Quick Drive: Lost In Malibu With The 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

By Blake Z. Rong | October 04, 2012
Malibu Canyon Road was closed. The only way back to the Pacific Coast Highway was a strangled line of cars huddled embarrassingly along the side of the cliff and past the tunnel, their brake lights glowing, their drivers waiting. “Six squad cars,” said the voice on the other line, stuck even further in that snaking, swaddled mass, “and two motorcycles just passed by us. We’re turning around.” Already ahead of you there, pal. The closest way back to PCH would be to double back up Malibu to Piuma Road, into Las Flores Canyon—more than 10 miles of nauseating hairpin uphills, uneven, jostling corners, and meandering turns devoid of guard rails to prevent the foolish from plunging 300 feet to the canyon floor. The Ford man took one look at the navigation system, and the squiggly line, and balked. “I was just settling in from this morning,” he sighed, “and now I’m gonna hafta tough it out again.” If there’s any merit to hustling a two-ton, three-row crossover across one of California’s most dramatic roads, then the Ford Explorer Sport is, to say the least, not the most foolhardy choice out there. Ford imbued the Explorer with the same 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged Ecoboost V-6 from the Taurus SHO, and somehow resisted labeling it either the Explorer SHO, or the SVT Explorer. Torque-vectoring four-wheel drive and sport-tuned shock absorbers keep the Sport on the road, while blacked-out exterior bits and contrasting seat stitching make it worth keeping around. What precious available chrome is blacked out, from the grille to the strip across the tailgate, above two polished exhaust tips. The wheels are two-tone black and polished silver, beautifully machined pieces with SPORT emblazoned sneakily on one of the spokes. Proving true to founder Henry's adage is how you can have the interior in any color, as long as it's black—or, you can get contrasting sienna seats with leather cutouts reminiscent of a New England professor's jacket elbow patches. For the Ford Explorer's naysayers, Ford is using a strategy that rarely fails to work: bribing them with horsepower. Finally, the Explorer gets the passing power and acceleration it’s needed all along. But even then, the result is sport with a lowercase s. The 365-horsepower V-6 imparts a headrest-tapping sense of acceleration. The touchy throttle takes a while to get used to, but the Sport handles corners with dignity, never inadvertently squealing its 20-inch Continental ContiSport high-performance tires. Ford engineers improved the Explorer’s low-speed body control, lowering the front end by 10 mm and giving it a brace under the hood to further stiffen the chassis. The result is a constant rumble from the tiniest of freeway aberrations, but no bounciness, and little body roll. And the brakes--larger all around--slowed our descent without drama or fade. Other than the drivetrain and stiffer suspension, the Explorer Sport is pretty much the same. While one gripe--the lazy acceleration--has been fixed, the niggles Keith Buglewicz detailed extensively with the Ford Explorer still exist, including the same awkward driving position and visibility-annihilating pillars. On the other hand, the much-improved MyFord Touch with SYNC, Sony, and a touch panel is far easier to read than the same system in the Ford Fusion. Amazing how a few circles make a difference. With great power, comes great figures. The 2013 Ford Explorer Sport starts at $40,720, positioned alongside the luxurious Limited, and almost exactly $10,000 over the cost of a base Explorer with a 2.0-liter Ecoboost engine and 240 horsepower. Ten grand for 125 horsepower brings the Explorer into uncharted market segments, maybe even invalidating the existence of Lincoln in one fell swoop.
We scampered across the achingly scenic twists of Piuma, clutching various bits of interior trim--Ford neglected to install “Jesus handles,” as the Ford guy put it, over the windows--and trying hard not to lose our respective lunches from the Chart House in Malibu. Piuma was empty as usual, except for masochistic bicyclists: “Who the hell would do that to themselves?” we agreed. I won’t sit here and tell you what a lithe, agile butterfly the Explorer Sport is. That would be, as former Motor Trend editor-in-chief Angus Mackenzie put it, “intellectually dishonest.” Instead, the Sport is akin to a rhinoceros--or your large animal of choice, somewhere south of an elephant--that’s been hitting the gym: It can run faster, swing higher, punch above its weight class, but in the end it’s still a rhinoceros. We did admire its composure the narrower and nausea-inducing the road got, and eventually at the corner of Hume and Ramblo Pacifica, where we had taken a wrong turn into the hilly, tight-knit neighborhood that all those displaced Topanga hippies moved to when their stock portfolios paid off. Nothing but trash cans, blind, leafy corners, and flatbed trucks. Driving anything larger than our Explorer in those tight residential corners will require permits. I tapped at the navigation system nervously. The Ford rep had a look on his face resembling that of a first-time human cannonball. “Bet you’re gonna look forward to those straight Michigan roads, huh?” I said. “This is a one-lane road? Jesus.” We never found out what caused that jam. But we finally pulled into the Chart House parking lot sometime after chief program engineer Bill Gubing, who had somehow scraped past the traffic and beaten us down the same path. No one else had made it down. We assumed they were still there. “I’m gonna kiss the ground after that,” said our stalwart backseat rider, who did, then clamped a meaty hand around the shoulder of my colleague, our driver. “This guy took care of us!” Or was it the Explorer--a strange beast, destined to be rare--that took care of us? I doubt we would have gone through the canyons with as much dignity in a base Explorer. Grown ups who want to be the “cool dad” won’t recapture their receding hairlines with the Explorer Sport. But the family haulers who vacation in some desolate, windy summer houses could do worse than take a look at the smooth, composed Ford Explorer Sport. Your kids’ stomachs, and ours, will thank you.