In 2010, the Ford Explorer joined the crossover crowd.
The Explorer debuted in 1990 as an old-school, body-on-frame SUV and is widely credited with sparking the SUV boom.
Ford’s decision to retool the Explorer as a unibodied crossover was a bow to reality. Sales had been in steep decline as buyers migrated to roomier, better riding and more efficient car-based crossovers.
There were the usual downsides — towing capacity dropped from 7,500 pounds to 5,000 pounds and, off-road, the new crossover is no match for the old SUV. Nevertheless, sales rebounded immediately.
The 2013 Explorer (from $29,925, including transportation) is comfortable, economical and stylishly designed. It’s quiet at highway speeds and seats up to seven, though third-row seating is child-territory only.
Until this year, the Explorer could be had in one of two trim levels, and with a choice of two powerplants. The base engine is a 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, and front-wheel-drive models can be fitted with a costlier but more efficient 240-hp four-cylinder “Ecoboost” engine that produces best-in-class efficiency (20 city/28 highway/23 combined).
Now, Ford adds a new wrinkle, the hot rod Explorer Sport.
A twin-turbocharged, 365-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 produces the Sport’s heartbeat, propelling the rig from 0-60 mph in just six seconds. It’s EPA-rated at 16/22/18.
With its $41,545 base price, the Sport isn’t bargain-priced, but it is well conceived and well equipped.
Ford might simply have bolted the high-output engine in place and called it good. Instead, it revamped the Sport’s suspension, added larger brakes and installed cross-body braces to boost chassis rigidity. The front suspension is lower than standard by 15 millimeters and the rear suspension gets new ball joints that improve responsiveness.
Explorer Sport has unique 20-inch painted and machined wheels that are a half-inch wider than the largest size available on the standard Explorer.
Cosmetic details include blacked-out headlamps and taillights and black roof-rack rails, side-view mirror caps and liftgate appliqué. The grille is a low-gloss gray mesh, with contrasting ebony high-gloss bars.
A uniquely calibrated version of Ford’s AWD system can send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels and Ford’s Curve Control technology brakes the inside wheel to help the Sport pivot through corners.
A four-mode Terrain Management system takes the guesswork out of driving in slippery conditions and includes hill-descent control and hill-start assist.
Despite its large tires and firm suspension, the Explorer Sport rides comfortably. Measures taken to control noise, vibration and harshness work so well that even under a full head of steam, the sound of the Ecoboost six is hushed and refined.
One feels obligated to note that, though the MyFord Touch infotainment touchscreen interface improves with each generation, it remains challenging.
In the end, those who value what the Explorer Sport offers will make their peace with such shortcomings. Ford partisans with a lust for power and a need for utility will find this one right in their wheelhouse.
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at email@example.com.
2013 Ford Explorer Sport
Vehicle base price: $29,100
Trim level base price: $40,730
As tested: $45,915
Key options: voice-activated navigation; inflatable rear seat belts; blind spot monitoring; power liftgate; keyless entry and remote start; White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat paint.
EPA ratings: 16 city/22 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified