First Drive: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

2013 Ford Explorer Sport

Frankly, we were a little surprised when we first saw the Ford Explorer Sport. The idea that Ford would try and make a high-performance version of its soccer shuttle -- well, we didn't see that coming. What was entirely predictable, though, is that Ford's EcoBoost V-6 eventually would find its way into the Explorer. The popular turbocharged, direct-injection V-6 is already in every other iteration of this platform -- the Taurus and the Flex, as well as the Lincoln MKS and MKT -- and there wasn't much reason to keep it out of the Explorer, which is far and away the bestselling of the five. [The 2011 sales totals: MKT 7435; MKS 12,217; Flex 27,428; Taurus 63,526; Explorer 135,704]

The Sport is the only way to get the EcoBoost V-6 in the Explorer, which otherwise comes with a normally aspirated 3.5-liter (290 hp) or, for the economy-minded and acceleration-averse, a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four (237 hp) -- the latter with front-wheel drive only. Unsurprisingly, better than 90 percent of Explorer buyers have been going for the V-6; Ford expects ten to fifteen percent of customers to step up to the EcoBoost V-6, which proffers an additional 70 hp and 95 pound-feet of torque, for totals of 365 hp and 350 pound-feet.

As it does in its other applications, the EcoBoost engine's extra oomph necessitates four-wheel drive, and it's standard here. The system has been modified to send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear (versus a max of 35 percent in other all-wheel-drive Explorers), and Ford has added a cooler for the power transfer unit. The Sport's six-speed automatic gets shift paddles in place of the awkward plus-minus toggle switch on the gear lever. Ford estimates that 0-to-60-mph times drop by about 2 seconds, which would put them near the 6-second mark -- plenty speedy for a family barge. As it is elsewhere, the EcoBoost V-6 is muscular in the midrange, its boost well integrated and its throttle response nicely linear. The turbocharged engine's fuel economy penalty is only 1 mpg city and highway compared to the standard V-6 with AWD; EPA ratings are 16/22 mpg. (Interestingly, the Ford Flex EcoBoost does 1 mpg better on the highway.) The tow rating, however, remains 5000 pounds.

Outside of the driveline, Ford engineers tweaked the mechanicals in other ways. They upsized the brake rotors and the master cylinder in all 2013 Explorers. They increased the steering effort and mounted the rack directly to the subframe (the latter change is shared with all but the base model). For the Sport alone, they made the body stiffer with a stronger brace across the strut towers and added a tunnel brace under the floorpan.

The Sport rolls on unique, twenty-by-nine-inch wheels wrapped in your choice of all-season or high-performance three-season rubber. Spring rates were increased ten percent and the dampers are firmer. On a half-day cruise out of New York City into the northern suburbs, we found the suspension to be noticeably stiffer, but not offensively harsh over choppy pavement. We were more enamored of the tighter steering on the winding, narrow parkways; and the firm brake pedal was certainly welcome -- the new brakes are also supposed to be more fade resistant.

Inside, the tweaks are minor. The standard leather can be had in black or black with brown inserts, and there's a smattering of faux-metal trim. MyFord Touch is standard, along with the Sony audio system that features a single knob for volume and tuning, and a featureless flat touch panel for all the climate controls. There's not much sport in here but that's okay. When you're sitting in this wide-body tub of an interior, with its faraway windshield and thicket of meaty roof pillars, carving corners is the furthest thing from your mind.

That's true no matter how much blackout trim Ford puts on the outside -- and there is plenty: the grille, the headlamps, the tail lamps, the roof rack, the mirror caps, and the twenty-inch wheels. Whatever you think of the visuals, the mechanical changes here are worthwhile but hardly transformative. This is not some aggressive, high-performance SUV (a la Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8); it's really just the most powerful Explorer.

It's also the most expensive Explorer. The base price of $41,545 tops the all-wheel-drive Limited by $595. Even so, the Sport is denied some high-end features that can be had on the Limited, including lane departure warning, automatic park assist, a power folding third-row seat, a heated steering wheel, and HID headlamps. Given the type of vehicle the Explorer is, Ford might have made the EcoBoost V-6 available without the Sport pretense. But then again, plenty of team jerseys are sold to armchair athletes.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport

Base price (with destination) $41,545
Price as tested $47,915

Engine: 3.5L turbo V-6
Power: 365 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm

Drive: Four-wheel

Fuel economy (city/highway): 16/22 mpg

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