Americans have a history of shoehorning big engines in seemingly anything they can get their hands on.
It’s been a simple enough formula, but there have only ever been a clutch of memorable SUVs from across the pond to get the big gun treatment. Remember the GMC Typhoon? The modified version of the Jimmy had a 280bhp 4.3-litre V6, which, back in 1992, made it faster than the C4 Corvette. There was a Trailblazer SS in 2006 with a tyre-destroying 395bhp LS2 V8, and currently it’s the SRT Grand Jeep Cherokee that offers supercar-like power that the whole family can enjoy, what with its massive 6.4-litre Hemi V8 producing 475bhp. Europe has a bunch of high-powered family haulers, but they all leave a rather big void in your wallet, which is where the 2016 Explorer Sport comes into the fray. And yep, the boys at Ford have stuck their strongest available turbo motor in it.
The refreshed, performance-oriented Sport, first launched in 2013, gets the 3.5-litre Ecoboost V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission as standard, not to mention all-wheel drive and a stiffer suspension. The results are so good that Carroll will be looking down on it from car heaven with a smile. It’s always felt like a big car on the move, but the revised suspension has made a huge difference as it feels tighter and sharper now — even if you think it’ll be cumbersome. However, the dash and windshield being so far ahead of the steering wheel don’t make for a great first impression. It still feels massive on the road but the improvement in its dynamics are there for all to see.
The Sport’s electric-assist steering is well-tuned and light. Turn-in for a big SUV is pretty impressive and it has clearly benefitted from the suspension upgrade. Ford retuned the chassis to help differentiate the driving experiences offered by the XLT models, and opted for MacPherson construction (with an isolated subframe and 32mm stabiliser bar in front) and an independent multilink rear set-up with a 22mm stabiliser bar along with unique front and rear springs, struts, and rear dampers.
It handles very well but naturally, still has a bit of body roll to contend with. However, the burst of acceleration the Ecoboost offers, along with a muscle car-like soundtrack, will sure make you smile. No, you shouldn’t go hunting for Range Rover SVRs, certainly not when the V6 only has 365bhp compared to the Rangey’s 543bhp, and it isn’t as exhilarating as the SRT, but the new-found potency does allow effortless overtaking and merging and is borderline thrilling.
The 474Nm of torque is fed through Ford’s intelligent AWD system, which continually adjusts to eliminate wheelspin, but from a standstill it pulls away a bit abruptly. But you soon grow used to feeding in the power gently and it becomes an easy car to live with given its generous proportions. The transmission can be a tad slow to kick down when you leave it to its own devices, but stick it in Sport and this issue is eliminated with far sharper gear changes.
This three-row SUV sure looks the part. Rugged is the word that describes it best, with a revised front fascia giving it an aggressive demeanour. It may not be able to pass that Range Rover in a drag, but at first sight, it could pass for one. The blacked-out trim pieces, 20in aluminium wheels, and a new rear spoiler give the Sport a sporty look.
The interior is arguably more impressive than the exterior and feels more luxurious than before. The updates include a higher-mounted, wrapped and stitched door armrest, real buttons to replace touch-sense ones on the infotainment system (but this makes the centre console look cluttered — some functions still go through the touchscreen, such as changing the radio source and the rear climate control) and more refined detailing throughout.
However, outward visibility isn’t its strongest point. The A-pillars are ever so chunky, but since the industry is driven by legislation, there’s a reason for their trunk-like girth; they’re hiding air bags in there. With technology such as front and rear sensing systems, a reversing camera and blind-spot warning, help with manoeuvrability is at hand in busy town centres or tight parking spots.
There’s plenty of leg- and headroom in the first and second rows, but the third row would be best for kids, as knee and foot room aren’t the best. But that last row has a PowerFold feature, meaning all it takes is a push of a button to drop the two chairs, and if you fold over the second row too, you get an incredible 2,314 litres of space. With all the seats in place, it still offers a very decent 595 litres. Some of the safety equipment includes trailer sway control, front seat side airbags, side curtain airbags, and a front passenger knee airbag. It’s worth noting that last year, the Explorer earned a five-star rating (out of five) for overall crash protection.
The Explorer has been around for 25 years and halfway through its fifth-generation life cycle, it’s grown into a rather refined and practical SUV. This Sport variant sees to that refinement and practicality, and throws in far better performance for those who desire more grunt from their family hauler for less outlay than its European counterparts. Ford has stuck a potent motor in there and if that sounds rudimentary at best, it’s often been proven that the simplest things can leave a lasting impression.