In most cases, the term "sport utility vehicle" ranks as one of the most improperly used appellations ever devised, especially the "sport" part. But some members of this big-and-tall category, like the 2013 Ford Explorer Sport, actually get it right.
If you equate the word sport with a muscular demeanor, this unique Explorer trim level is right up your alley, or off-road path. Specialized body bits such as a darkened mesh-style grille combine with a similarly shaded lower air intake/spoiler to produce a somewhat menacing presence.
Completing the look is a set of stylish 20-inch wheels wrapped in performance tires that leave a nine-inch-wide footprint on the road. The combination at least gives the Explorer Sport the appearance of being light on its feet.
Keeping it all well planted on the road involves strengthening the Explorer's chassis, adding stiffer springs and shocks and installing a brace inside the engine compartment connecting the front strut towers. The brakes are bigger and the electric power steering has been retuned to be more direct.
In creating this performance-focused off-roader, Ford could have taken Jeep's approach with the Grand Cherokee SRT and its giant-killing 6.4-liter V8 that generates 470-horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque. After all, Ford installs similar big-muscle firepower in its Mustang Shelby GT500, which would have made quite the authoritative statement in an Explorer.
Instead, you'll find the comparatively humble 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged "Ecoboost" V6, which is also found in the SHO Taurus and Ford F-150 pickup.
The Explorer Sport is the only Explorer to get this engine, which is matched to a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shift controls. The package spits out 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.
Although quick enough to 60 mph (in the low-six-second range, claims Ford), the Explorer Sport is no match for the 2014 Jeep SRT, which rips to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. And in the towing department, the SRT's 7,200-pound rating trumps the Sport's 5,000-pound capacity. However, the 4,900-pound Sport's base price of $41,500 is about $22,500 less than the 5,200-pound SRT's $64,000 total. As well, the Explorer Sport's 16/22 mpg (city/highway) fuel numbers are better than the SRT's 13/19 figures while offering seating for seven versus the Grand Cherokee's five.
Note that the less-expensive V8-powered Dodge Durango with its three-row seating more directly competes with the Explorer sport in overall space, but the Dodge simply can't keep up from stoplight to stoplight.
Like the SRT, the Explorer Sport includes standard four-wheel-drive. It operates in conjunction with Ford's Terrain Management System that has been specifically calibrated to suit the Sport's needs. Included are specific power and torque settings for sand, snow and mud, along with runaway-preventing hill-descent control.
It's finished off with a premium-attired interior that in includes leather-trimmed seats with contrasting inserts. The fronts are power-adjustable and heated. Also standard is a rearview camera, 12-speaker Sony audio system and MyFord Touch connectivity for the audio, communication and climate controls.
Beyond that, the Sport can dressed be up with pace-setting adaptive cruise control, dual-panel moonroof, power liftgate, heated and cooled seats and a navigation system.
You can also opt for inflatable rear seatbelts that, along with the side-curtain airbags, are designed to provide additional cushioning support for those in back in the event of a collision.
Keep in mind that dramatically upping the Sport's content level pushes it closer to the Jeep SRT's base price.
Ultimately, the Explorer Sport does live up to its handle, but it's far from an out-and-out power-is-the-object, go-anywhere wagon. In that regard, it offers a fair balance of lively performance, passenger comfort and cargo capacity, at a price that's within reach of eager "Sport" utility vehicle patrons.
What you should know: 2013 Ford Explorer Sport
Type: Four-door, four-wheel-drive wagon
Engine (hp): 3.5-liter DOHC V6, twin-turbocharged (365)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Market position: High-performance, off-road-capable models such as the Explorer Sport are all about having fun in all terrain and weather conditions and can legitimately claim to inject "sport" into sport utility vehicle category.
Points: One of the better-looking tall wagons on the market; Twin-turbo V6 adds spunk without killing fuel economy; Three-row seating makes Sport practical as well as quick; Suspension/steering/brake upgrades should be standard Explorer fare; a tempting choice for buyers, especially considering its attractive entry price.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; rear inflatable seatbelt airbags (opt.)anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
Base price (incl. destination) $41,500
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT
Base price: $64,000
An SUV brute with 470 ground-pounding horsepower and lots of attitude.
Dodge Durango R/T AWD
Base price: $39,600
A milder-mannered V8-powered wagon with space for seven.
Land Rover LR4
Base price: $50,000
A British-accented sport-ute possessing a 375-horsepower V8.