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First Drive: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

Big crossover conquers the only jungle that really matters.

by on Nov.30, 2012

The Ford Explorer Sport is the perfect vehicle for conquering the concrete jungle.

The Ford Explorer Sport is the perfect vehicle for conquering the concrete jungle.

It’s a jungle out there and you need a vehicle that can handle it. Pitted trails, obstacles to avoid, narrow spots to fit through.

Yep, the parking lot can be a real test for any vehicle … Oh, you thought this was about the REAL jungle? As in vines, mud holes and “roads” that are more like deer trails? Ha, while SUVs may purport to go there, virtually everyone knows that the only time the large majority of these beasts ever leave the road is to enter the parking lot at the mall.

So it is with that in mind that we put Ford’s new Explorer Sport to the test. In fact, we subjected Ford’s biggest crossover – sorry, Ford may want you to view this as a sport utility vehicle, but it’s based on the same platform as a Ford Taurus – to the most grueling test possible: Black Friday shopping.

Back from the Jungle!

The test actually began with what became a reconnaissance mission on Thanksgiving Eve Wednesday night – go ahead, call us geeks – to Carson’s where we were able to scout locations for bounty which would become critical Thursday night/Friday morning.

As is typical these days, Black Friday actually begins Thursday night as families are wrapping up their Thanksgiving Day celebrations. So having a sure-footed CUV with a commanding driving position becomes important in the battle to avoid other motorists in their tryptophan-induced stupors.

There were presents to buy, deals to be had and mobs of people to be crushed by. Our Black Friday escapade was on.

The Sport gets the twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V-6 and standard all-wheel drive.

10:10 p.m.

We roll into Wal-Mart in search of a 32-inch flat-screen TV. We stand in a line that wraps through two aisles and get a card that will allow us to pay for the TV, which is supposed to show up before Santa slides down the chimney on the Big Day. We’re nearly run over by a 5-foot-2 woman pushing a cart overflowing with televisions, blue-ray players and a laptop computer.

Since there was no actual TV left for us to purchase, we’d have to wait to test the Explorer’s cargo-carrying capacity. But we did appreciate the extra horsepower provided by the Sport’s 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V-6.

The Sport's ride is exceptionally smooth.

10:45 p.m.

We stumble into an open but nearly deserted Meijer to waste time waiting for Carson’s to open.

11:38 p.m.

We get in line at Carson’s, only to realize that we’re actually in line for Dunham’s Sporting Goods. Wow, what a strange mix: ladies toting Coach bags and wearing coats with faux fur trim mingling with camo-wearing guys eager to get the latest from Mossy Oak. Yikes.

Once inside Carson’s, our early reconnaissance pays off as we’re able to walk directly to the two primary prizes: a heated mattress pad and a comfy-looking folding chair. A-ha! We get the first ones of each and we’re done so quickly that we’re the first ones in line at checkout. This Black Friday thing is a snap. We even had time to check mingle with the hunters over at the sporting goods store.

The Explorer Sport's standard leather chairs are very comfortable.

Waiting outside in the car, we appreciate the comfy heated seats. We need the comfort as the next stop is the outlet mall where we bounce from store to store with virtually nothing to show for the effort.

Like many other automakers, Ford remade its once hot-selling body-on-frame sport ute into a crossoverish beast based on car bones. In the process, buyers gained interior space, better handling and better fuel economy and gave up a bit of towing capacity but little else.

Ford also revamped the all-wheel-drive system, ditching the 4×4 lock setting because most Explorer owners admitted they didn’t know what it did. Instead, AWD Explorers get the Terrain Management System that the driver can switch between normal, sand, gravel/mud and snow. It also has a descent control mode.

MyFordTouch has its critics, but it still is backed up by the world's best voice-recognition system.

For the purposes of our shopping excursion, the Explorer works particularly well. There’s room for six (seven with the standard middle-row bench) or cargo space if that’s what’s required. The third-row seats tumble easily into a well in back, just like today’s minivans, and the middle row seat backs fold down easily as well. One issue with those middle-row seats – there’s no inboard armrest which makes getting to the third row easier, but might prove tiresome for the occupants of those seats.

MyFordTouch makes communication with other shoppers a piece of cake and the voice-activated navigation means you won’t have trouble finding the local Bed, Bath and Beyond.

And an extra 75 horsepower is always appreciated. Just the thing to race in front of other shoppers angling for the last iPod at Target. EcoBoost seems like a strange name for this beast of an engine, at least when fitted in the Explorer. In an F-150, the EcoBoost offers superior fuel mileage AND the highest tow rating of any of the four engines offered in the full-size truck, but the Explorer Sport is still rated to tow 5,000 pounds, same as with the regular V-6.

In the Explorer, EcoBoost is really there just so drivers can accelerate more quickly. And quicker, the Sport is. It does have a tendency to uncomfortably lighten the front wheels and steering under hard acceleration, particularly with the wheel turned even slightly.

It also has a satisfying rumble at lower rpm. While it will never make up for rumble of the old Explorer’s 4.6-liter V-8, it’s still a decent soundtrack.

The Sport rides exceptionally well. Ford stiffened up the chassis and tightened the handling, but you’d never know it from the ride. The Sport also features 20-inch painted wheels, a unique grille and contrasting stitching inside, plus unique optional interior colors.

The Sport also gets paddle shifters for the slick six-speed automatic transmission.

So what’s not to like? Well, MyFordTouch still has its critics. The up-level version with its piano-black center stack has virtual buttons that still don’t offer haptic feedback. And while Ford’s Sync is the best voice-recognition system on market, it still has difficulty understanding certain commands.

And despite EPA fuel mileage figures that are similar to Explorers with the regular V-6 – 16 city, 22 highway, compared to 17/23 for an AWD regular V-6 – we averaged just over 16 mpg on mostly rural two-lanes and a little in-town driving.

Lastly, like the rest of the Ford’s big vehicles that are built on this platform – Taurus, Flex and Lincoln MKS and MKT – the Sport has an annoying carpeted lump at the leading front seats and the front footwells are tight for such a big vehicle.

Explorer Sport pricing opens at $41,695, a $12,560 premium over the base Explorer. All-wheel drive and the twin-turbo motor are standard, but the Sport trim level also adds standard leather and other goodies such as a body-color rear spoiler. On the test vehicle, an option package including navigation, blind-spot monitoring, rear inflatable seatbelts, power liftgate, power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, remote start along with a bunch of other stuff adds $4,130. Ruby Red Metallic paint is $395, second-row dual bucket seats ($750) and trailer tow package ($570) brings the sticker to $47,390.

If you’re hoping to conquer the jungle – the concrete one, that is – the Explorer Sport could be a great ally.

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