Here, try this game, I dare you.
Go stand at any moderately busy intersection, then take a real deep breath… and hold it. Hold it until you see a Ford Explorer. Keep holding it…, hold it…, hoooold it… OK, you can breathe now, there goes one. This is a game you can play with your kids, too, since despite the best efforts of the Cash for Clunkers program, there are so many damn Explorers on the road you wont be in any danger of blacking out due to oxygen deprivation. In fact, you may actually feel like you’re doing some deep breathing exercises because… another one just drove by.
Lets start with a little history lesson. America fell in love with the Explorer after it replaced the ruggedly capable, but crude, Ranger based Bronco II. It was also Ranger based and rugged but, being larger, it was now comfortable enough to use as a daily driven family car. Instantly, it blew open a new market segment and nearly killed the minivan single-handedly. The Explorer recipe was copied and rewritten by other manufacturers, but the Explorer itself soldiered on with interior and exterior redesigns that continued to keep it in the public’s heart. The powertrain, though, stayed basically the same throughout its lifespan. Transmission upgrades and refinements to the AWD/4WD system were made but, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin, the engine song remained the same. Sure,just for fun they stuck the old Mustang 5.0 and the 4.6 modular V8 in there for a while, but the 4.0L Cologne V6, first in OHV then SOHC versions was the standard bearer for well over a decade and a half of production. It wasn’t the most miserly or refined engine but, it was a torque happy little low revver that in conjunction with the five speed AOD trans made it acceptable in what was still a truck at the time.
Then something changed: fuel prices.
[one_third]”Buyers didn’t want something new and different, they just wanted an Explorer with better fuel efficiency.”[/one_third]
Almost overnight, acceptable fuel economy wasn’t acceptable anymore. Already hampered by an influx of competitors, sales that had reached the rarified air of the F-series pickup (over 400K for a year or two during the roaring 90’s) suddenly began to plummet. Tampered with Tylenol was an easier sell. By 2009, they could only move 52K of the former profit padders. Economically pinched purchasers didn’t want old tech anymore. Now they wanted efficiency. To that end Ford offered up a new nameplate: the Flex. The more car-like crossover is everything the old Explorer wasn’t. They built it on a unibody platform with a more efficient multivalve V6 and a more road biased AWD system. They equipped it with luxury and connectivity, and with passenger and cargo space far exceeding anything the retired Explorer could ever match. Well, it seems replacing an icon is tough work (Go ask the Five Hundred). Unfortunately, Flex really didn’t click with the customer. Buyers didn’t want something new and different, they just wanted an Explorer with better fuel efficiency.
In the summer of 2010, FoMoCo finally gave the people what they wanted with the reinvented Explorer. Its more powerful, more comfortable and more efficient. It was promptly named North American Truck of the Year, and rightfully so. It takes everything that makes a Flex one of the best equipped vehicles in its class and removes the station wagon proportions and love it or hate it styling. Sales figures are a resounding success with numbers reaching above 130K for the first time in nearly a dog’s age. This puts Explorer in position to be the savior of Fords full size vehicle platform with monthly sales that are double those of all four of its platform mates… combined. Mission accomplished, indeed.
[one_third]”Just feeding Popeye some spinach isn’t really enough these days to take on Brutus, so some structural enhancements were made to the platform first.”[/one_third]
So, how do you top the successful reboot of a franchise like the Explorer? Ford hopes to do it with the application of horsepower to the Explorer Sport trim level. Just feeding Popeye some spinach isn’t really enough these days to take on Brutus, so some structural enhancements were made to the platform first. Thickening the firewall where it transitions to the center tunnel and floorpan, adding other structural enhancements in the mounting of the rear suspension and Explorer specific front strut braces stiffen up the chassis to handle the torque increase. They needed to do it, the addition of 95 ft-lbs is quite the increase.
Who here hasn’t already read volumes about the 3.5L Ecoboost V6? I don’t see any hands, so I’ll keep it simple. Twin Turbos. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Well, I suppose a single turbo would have been simpler, it just wouldn’t have been as effective. One big turbo can’t spool up as fast as two small ones, and its that linear, nearly lag free application of power that makes the EcoBoost powered Explorer Sport more fun than a box full of puppies in a kindergarten class. 365 horsepower and 350 ft-lbs of torque can have that effect.
I got to put about a hundred miles on the Explorer Sport on a trip north of NYC that encompassed stop-and-go traffic, highway cruising and some back road runs that crisscrossed the Connecticut Turnpike. Including the stop for lunch, I had it for about three hours. First impressions are that the Explorer Sport is setup much differently from its sisters. In their own reviews, Mike and Kumar felt that the SHO and MKS were a bit bouncy and imprecise, I think the tuning of the Explorer Sport seems to have found a sweet spot that will let you enjoy the ride and the performance. Its not so stiffly sprung that mildly rough roads will initiate an appointment with your chiropractor, though I would actively avoid potholes for the sake of comfort, the 20 inch alloys, and the 255/50 all season tires. Back road maneuverability isn’t difficult, either. Explorer Sport’s wheelbase is the same as Taurus at 112+ inches, but it gains a couple extra inches in track width that makes it a bit easier for the AdvanceTrac suspension (with Roll Stability Control and Corner Control) to offset the physics of roughly 4800 lbs of truck trying to change direction at speed. It does that despite the extra ten inches of height.
To differentiate the appearance of the Sport from the next lower level Limited package, the grille gets a chain link looking mesh behind its three bars and a blacked out appearance in place of anything that was bright and shiny or body colored along with the Sport specific alloy wheels in the same size.
The Explorer Sport starts at just over 40 large, but if you color in every box on the option list you’re gonna hit the bricks weighing a bit over 52 grand lighter. If you can exercise some self control you’ll be able to find a nicely equipped package for around $46,000. That includes all the amenities from the standard equipment 400A and optional 402A packages you’ll ever need to have a multitasking speed demon, plus a trailer tow package rated up to 5000 lbs, plus a rear view camera with hitch assist so you don’t have to run a chinese fire drill every time you want to hook up the trailer. That 5000 lbs is about what an open trailer with a street/strip Fox body Mustang, a tool filled top box, an extra set of slicks and a five gallon jug of race fuel weighs in at. Then after you break a passenger side axle, which is inevitable in a Fox body Mustang on the dragstrip, you can run the Explorer and not feel embarrassed.
Remember my “hold your breath” game from the first paragraph? If you don’t want to try that, here’s a different one for you. Go to Ford’s website, and try to build a Limited that matches the Sport, option for option. You can get pretty close. You’ll find that the Limited will cost about two grand more than the equivalent Sport. Two grand, and that’s without having a twin turbocharged V6 under the hood.
At the risk of sounding like a Ford sales associate, unless you’ve suffered some kind of childhood trauma that caused you to have a deep seated fear of horses, why wouldn’t you buy a Sport? Just the thought makes me feel giddy, which seems completely appropriate since “giddy” is the first part of “giddy-up”.
Photo Credit: Ford