Enter the 2013 Explorer Sport, with an EcoBoost twin-turbocharged version of that 3.5-liter six, and 365 horsepower with 350 pound-feet of torque to show for it. I should add that the extra shove only comes at the expense of one highway mpg and one city mpg, relative to the four-wheel-drive iteration of the non-turbo Explorer, which is nice, too. Ford was kind enough to invite me to take a taste of this hotted-up Explorer recently; an experience that I found generally pleasant, if not entirely satisfying.
- We eat with the eyes first. If your particular set of peepers isn't enamored by piano black accents, then you may not get close enough to even test drive the new Sport, as this model is slathered with shiny black highlights. The big black grille dominates the Explorer, and I think does a good job of making the large vehicle look a bit more compact – lower and meaner. The matching black on the 21-inch wheels, body cladding, roof rails and mirror caps, along with smoked covers for the front and rear lighting, seems like overkill to me. To many it'll just make the Explorer look cooler than ever. Some of us like Original Recipe, some like Extra Crispy.
- There's no question in my mind that the Sport version of the Explorer feels fleet-of-foot for a vehicle of this size and weight. Ford was coy about official 0-60 times for the model, saying only that it had found it to be "two seconds faster" than the 3.5-liter non-turbo model.
- Floored from a standstill, the EcoBoost six will hesitate to deliver full thrust for a heartbeat or two, then offer a fairly strong torque pop once the engine is spinning at about 2000 rpm. Middle revs are where this engine eats, however, and I found passing maneuvers on the highway to be easy to execute briskly in the 70-90 mph zone. A decent little exhaust growl is in evidence at high rpm, too.
- So the Explorer Sport is fairly quick on its feet and looks mean (at least to some), but it doesn't actually go so far as to acquit itself as a full-on performance model, à la a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, or BMW X5 M, for instance. That's not just because the Ford isn't as quick, but also because the chassis and suspension tuning is still balanced more toward highway comfort than aimed at outright handling performance. The Sport is stiffer laterally than the standard SUV, where an added tower brace makes itself felt, but there is still a fairly high amount of vertical movement through the suspension when the Gs pile on.
- The retuned electric power steering is quicker to turn in (again, that stiffer front section helps here), and accurate when holding a fast line, but it's absolutely lifeless in terms of feel and feedback from the road.
- The Sport is equipped with paddle shifters to modulate the six-speed automatic, but response time is slow and the physical feel of the paddles is pretty unsatisfying.
- All-in, the Explorer Sport is kind of a performance middle child; more like a motored-up version of the original than a full sporting variant.
- I have mixed feelings about that last bullet, in terms of my own conclusion about the Sport. On one hand, starting at $40,720 (including destination and delivery), the Sport is only about $2,600 more than the high-content Limited trim, with a much more powerful engine, similar EPA fuel economy and many of the same standard options. (The Sport comes standard with 4WD, leather, MyFord Touch, SYNC, etc.) On the other hand, the Sport doesn't use its extra go-juice to push many of my "enthusiast driver" buttons, I get no extra towing capacity from the increased power and torque (5,000-pound max), and once the options sheet starts coming into play, a $50,000-Explorer can be a reality. The MSRP for our tester was a heady $48,385.
- I think Ford is counting on just enough incremental sales from the Sport to make the variant worthwhile in a model that is just killing the rest of its segment. Plenty of former Mustang-owning Dads should be willing to pony up a slightly bigger lease payment for the payoff of winning a stoplight grand prixs here and there. Plus, you know, cool wheels.