First Drive

First Drive – 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

New addition to Explorer lineup signals change in strategy for Ford

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - front 3/4 view motion

SANTA MONICA, CA – Ford is giving new meaning to the "Sport" label on its utility vehicle lineup. Previously, the Sport designation typically meant some trim upgrades – larger wheels and tires, a few interior and exterior trim changes and little else.

Not any more; just check out the upgrades to the 2013 Explorer Sport. Cosmetics are still part of the package, but now there are performance enhancements to match the sporty label.

"The Explorer Sport marks the start of a new direction at Ford," says Bill Gubing, chief engineer for Ford’s Explorer, Taurus and Police Interceptor lineup. "Sport will now mean more than cosmetic changes; more than tape and paint."

More muscle

Gubing isn’t kidding. The new "Sport" strategy adds more muscle to the mix – and the Explorer is the first to feel the effects.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - engine bay.JPGThe 3.5-litre, high-output, twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 that powers the hot Taurus SHO sport sedan has been slipped under the hood of the Sport. Now on tap are 365 horsepower, peaking at 5,500 rpm, and 350 lb-ft of torque at just 1,500 revs – sufficient to give this seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive SUV impressive performance.

This pumped-up V-6 delivers a 26% increase in power over the base, naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre V-6 and acceleration is improved 30%. The Sport’s 0-97 km/h (60 mph) launch times have been trimmed by a couple of seconds.

On the open road, this engine delivers great throttle response, easily tackling the frequent elevation changes of the hilly Malibu Canyon and effortlessly accelerating on the Interstate.

The EcoBoost V-6 is coupled to a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which add to the sporty flavour. Power is delivered to the wheels through a 3.16:1 final drive ratio that produces both good acceleration and fuel-saving low revs when cruising at highway speeds.

In fact, the Sport’s fuel consumption numbers are the best in its class, with a rating of 13.2 L/100 km in city use, 8.8 on the highway. That’s better than the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango R/T, both powered by Chrysler’s 5.7-litre Hemi V8, as well as the supercharged Range Rover Sport.

New direction

The thinking behind this sporty new direction is straightforward – the Explorer’s powertrain choices, with the base six-cylinder or a fuel-sipping 2.0 EcoBoost four, suited the needs of most buyers.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - rear 3/4 view.JPGHowever, once the redesigned Explorer had landed in showrooms late in 2010, Ford noticed that it started drawing buyers from prestige brands such as BMW, Lexus and Range Rover. These shoppers had different priorities – they were looking for more upscale features and a higher level of performance. The Sport is intended to meet those requirements.

But the Sport is more than just muscle. Ford’s Terrain Management all-wheel drive system has been specifically calibrated to make the best use of the more powerful engine’s output in all types of driving conditions, whether it’s highway touring or traversing snow, sand or mud.

The driver can adjust the power and torque calibrations by turning a console-mounted control knob when tackling deep snow or sand. The system continuously monitors wheel slip and can shift power to all four wheels as required.

Torque can be split up to 50% to the rear wheels. On other Explorer models, the maximum torque split is 35 to 40%.

Upgraded chassis

The Sport’s chassis has been strengthened to help it cope with the additional power. A stiffer brace has been installed between the front shock towers and an additional brace has been added to the underbody.

Gubing says the Sport’s chassis enhancements, which have increased lateral stiffness 37%, are directly related to the development of Ford’s police Interceptor SUV and sedan, which he also oversaw.

Those special-use products are based on the same large-car platform used in the conventional Taurus and Explorer.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - side view.JPGLessons learned with the Interceptor and carried over to the Sport include the steering system. The electric power assist for the rack and pinion steering rack features a new solid mounting system.

The system is designed to deliver surprising agility for such a big vehicle – it sits on a 2,860-mm wheelbase, it’s 5,006 mm long and 2,291 mm wide with a track front and rear of 1,702 mm. Despite its size, the Sport’s turning circle is 12.13 metres and the steering wheel spins from lock to lock in just 2.7 turns.

The Sport’s brakes have also been enhanced, with 352-mm ventilated discs up front, compared with 328-mm discs on other Explorer models. The rear discs are ventilated as well, and there are cast-iron calipers on all four wheels.

These changes have resulted in a 20% improvement in braking over its siblings and a significant increase in resistance to fade.

On my test drive, repeated heavy use of the brakes in the mountainous areas failed to stress the system. The brakes remained strong with very good pedal feel throughout the run.

Standard equipment includes a four-wheel, four-channel anti-lock brake system plus Ford’s AdvanceTrac electronic stability system and traction control.

The Sport’s suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts and a 32-mm stabilizer bar up front and a multilink setup in the back with a 22-mm stabilizer bar. However, the system has been specially tuned to give the 2,204-kilogram SUV more of a sporty feel.

The result is a suspension that’s quite compliant, yet minimizes body roll. Ride comfort is quite good.

The changes to the Sport’s powertrain and chassis have not compromised its ability to work as a hauler – its towing capacity is rated at an impressive 2,268 kilograms.

Cosmetic features

All these changes under the skin certainly take the Sport up a notch in terms of performance and dynamics, but Ford hasn’t abandoned the notion of adding some cosmetic touches to set this SUV apart, too.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - detail badging.JPGThere are the expected special exterior features, such as exclusive 20-inch, painted alloy wheels and P255/50R20 all-season tires. Special styling cues include a flat grey mesh grille with glossy black horizontal bars and a black front lower fascia with a large opening that provides additional engine cooling.

The Explorer label is displayed prominently on the nose in billet-like black letters, complementing the blacked-out headlamp assembly. There’s black finish on the roof rack rails, black caps on the exterior mirrors and a black applique that stretches across the liftgate, as well as a blacked-out treatment on the tail lamps.

And, of course, there are paint finishes exclusive to the Sport: ruby red, platinum white, tuxedo black or ingot silver.

Interior touches

The Sport’s interior also gets some special touches. The sculptured seats are trimmed in black leather with contrasting stitching. You can opt for a very stylish two-tone look featuring contrasting brown inserts. My test ride had this package and it looked (and felt) very classy indeed.

2013 Ford Explorer Sport - steering wheel and instrument panel.JPGA power tilt and telescoping steering column is standard, as are adjustable pedals (with memory.) The leather wrapping on the steering wheel is finished with special cross-stitching, while a Sport logo is embroidered on the floor mats, and an Explorer nameplate lights up on the front scuff plate when you open the door.

Given the intended buyer, the Sport is loaded with standard and optional equipment that offers the ultimate in luxury, comfort, convenience and connectivity.

It includes: automatic dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled front power seats (with 10-way adjustment for the driver; six-way for the passenger), a premium Sony audio system with a dozen speakers, rearview camera, blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic alert, power liftgate, voice-activated navigation, dual-panel moonroof, adaptive cruise control, plus Ford’s SYNC connectivity system with MyFord Touch and inflatable rear seat belts.

The Sport is obviously a premium product – pricing starts at $48,299 (not including $1,550 for shipping) compared to a base Explorer V-6 with front-wheel drive at $29,999 – but it is certainly more than capable of competing with the traditional players in this segment.

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