provided no mid-turn corrections are required, the big Ford stays fairly planted and sticks to its intended trajectory. But the flat seat bottoms give passengers a severe case of sliding-buttocks syndrome, and the lack of lateral support on the seatbacks further discourages hard driving.

    As an Explorer imbued with some additional quickness, improved body control, and more sinister looks, the Explorer Sport absolutely works. It occupies a rare space, and shoppers looking for a reasonably fuel-efficient (provided the turbos are used sparingly), luxuriously equipped three-row crossover that won’t put them to sleep should like it—especially when they consider its low-ish $41,545 base price. That sum buys a well-equipped Explorer with standard leather upholstery, power front seats, rear park assist and backup camera, and Ford’s still-flawed MyFord Touch infotainment system. Our test car arrived with a $4130 option bundle that included navigation, blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate, pushbutton start, and Ford’s rear-seatbelt airbags. Also added was a $570 towing package with a Class III hitch.

    The bottom line: If hauling people and ass are your two top priorities and you can’t swing a more-expensive option like the BMW X5M, Mercedes ML63 AMG, Porsche Cayenne Turbo, or Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, the Explorer Sport mostly satisfies.

    Specifications >

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

    PRICE AS TESTED: $46,640 (base price: $41,545)

    ENGINE TYPE: twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum and 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: 4947 lb

    C/D TEST RESULTS*:
    Zero to 60 mph: 5.9 sec
    Zero to 100 mph: 15.3 sec
    Zero to 120 mph: 25.0 sec
    Standing ¼-mile: 14.5 sec @ 97 mph
    Top speed (governor limited): 122 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 177 ft
    Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway driving: 16/22 mpg
    C/D observed: 18 mpg

    *A software error precluded the recording of reliable rolling-start and top-gear acceleration data.

    View Photo Gallery

    By ALEXANDER STOKLOSA

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