The perfect family car is a big box on wheels. Station wagons just can't make the grade with limited space. Minivans absolutely fit the people hauler job description, but most want to avoid the boring soccer mom stereotype. Ah! Raise the box, slap a truck chassis underneath and the sport utility vehicle is born. In previous decades, mid-size truck-based SUVs were the craze and the Ford Explorer topped the category with some 400,000 cars sold a year.
But the era of the truck-based SUV, and all of its handling and fuel-efficiency faults, has passed. The new hotness is focusing on the sport rather than the utility, and thus arrives the 2013 Ford Explorer Sport.
Ford engineers have worked to make sure the Explorer deserves the special badging. The uprated 3.5-liter V-6 now comes plumbed with twin-turbos rated at 365 hp (a substantial 75 hp gain from the Limited model's normally-aspirated 3.5-liter V-6). The chassis also received upgrades; shocks and springs are new at all four corners. The front MacPherson strut suspension is tightened up with reinforced cross-tower bracing, and ride height lowered by 0.6 inches. This, with the stiffened electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) rack allows for sharper turn-in compared to the regular Explorer. While the rear suspension remains as multilink, the all-around roll bars, larger and wider standard 20-in. wheels and tires (255/50R-20), and all-wheel-drive are meant to handle the turns with better stability.
Differentiating the Sport from other Explorer models are more muscular trim elements throughout the car. Upfront, the grille features a flat gray mesh contrasting the glossy crossbars. The similar darker look can also be seen in the blacked-out head and tail lamps. Inside, unique stitching on the steering wheel and on the available black leather seats are nice details. The Sport logo can also be seen on the floormats and on the illuminated scuff plates. Other standard amenities include SYNC with myFord Touch stereo system, dual-zone climate control, rearview camera, and most of the options available in the Explorer spreadsheet.
Accelerating from standing still, the first thing you'll notice is the Explorer's healthy 350 lb.-ft. of torque, with most of the power band easily accessible from 1,500 to 5,000 rpm. With a 6-speed automatic transferring the engine's power to the ground via all-wheel-drive, 50 percent of the propulsion can be transferred to the back readily via an electronic-controlled clutch. The 5,000-lb family hauler gets up to speed in a hurry with minimal fuss, an improvement from the poky Explorer Limited or the optional 2-liter turbo four-cylinder.
Rarely does a carmaker suggest a curvy mountain road for driving a new SUV, but that's where I headed with the Explorer Sport. Our test car, fitted with sportier Continental ContiSportContact summer tires, was sure-footed through the turns. It did not feel sloppy, or suggest it would roll over the tires' sidewalls when taking the corner with more pep and aggressive steering input. The weight and high center-of-gravity of a typical SUV can still be felt through switchbacks, but you always feel right on top it and not out of control.
The Explorer Sport provides a firmer ride than probably what most SUV buyers might be accustomed to, but it does sharpen up the steering feedback and handling for the more spirited drivers. The summer tires fitted on our car generated noticeable noise, especially at highway speeds.
The list price for the 2013 Ford Explorer is $40,720, and can top out at around $48,000 -- making it among the more expensive big boxes sold for family use. Ford admits that the Sport is not for the majority of its mid-size SUV customers, accounting for 15 to 20 percent. Looking to grow Explorer sales beyond 135,000 units last year, it hopes the emphasis on "sport" in sport utility vehicles can lure away customer that might usually be looking at a Range Rovers or other German SUVs.