What with the trend toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and the ever-increasing price of fuel, you'd think mid-size SUV sales would be suffering. After all, they take up more room than most other vehicles and can quaff gas at an alarming rate.
Not so, says Ford.
Sales of its popular Explorer are up 18 per cent, according to marketing manager Eric Peterson, and his company now owns 30 per cent of the SUV market overall. Furthermore, he said at the launch of the new Explorer Sport, in California, when people think of the word "explorer," they think of Ford. "We have a 93 per cent brand awareness with the Explorer."
And although it's technically a mid-size SUV, the Explorer will carry up to seven people, which these days qualifies it as a full-sizer. With one or two exceptions, they don't come much bigger than this, and with the addition of the Sport model, Ford expects to draw even more buyers into the fold.
Why? Better fuel economy and more power, courtesy of an EcoBoost V-6 that will deliver a purported 13.2 litres/100 km in town and 8.8 on the highway. While other versions of the Explorer have either a normally aspirated V-6 or turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost, the Sport version develops a healthy 365 horsepower, which, frankly, is what a vehicle of this size needs. Dry, it tips the scales at more than 2-1/2 tons (2,067 to 2,146 kilograms), and the non-Sport versions are underpowered – especially the four-banger. This engine also, says Ford, gives the Explorer Sport significantly better fuel economy than rivals such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango Hemi.
Joining the base, XLT and Limited Explorers, the Sport features a V-6 EcoBoost engine that has twin turbochargers and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. This engine is only available with the Sport model.
You can change gears manually via steering-wheel-mounted paddles, and the Explorer Sport has full-time four-wheel-drive. This latter system has Ford's all-terrain management system, which means you can slightly alter torque and power output for various driving conditions: sand, snow, mud and steep hill descent, for example. All of this is accessed via a centre console-located rotary knob, and this powertrain gives the Explorer Sport a 2,268-kilogram towing capacity.
Incidentally, this version of the EcoBoost V-6 engine is not the same as that found in the F-150 or Taurus, for example. "It has separate components and is calibrated differently," says Bill Gubing, chief engineer for the Explorer.
Stylistically, the Explorer Sport is much the same to look at as the other versions. The front end has been tweaked, with what Gubing calls a "technical black connection" motif, and various other cues, such as side mirror "skull caps" and a restyled lower front fascia. But as one observer noted: "Take away the Ford blue oval and put 'Land Rover' on the front and you couldn't tell the difference."
Interestingly, the interior layout of the new Sport received input from styling houses Prada and Balenciaga. It also comes with 20-inch wheels as standard equipment.
And a word about the Ford MyTouch/Sync system. By its own admission, Ford got the first generation of this driver-vehicle interface wrong. It was much too hard to get along with and counter-intuitive, and a lot of potential buyer were turned off by its inaccessibility and needless complexity.
The Explorer Sport has new software in its Sync system and most of the functions are duplicated, so buyers won't be completely out to lunch when they try something as innocent as changing radio stations or increasing fan speed. "This system is continually evolving," adds Bill Gubing, "we have made significant improvements to it."
During a brief run in the hills behind Malibu, one of the first things that became obvious was that this is an unusually quiet automobile to drive. Wind and tire noise is almost non-existent and you can easily carry on a conversation without having to raise your voice.
Secondly, it has a ride you can only get in a larger vehicle. It's a little twitchy during tight cornering, and I'm not sure I like the steering feel (electronic assist). But for a goodly sized SUV, it's definitely in the ball park.
And for those who need it, the Explorer Sport has a powerful air conditioning system. We drove through 30 C heat during the launch and had no issues with comfort.
Assembled in Chicago, the Explorer Sport comes with a full roster of standard convenience features and optional modcons. A back-up camera, heated/cooled seats, leather interior, remote start, tilt-telescoping steering, adjustable pedals, power rear tailgate, climate control system and a blind spot information system are all available. This latter feature is similar to the setup found in various Volvos and can be manually disabled.
Prices for the new Explorer Sport start at $48,299.
2013 Ford Explorer Sport
Base Price: $48,299
Engine: 3.5-litre, turbocharged, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 365 hp/ 350 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Full-time four-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.2 city; 8.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Explorer XLT, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Volvo XC60, Nissan Pathfinder, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Veracruz, Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9