When we first reviewed the current-generation Explorer, we had some fairly unflattering things to say about the all-new crossover. Given the resources it takes to make big changes to vehicle after the assembly line is up and running, we didn't expect this Explorer to improve much until another all-new model comes out. On that account, we were wrong.

In just two model years, Ford has done a surprising amount of work on the Explorer. As we found when reviewing a 2013 Explorer Limited a few months back, incremental changes have improved its noise/vibration/harshness characteristics, its ride and handling, and its technology -- namely MyFord Touch. While those changes were relatively small, Ford has made a big leap forward with the new 2013 Ford Explorer Sport.

Perhaps the biggest issue we had with the most recent Explorers was handling. They flopped about on their springs with excessive body roll, and exhibited poor turn-in and low limits. The Explorer Sport rectifies most of this. The steering ratio remains the same, but the assist has been reprogrammed and the components hard-mounted to the frame. As a result, the steering is still a little slower than I'd prefer on a sport model, but the power assist feels more natural and the added weight feels purposeful. There remains virtually no feedback in the steering wheel, which is disappointing but not unexpected in a midsize SUV.

The bigger story is what happens when you turn the wheel of the Explorer Sport. Body control is greatly improved, and it leans on its suspension without drama. There's no doubt it's still a heavy, heavy vehicle, but it no longer feels like the body's inertia is running the show. The wider ContiSportContact tires hold the road surprisingly well and offer just a small squeal of protest if pushed too hard. The default response surprisingly is mild understeer in real-world conditions. For as big and heavy as it feels going around a turn, the 2013 Explorer Sport hangs on better than you'd think.

Part of that is thanks to its retuned all-wheel-drive system. While there's no sport setting on the Terrain Management control, Ford says all the standard settings have been reprogrammed in an effort to sport-up its handling. The system can now send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels by locking all the differentials, up from about 35 to 40 percent on standard Explorers. Ford's Curve Control technology brakes the inside wheel to help pull you around a corner. I've felt Curve Control intervene before on the new Escape, but it was never noticeable on the Explorer Sport.

The real trick of it all is that the ride quality has improved as well. Most bumps are soaked up with a soft thump that is audible and felt in the chassis. The worst bumps on the road will cause a somewhat unrefined bang, but overall, it's a significant improvement. Likewise, noise/vibration/harshness is improved and the cabin is fairly isolated experience.

Also on the positive side of the ledger are the brakes. Ford has upped the diameter and width of the front rotors down below, and enlarged the brake booster and tweaked the pedal ratio up top. The result is a firmer, more linear pedal that didn't fade despite aggressive driving on a very twisty road. The pedal feel is also improved, though you need to give it more muscle than you initially expect, again to compensate for all that weight.

Ford's now-familiar 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 makes a stout 365 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque powering the Explorer Sport. It feels similar to the Flex EcoBoost. It's not a throw-you-back-in-the-seat kind of acceleration, but instead a strong surge. There's still a bit of lag off the line until the turbos spool, but once they're running, the engine's got plenty of power the rest of the way up the selectable digital tach. The isolation inside means it's one of those vehicles where you can look down and suddenly realize you're cruising well above the speed limit.

Ford has also reprogrammed the transmission in the Explorer Sport, giving it quicker shifts and letting it hold gears longer. More important, the transmission is more responsive to the driver, making downshifts with just a nudge at the throttle rather than you having to stomp on it as in other Explorers. There again is no Sport mode, but the transmission doesn't really need one -- the manual mode is quick to react to your inputs. It does have a bad habit though of cutting power noticeably during upshifts. As the new gear engages, power is fed back in slowly at first, then ramped up exponentially. The result is a slight hesitation in the acceleration. It also upshifts automatically at redline in manual mode, but fewer owners are likely to experience that. Overall, Ford says the Explorer Sport should be 2 seconds faster to 60 mph than a standard non-turbo V-6, putting it at about 6 seconds flat. It feels capable of it, even if it doesn't sound like it. The distant, muted growl of the engine and whisper of the turbos doesn't sound fast or powerful, but Ford says it was aiming for a more refined experience. It's hit that mark.

Then there are the little bits. The black exterior trim and wheels lend it a sporting edge. Inside, the stitched seats and steering wheel add some flair. MyFord Touch, which comes standard along with the premium stereo, has been updated with better graphics and we experienced none of the bugs and glitches that plagued it in the past. Some of the fonts are still too small and difficult to read at a glance, but it's an improvement nonetheless. It's a bit of a shame the Sport is only offered with the top trim level, but you won't be disappointed with the content you get for your money.

There are still some signs of pumpkin in this carriage, though. The front seats are still crammed up against the center console and the third row is still toddlers-only territory. The pillars and sills are still massive, and outward visibility remains challenged. These things, unfortunately, will likely be with the present Explorer until its next full redesign.

Still, it's hard to argue with a 6-second jaunt to 60 mph, 5000 pounds of towing, and an estimated 16 mph city and 22 mpg highway. That last figure, Ford says, makes the Explorer Sport the most efficient high-performance SUV out there. In fact, Ford says the Land Rover Range Rover HSE would be an apt comparison, rather than, say, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8. That's not as outlandish as it sounds, but it's still a bit optimistic. At $40,720 to start, though, it's a fair sight cheaper than the Rover, and you do still get those headlights.


Explorer Chief Engineer Bill Gubing answers your questions!

Before I climbed behind the wheel, I asked our followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram what they'd like to know about the Explorer Sport. A lot of you were interested in the key figures like price and fuel economy that would naturally be included in the story, but a few of you had other questions.

MT: Why didn't you black out the door handles along with the rest of the trim?

GUBING: "We had a big debate about that, but the design department won. They wanted to keep that little bit (of chrome)."

MT: Will the Explorer Sport be exported to Europe?

GUBING: "The Explorer Sport will be available in all the markets the Explorer is sold in. It's currently sold in 92 countries."

MT: Will there be a two-door Explorer Sport?

GUBING: "I just don't see a demand for it. Most customers in this class want the access four doors give you."

MT: Is it better than a TrailBlazer SS?

GUBING: "That's insulting, and you can quote me on that."

MT: OK, what about the Grand Cherokee SRT-8?

GUBING: "That's not what we were going for. We wanted to create a more refined, luxurious driving experience. The SRT-8 and the Durango R/T are more raw, and the SRT-8 is set up for track performance. We think it's more like a Range Rover HSE, and we get a lot of people stepping down from luxury SUVs into the Explorer."

2013 FORD EXPLORER SPORT
BASE PRICE $40,720
PRICE AS TESTED $47,915
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.5L/365-hp/350-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (mfr est) 4900 lb (mfr est)
WHEELBASE 112.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 197.1 x 90.2 x 71.0 in
0-60 MPH 6.0 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 16/22 mpg (est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 211/153 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.06 lb/mile (est)
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