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October 15, 2012

First Drive: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

Snapshot 2 (10-5-2012 12-05 PM)Anyone who tries to park outside an elementary school these days will notice that the most popular vehicle for women with children is not the minivan, but a crossover or SUV. Today's sports utility vehicles are safer and more fuel efficient, with room for cargo, kids and all their stuff.

They're also attractive and increasingly luxurious, as I discovered couple of years ago at the launch of Ford's redesigned 2011 Explorer. Over the summer, my colleague Kim Tracy Prince got the opportunity to learn about Ford's design trends at their headquarters in Dearborn. And this month, I got to see a little of what she previewed, at a California test drive of its 2013 Explorer Sport.

The Explorer Sport is a high performance model with a 3.0 litre EcoBoost V-6 engine -- but that doesn't mean that this model's upgrades are all under the hood. Ford's design team did some styling magic so this model will stand out, both in the showroom and on the road, as Chief Engineer Bill Gubing explained to me on video:

Driving the Sport

Before the 2011 redesign of the Ford Explorer, the automaker surveyed customers to gauge which features they most wanted in an SUV. "We heard from a group of customers who wanted more fuel economy and we targeted our 2.0 litre EcoBoost engine that delivered 28mpg," Gubing told me.

"And then there was another group of customers that wanted this performance aspect, this driving car, just a fun to drive, more refined vehicle. And if we look at our source of sales, 12% of our sales are coming from BMW, Lexus, and Range Rover. So we pooled that source of sales together with the performance want and that was really the inspiration for the Explorer Sport -- that driving luxury, that fun-to-drive car, or like a touring vehicle.”

And once I got behind that cross-stitched wheel and sank into those rich, two-toned leather seats, I understood what he meant. You can feel the power under the hood of the Explorer Sport, and yes -- it is really easy to go over the speed limit without realizing it, which I did a couple of times while zipping through the nearby canyon roads.

But the drive was smooth, quiet and kind of refined. And it handled well. It's got a really nice turning radius for a midsize SUV; I stopped at a busy shopping center and was able to park it in a pretty tight space.  

Bill said his team worked hard on the vehicle's structure and driving dynamics:  "We went into our epass gear or electrical pass power steering gear, we recalibrated that for sport specific for a nice confident feel on turning, and we also hard-mounted the gear, which takes out any sort of off-center compliance so again, a really crisp turning on the vehicle."

Luxury Features

The Explorer Sport boasts several standard luxury features, including those leather seats and 10-way power driver seat and 6-way adjustable power seat for the front passenger, four wheel drive, remote control power locks and power liftgate, entertainment system that includes a 12-speaker Sony HD AM/FM/Sirius Radio (with six month free subscription), and Ford SYNC entertainment and navigational system.

The model I drove also had a rear-view camera. Other options include a Blind Spot Information System (BLIS(R)), adaptive cruise control and collision warning,  and dual panel moon roof.

Safety, Passenger Comfort and Cargo

The Explorer Sport is a midsize SUV, so there is plenty of room in the second row seating; not as much in the third row -- but just having the option of a third row in a vehicle this size is a plus. It makes the cargo space in the Sport highly configurable, giving you up to 80 cubic feet with the second and third rows down.

As of this writing, the Explorer Sport has not been rated by NHTSA, but it's got all of the features I expect to see in a sports utility vehicle: AdvanceTrac® with RSC® (Roll Stability Control™), front seat side airbags, Safety Canopy® System with side-curtain airbags and rollover sensor and front passenger knee airbags are all standard. 

Also standard in the Sport is Ford's S O S Post-Crash Alert System™ and belt minder and backseat LATCH for children's carseats. 

And because I'm really bad at doing this myself, I appreciate the fact that Ford equips the Sport with a standard tire pressure monitoring system.

The only thing I didn't like about my experience with the Ford Explorer Sport was having to give the vehicle back. Driving it was that much fun -- as engineer Bill Gubing promised.


Donna Schwarts Mills 


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