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Santa Monica, Calif. -- Ford is giving its Explorer sport-utility vehicle a big boost.
Though its current lineup with a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V-6 or a fuel-sipping 2.0L EcoBoost four-cylinder meets the demands of most buyers, Ford has discovered since introducing the latest Explorer iteration in December 2010 that it's drawing buyers from prestige brands such as BMW, Lexus and Range Rover. To meet that group's needs, the decision was made to offer an upscale, high-performance model -- the 2013 Explorer Sport.
To give the Sport the extra punch needed to provide the performance these buyers are seeking, Ford has borrowed the 3.5L high-output twin-turbocharged V-6 found under the hood of its hot Taurus SHO sport sedan. On tap are 365 ponies, peaking at 5,500 r.p.m., and 350 pound-feet of torque at just 1,500 revs, sufficient to give this seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive SUV impressive performance. The EcoBoost V-6 delivers a 26 per cent increase in power over the base V-6 and acceleration is improved by 30 per cent, trimming zero-to-96-kilometres-an-hour launch times by two seconds.
In a test drive winding north through the hilly, twisting Malibu Canyon area, the Sport delivered great response, easily tackling elevation changes and effortlessly accelerating on the interstate.
However, the Sport is more than just muscle. This engine also delivers class-leading fuel economy, with a consumption rating of 13.2 L/100 km in city use and 8.8 on the highway. Those ratings beat such competitive products as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango R/T, both powered by Chrysler's 5.7L Hemi V-8, as well as the supercharged Range Rover Sport.
The fuel-efficient EcoBoost V-6 is coupled to a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission with a 3.16:1 final drive ratio that delivers both good acceleration and fuel-saving low revs when cruising at highway speeds. The Sport's standard steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters add to its fun factor.
To enhance the vehicle's ability to put the additional power to the road, Ford's Terrain Management all-wheel-drive system has been specifically calibrated to make the best use of the engine's output in all types of driving conditions, whether it's highway touring or dealing with snow, sand or mud. A console-mounted control knob can adjust the power and torque calibrations when the vehicle is challenged with deep snow or sand. The system continuously monitors wheel slip and can shift power to all four wheels as required. Torque can be split up to 50 per cent to the rear wheels, compared with 35 per cent to 40 per cent with other Explorer models.
To help the chassis cope with the added EcoBoost power, reinforcements have been added to increase stiffness, including a stiffer brace between the front shock towers, an additional underbody brace and a solid-mounted electric power assist for the rack-and-pinion steering system.
The steering spins from lock to lock in just 2.7 turns, and the Sport's turning circle is 12.13 metres.
Much of the chassis enhancements, which have increased lateral stiffness by 37 per cent, are the result of the development of Ford's police Interceptor SUV and sedan, which are also based on the large-car platform used in the Taurus and Explorer.
With so much grunt on tap, it's not surprising the Explorer Sport has an impressive towing capacity -- 2,268 kilograms. To ensure the Sport will stop effectively with that amount of load in tow, the brakes have been enhanced, with 352-millimetre ventilated discs up front, compared with 328-mm discs on other models. The rear discs are ventilated as well, and there are cast-iron calipers on all four wheels.
The changes have produced a 20-per-cent improvement in braking and significant increase in resistance to fade. On the test drive, repeated heavy use of the brakes in the mountainous areas failed to stress the system. The brakes remained strong, with very good pedal feel throughout the run. A four-wheel, four-channel anti-lock braking system combines with standard Advance-Trac electronic stability and traction control systems to ensure the Sport stays on course.
Like its other Explorer siblings, the Sport is a big vehicle. Sitting on a 2,860-mm wheelbase, it's 5,006 mm long and 2,291 mm wide. The track front and rear is 1,701.8 mm. The Sport's suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts and a 32-mm stabilizer bar up front and a multi-link setup in the back with a 22-mm stabilizer bar. However, the system has been specially tuned to give the 2,204-kilogram SUV a more sporty feel.
Several styling cues set the Sport iteration apart, including 20-inch painted alloy wheels fitted with P255/50R20 all-season tires, a flat, grey mesh grille with glossy black horizontal bars and a black front lower fascia with a large opening that provides additional cooling for the EcoBoost six.
Other exterior features include the Explorer label on the nose in billet-like black, blacked-out headlamp and tail lamp treatments, black roof rack rails, black caps on the exterior mirrors and a black appliqué that stretches across the liftgate. The body can be finished in a choice of four metallic colours: ruby red, platinum white, tuxedo black or ingot silver.
The Sport interior gets some luxurious upgrades as well. The sculptured seats are trimmed in black leather with contrasting stitching. One can opt for a two-tone look with contrasting brown inserts -- very classy. With a power tilt and telescopic steering column plus adjustable pedals (with memory) as standard equipment, drivers of any stature should be able to find a safe, comfortable driving position. The leather wrapping on the steering wheel is finished with special cross-stitching. The Sport logo is embroidered on the floor mats and the Explorer nameplate appears on the illuminated scuff plates.
There's no shortage of standard and optional equipment to embrace occupants with the ultimate in comfort, convenience and connectivity, including automatic dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled front power seats (with 10-way adjustment for the driver and six-way for the passenger), a premium Sony audio system with 12 speakers, a rear-view camera, a blind-spot warning system with cross traffic alert, a power liftgate, voice-activated navigation, a dual-panel sunroof, adaptive cruise control, plus Ford's SYNC connectivity system with MyFord Touch. Inflatable rear seatbelts are available as an option.
Sport pricing starts at $48,299, plus a $1,550 shipping fee. A base Explorer V-6 with front-wheel drive starts at $29,999. The Sport arrives in showrooms next month.