What with the trend toward smaller, more fuel-efficient, cars these days, 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 cars and can quaff gas at an alarming rate.
Not according to Ford. Sales of their popular Explorer are up some 18 per cent, according to marketing manager Eric Peterson, and his company now owns some 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 one, and with the addition of the Sport model, Ford expecting to draw even more buyers into the fold.
Why? Better fuel economy, courtesy of an EcoBoost V6 that will deliver a purported 13.2 L/100 km in town and 8.8 on the highway. While other versions of the Explorer have either a normally-aspirated V6 or turbocharged four cylinder EcoBoost, the Sport version develops a healthy 365 horsepower, which, quite frankly, is what a vehicle of this size needs. Dry, it tips the scales at well over two and a half tons (2067 to 2146 kilograms), and the non-Sport versions are kind of 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 V6 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, briefly put, 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 2268-kilogram towing capacity.
And, incidentally, this version of the EcoBoost V6 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 can’t tell the difference.” Interestingly, the interior layout of the new Sport received input from styling houses Prada and Balenciaga (whoever they are). It also comes with 20-inch wheels as standard equipment.
And a word about Ford MyTouch system. By their 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 likely turned off by its inaccessibility and needless complexity. The Explorer Sport has new software in its MyTouch system and most of the functions are duplicated, so you won‘t be completely out to lunch when they try something as simple as changing radio stations or increasing fan speed. “This system is continually evolving,” adds Bill Gubing, “we have made significant improvements to it this year.”
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 nonexistent and you can carry on a conversation without having to raise your voice. Secondly, it has the kind of ride you can only get in a larger vehicle. It’s possibly a little twitchy during tight cornering, and I’m not sure I like the steering feel (it’s 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 very powerful air conditioning system. We drove through 30-degree heat and had no issues with comfort at all.
Assembled in Chicago, the Explorer Sport comes with a full foster of convenience features and modcons. A back-up camera, heated/cooled seats, leather interior, remote start, tilt-telescoping steering, adjustable pedals, climate control system and a blind spot information system are all available. This latter feature is the same set-up found in various Volvos and can be manually disabled (yes!).
Prices for the new Explorer Sport start at $48,299, so this is not an inexpensive vehicle. Add a few extras and you’re up and over the 50 large mark before you know it.