Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ford Explorer Sport Moves Forward--Quickly

The Ford Explorer is widely credited with starting the sport utility vehicle frenzy of the 1990s. Today's rising star is the crossover vehicle, and the Explorer is now a member of that group.

Crossovers have unibody car platforms rather than mounting the body on a separate frame, like trucks do. When the Explorer debuted it was using the truck technology of the day. Today's model is much more comfortable on the road, and that makes sense. Most buyers do not take their cars off the road anyway, even when they have four-wheel drive.

The latest generation Explorer arrived for the 2011 model year. My tester this time was the new, high-performance 2013 Explorer Sport, which lives at the top of the model line. It boasts a twin-turbocharged Ecoboost V6 that puts out 365 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque from just 3.5 liters of displacement (the lesser models make do with 290 horsepower).

That's what Ford is doing with Ecoboost--giving the power of the next engine size up. So, a V6 provides V8 power, and a 1.6-liter four-cylinder moves a car such as the Fusion sedan with V6 enthusiasm. Fuel economy improves with this downsizing. If you want a V8, well, sorry.

The latest Explorer is not much like the original two-box design. It wears the swoops and curves of the latest Taurus sedan. Although Ford is already moving in a new styling direction with its freshest vehicles, such as the Focus and Escape, the Explorer is still very modern and up-to-date.

My Sport distinguished itself with a glowing Ruby Red Metallic paint job ($395 extra). It also wore stunning 20-inch alloy wheels and its face got a grille with a low-gloss sterling gray mesh and contrasting shiny ebony bars. No flashy chrome here!

I noted the name "Explorer" boldly drawn across the leading edge of the hood. With the new Flex wearing its model name proudly too, there seems to be a de-emphasis on the Ford brand and a highlighting of the model name--but we'll have to see.

With the name Sport added to its tailgate, the car offer something beyond the "normal" Explorer--on top of the stronger engine. The Sport gets a stiffer chassis, sport-tuned electric power-assisted steering, larger brakes and a paddle-shift six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission. As you'd expect, it's sporty, but no manual transmission is offered (or likely, requested).

As a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Sport has a dial on the console where you can select your terrain and the car's electronic system supplies the appropriate ride. This "terrain management system" includes Normal - where it stayed with me - as well as sand, snow, mud, and hill descent. Someday, I'll have to take one of these out in the wild and play with that dial.

Driving the Explorer, I can understand the longstanding appeal of this kind of car. Despite weighing nearly two and a half tons, it moves quickly and quietly, and feels stable and secure. Even though fuel economy isn't that fabulous, the car just feels right on the road. EPA numbers are 16 City, 22 Highway, 18 Average; I got 19 mpg. The EPA's Air Pollution number is 5 and the Greenhouse Gas is 4, so it's no environmental paragon, but it'll carry seven people.

The black leather seats in my tester were supportive and felt like those from a sport sedan. With 10-way power adjustment it was easy to set mine up just right. The perforated chairs offered three levels of heat and cool and wore attractive white stitching.

There are three rows of seats. The third row disappears into a flat floor that worked out nicely for bass carrying. I was able to drop just the slim right second-row seat to do the job, leaving lots of room for folks. Grocery carrying was easy with the third row seatbacks folded forward and the cargo net holding everything in place.

I recently drove a new Ford Fusion, and the Explorer is not quite as "styled" inside. The doors and dash flow smoothly, the trim is a matte gray and the design is calm and relaxed. The Fusion feels frenetic by comparison.

Ford has introduced its Sync and MyFordTouch systems into its vehicles over the last few years. That means you can touch the screen at the center of the dash to make changes in your climate, audio and navigation systems--or talk to the system. Voice commands often work fine, but touching is more reliable.

With MyFordTouch, You can use steering-wheel-mounted buttons to customize the left and right sides of the electronic instrument panel to view what interests you at the moment. I like to look at fuel economy, and you can see it on the left - in bright blue - with current and accumulated figures available. The right side offers navigation, entertainment and vehicle data. I enjoyed watching the three-dimensional compass ball, which rolled around gently as I changed direction.

The Explorer, built in Chicago, comes in a range of models, including the base car, XLT, Limited and Sport. You can even order up one with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder Ecoboost engine--which puts out an unexpected 240 horsepower. Prices begin at $29,955 and top out at $41,545 for the Sport. Add a few packages and you get my tester, at $46,640.

The Explorer, designed, built and enjoyed in America, is a great way to drive a big car and do big things. With smaller, but more powerful engines, it is becoming a touch more environmentally sensitive. If you need a smaller SUV, Ford has other options for you, but this is still the original.

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