Heap upon the fourth generation Ford Explorer whatever accolades you deem appropriate – versatile, roomy, comfortable, popular – but we're willing to bet sporty isn't on your list.
No, as rock solid as the redesigned-for-2011 Explorer has been for Ford, its mushy handling and ho-hum powertrain choices have hardly inspired enthusiasts. Luckily for the blue oval, a dig through the corporate parts bin reveals a number of bits and pieces that, when slapped together, could yield a thoroughly reinvigorated Explorer worthy of its new-for-2013 Sport badge.
Sum of its parts
The Explorer Sport's main ingredient is its 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, the flagship of Ford's EcoBoost family of direct-injected and boosted engines. We've seen this engine and its six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters before, namely under the hood of the Explorer's platform siblings: The Ford Taurus SHO and the Ford Flex, so its arrival in the highest-volume variant of this late-1990s Volvo S80-derived platform was hardly surprising.
Stylistically, the Explorer Sport gains blacked-out trim and darkened head and tail lamp arrays, plus exclusive 20-inch alloy wheels wrapped in your choice of summer or all-season rubber. The interior is treated to contrasting stitching, a newly optional new brown and black scheme and the requisite Sport-badged floor mats. As in other Explorers, drivers sit high off the ground but are surrounded by tall door sills and a long dashboard for a decidedly un-sporty driving position that nonetheless offers a commanding view of the road ahead.
At around $41,000 to start, the Explorer Sport isn't quite as well-outfitted as the range-topping Explorer Limited, but, at least for now, it's the only model to offer the twin-turbo engine.
In the Explorer Sport, this now-familiar V6 is rated at 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft. of torque, enough to propel it to 60 mph in about 6 seconds flat. Careful throttle tuning and heavy noise suppression give the powertrain a suitably upmarket feel, but its real asset is a mountain of torque available almost as soon as the accelerator is tapped. In terms of straight-line and mid-range acceleration, the Explorer Sport is neck-and-neck with genuine performance cars.
Ford's engineering team went a step further by taking a few bits and pieces from the Explorer-based police cruiser parked at Donut World. Suspension tightening, brake upsizing and structural enhancements were the order of the day, along with electric power steering reconfigured for a firmer feel and increased feedback.
All Explorer Sports are all-wheel-drive, and while the system has been mildly recalibrated to deal with the EcoBoost's torque, the rear wheels are mostly along for the ride unless slip is detected.
Though well shy of being confused with a canyon carver, the Explorer Sport is indeed sharper than its pedestrian siblings. It settles nicely into slow, sweeping curves, and it proved remarkably nimble when tossed through switchbacks. The firmer suspension reduces body lean in corners, but we thought that the summer tires on our tester gave the ride a flinty quality over broken pavement. Whether that's a price worth paying is up to buyers, but we imagine most families would prefer the softer standard suspension setup over the long haul.
Somewhat of a sore point remains the Explorer's steering, although it is noticeably better. Not as light as before but still lacking in feel, it reveals a frustrating eagerness to return to center.
Compared to the more naturally balanced, rear-biased Dodge Durango, the Explorer Sport comes up a little short, though it is more usefully powerful thanks to the two turbos and it sips fuel at a lower rate – 17/22 mpg, according to the EPA. That might be all the math buyers need in this segment.
Leftlane's bottom line
Ford's efforts here are to be commended, but, as enthusiasts, we think there's still a little ways to go before this family-oriented crossover can be truly considered a sporting model. We think that the Explorer Sport's excellent EcoBoost V6, improved steering and stiffened structure would go better with a slightly softer suspension and a taller sidewall tire worthy of a more upmarket positioning. In other words, the EcoBoost should be offered in the range-topping Explorer Limited.
Until then, perhaps this model should instead be badged the Ford Explorer Sportish.
2013 Ford Explorer Sport base price, $40,070.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.