Want a quick, agile, fun-to-drive vehicle you can stuff a bunch of kids into? Ford has what you’re looking for. Just one catch: you’ll have to move to Europe. Not that Ford sees no market here for a swift seven-seater. They do, just not for one like the S-Max. Instead, for 2013 we receive the Explorer Sport. CEO Alan Mulally’s “One Ford” vision apparently acknowledges that some models must remain regional. Here’s what real Americans want in a high-performance crossover…
Paint it black
You can slap “Sport” on just about anything. When you really mean it, you paint everything black: grille, mirrors, window trim, wheels, luggage rack. Though the wheels might be a bit much (more attractive dubs are available on the 2013 Limited), overall the sport treatment suits the Explorer’s clean, muscular shape. It’s a handsome beast.
But not so black on the inside
Ford didn’t go so black inside the Explorer Sport, aside from offering the interior only in charcoal (with optional brown seat inserts). Most of the trim is the same silver-painted plastic used in other Explorers, not the more fashion forward “piano black” sort. The touch-sensitive control panel for the 390-watt Sony audio system is piano black, but both the panel and the system are the same as in an Explorer Limited.
Materials are mostly worthy of the Explorer Sport’s price, with the doors and instrument panel squishy to the touch. Exceptions include switches and shift paddles on the steering wheel that feel insubstantial and obviously fake stitching on the doors’ armrests.
The interior forms are as tastefully clean as in any Audi, with none of the polarizing details common inside GM, Hyundai, and Toyota vehicles. Visual interest is provided by the MyFord Touch three-screen light show, with its vibrant multi-color graphics (and continued, if reduced, usability issues). A note to both GM and Ford: don’t recess touch screens that have “buttons” along the bottom edge.
Bigger is better
Both GM and Ford ran the numbers, then ran them again, and perhaps a third time after that. Each time they arrived at the same conclusion: Americans have no interest in Euro-style seven-seat MPVs. In adapting the Freestyle / Taurus X to create a crossover Americans were more likely to buy, Ford shaved three inches from the length (to yield 197.1) but added two to the height (70.4) and four to the width (78.9). You can’t buy a beamier Ford without a bed – even the gargantuan Expedition EL is a skosh narrower. The Explorer Sport’s driving position is sized for a giant. Everything appears massive. The second row isn’t quite as roomy, but unlike those in most competitors it is comfortably high off the floor. The third row? If you need it to be comfortable for adults, and everyone is toting a couple of bags, forget about sport entirely and get an Expedition EL. But if kids are going in the way back and everyone’s judicious in their packing, the Explorer will do.
Comfort is king
The pervasive black paint is about as hardcore as the Explorer Sport gets. The seats are no firmer than those in the regular Explorer. Nor are their bolsters better endowed. They’re the same seats. And they’re excellent, large and cushy but with proper support. After two hours behind the wheel, my troublesome back was no trouble at all.
The Explorer’s roof pillars might make even GM’s stoutest appear flimsy, but for Sport duty a little more structure was deemed necessary. A couple of cross-car braces have been added. In another sign that “Sport” might mean something this time, the 265/45R20 tires are available in Y-rated three-season form (for $995). And the suspension and steering have been firmed up. But, like the related Taurus SHO, the Explorer Sport is no track day special. Comfort remains a higher priority than handling, and aside from some tire patter and a touch of whine on concrete (with the optional tires, at least) the ride can hardly be faulted. Kick the speed up well past the legal limit and you still feel like you’re barely moving.
Safety is queen
With the firmed-up chassis the Explorer Sport behaves well when the road turns. It doesn’t have a choice. “Curve control” modulates the throttle and brakes to keep the crossover well within its limits. Requests from your right foot are treated as suggestions. The system isn’t terribly obtrusive. You don’t feel the yank in the chain. You just push down the go pedal post-apex, and nothing extra happens until the steering is unwound. I requested a “Sport” option on the standard “Terrain Management System” to disable or at least dial back the electronic overlord. The chief engineer’s muted response suggested that this isn’t going to happen. Do memories of the 2001 rollover debacle remain too fresh?
Granted, the curve control system still allows the Explorer Sport to be pitched through curves more aggressively than your significant other will like. When so pitched, lean is moderate, body motions are well controlled, and the electronics (torque vectoring in additional to the curve control system) effectively limit plow. But there’s just enough indecisiveness in the steering and not-quite-rightness to the axes of rotation (the electronics cannot entirely mask the inherent dynamics of the chassis) that my confidence was crimped. I knew the Explorer Sport would behave properly, but I didn’t feel it in my gut the way I do with a BMW X5 or even a Cadillac Escalade.
The all-wheel-drive system has been tweaked for the Sport, but the most it can do is lock the center differential and so shunt 50 percent of the torque aft. There’s nothing like an active rear differential to really make things interesting. This would be pointless without a way to get the Curve Control to back off.
Sport = moar powah
These days, the fastest European and Japanese cars also tend to be big and heavy. But in the postwar decades this was a very American formula. No matter how big or how heavy the vehicle, it could be made to accelerate quickly, and this was what driving enthusiasm was really about. With 365 horsepower to move its 2.5 tons, the Explorer Sport accelerates briskly. You can rev this engine with no ill effects, but it’s really in its element in the midrange. Need some speed to pass on a two-lane or hop onto the freeway? You’ll have it before you realize it, and once you realize it you’ll be scanning the rearview mirror for flashing lights.
Given its hefty curb weight and level of insulation, the Explorer Sport would need even more power to feel brutally quick in the manner of a BMW X5 M or Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. This isn’t likely to happen. There’s only so much the transverse transmission can handle, and that amount seems to be 350 pound-feet (and this much only through extra protection afforded by special lubricants and sophisticated electronic controls). In the F-150 pickup, with a longitudinal transmission, the EcoBoost V6 peaks at 420 pound-feet, and even that number is likely well short of the engine’s potential. Aftermarket tuners could add 100 horsepower, easy. But how long would the transaxle then last?
Gas isn’t a buck a gallon anymore
Pitching a 365-horsepower engine as a solution for (rather than the source of) fuel efficiency concerns—brilliant! What will marketeers think of next, chocolate cookies and cakes as diet foods? (Oh, wait…) At least they come by the claim somewhat honestly. The boosted engine doesn’t quite match the EPA ratings of its naturally-aspirated 290-horsepower relation, but at 16 city and 22 highway the penalty is a single mile per gallon. The Dodge Durango’s 360-horsepower V8 lags far behind, with 13 city and 20 highway. This assumes you don’t push the V6 too hard. Turbos pump up power by forcing more air into an engine, making it inhale as much as a larger, unboosted engine. At which point it will also burn as much fuel as a larger, unboosted engine. After driving the related Taurus SHO hard around a winding loop, I observed “5.8 AVG MPG” on the trip computer.
Fords should be affordable
Back in the day, Ford NA built ‘em cheap and stacked ‘em deep. With a few rare, unsuccessful exceptions, this kept our shores safe from pricey FoE models. Lately, though, Ford has loftier aspirations. They’re largely leaving the cheap seats for others. If you want a 365-horsepower crossover with semi-premium trimmings, the bill starts at $41,545. You can get captain’s chairs, nav, and a panoramic sunroof as standalone options, but others are bundled into a $4,130 package. The tested vehicle included this package, the summer performance tires, and extra-cost red paint (which suits the shape well), but not the sunroof or captain’s, for a grand total of $47,065.
The Explorer Sport doesn’t come with quite as much standard as the Limited AWD. Its base price is only $865 higher, but adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool bumps this to $1,790. This seems beyond reasonable for a pair of turbos and the other tweaks.
When the Explorer Sport’s chief engineer was asked which vehicles most directly compete with his car, he suggested the Dodge Durango R/T and the Land Rover Ranger Rover Sport HSE. Noticing some head scratchers amongst the assembled media, he added that a large number of Land Rover owners have been trading down into the Explorer. Who knew there were even a large number of Land Rover owners? Looking at the comparison that makes some sense, a Durango R/T lists for $1,240 less before adjusting for feature differences, and $2,110 less afterwards.
Aside from the Durango, only premium European brands offer a seven-seat crossover with EcoBoost V6-level power. The Explorer Sport can’t match the X5 in terms of handling, but an ML550 is a different story. When both the Ford and Mercedes are loaded up, the latter is exactly $25,000 more before adjusting for feature differences, $23,000 more afterwards. So while the Explorer Sport isn’t exactly affordable, it is relatively affordable.
So, where do you want to live?
Many of us connected the dots a couple of years ago, when Ford introduced a new Explorer based on the same platform that underpins the Taurus and Flex, but without the option of the EcoBoost engine offered in those models. Apparently someone inside Ford thought it insufficient to add a pair of snails to the six and call it a day, as was done with the Flex and a pair of related Lincolns. Instead, they waited a couple of model years so they might offer a complete package along the lines of the Taurus SHO. The package still isn’t quite complete, as the Sport’s handling is overly hobbled, but it’s nevertheless well worth its additional cost.
Even if Curve Control could be disabled, the list of agile three-row vehicles is a short one, and this 4,921 pound beastie wouldn’t be on it. In the U.S., the list pretty much begins and ends with the Mazda5. In Europe, it’s a little longer.
On the other hand, the Explorer Sport offers a combination of power, space, and comfort that you simply cannot get from a non-premium brand in Europe. What is more needed in a three-row crossover, these things, or agile handling? Maybe fecund European driving enthusiasts should be moving here.
Ford provided the vehicle along with an excellent lunch at a media event.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.