PACIFIC CITY, Ore. -- The steep slope on a rough trace cut across Oregon's rugged Coast Ranges presents a challenge for a four-wheeling test drive through tall timber in a new Sport trim edition of Ford's square-corner Explorer crossover utility vehicle.
Loose dirt and chat on the trail often causes even nubby tires like Explorer Sport's 20-inch P255/50R20 rollers to slip and skid on a steep descent, which in turn may propel the vehicle faster than prudent to maintain steady control for safe passage down the grade.
No way that runaway momentum will occur with the new Explorer Sport, however, because it stocks sophisticated electronic controls linked to the all-wheel-drive (AWD) system as well as the anti-lock brakes (ABS) and Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic skid control (ESC) device with traction control and roll stability control (RSC), which measures vehicle motion on both the yaw and roll axes.
And a new electronic safety device aboard is dubbed Curve Control -- it can detect when the driver runs too fast into a turn, then automatically deploy the brakes to slow and stabilize the wagon.
But there's more: Explorer Sport totes a serious power package. It incorporates a unique direct-injection and twin-turbocharged V6 -- promising the fuel economy of a V6 but the power and torque of a big V8 -- labeled by Ford as the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6.
The twin-cam aluminum twin-turbo engine with direct-injection and VVT (variable valve timing) delivers 350 hp at 5500 rpm and torque of 350 lb-ft spread over a broad band from 1500 rpm to 5000 rpm.
For those who count, the power numbers work out to 100 horsepower per liter.
The twin-turbo-six ties to a six-speed electronic automatic SelectShift transaxle with steering-wheel paddle shifters and standard AWD traction with Ford's TMS (Terrain Management System).
TMS eliminates a traditional 4WD transfer case and the familiar 4-Hi/4-Lo/4-Auto settings in favor of driver-selectable settings that automatically tune various vehicle dynamic systems to the type of terrain being covered.
From a rotary knob mounted on the center console, the driver selects from four terrain settings -- one for pavement cruising with about 90 percent of the engine's torque sent to the front wheels, another for slick surfaces like snow and gravel with the system permitting less wheelspin and faster transmission upshifts, and two different off-road situations -- mud and sand.
With the sand mode, you get more throttle and less traction control so the wheels can spin more and progress forward. With the mud mode, you get more torque and less stability control so tires can plow through the goo.
Once a mode is chosen, the TMS goes to work with shift-on-the-fly quickness and total automation. The device also includes Hill Descent Control (HDC) which automatically adds engine braking when steering down a steep slope.
Explorer in the new Sport trim looks too cool.
It's marked by the boxy profile with a high beltline and the roof seemingly floating above a ring of dark privacy glass. The blunt face is a smooth sweep with corner clusters of clear-lens headlamps and a unique grille with three horizontal bars painted high-gloss Ebony to contrast against low-gloss Sterling Gray mesh inserts.
Flanks house the huge 20-inch black-and-silver painted aluminum wheels as emphasized by flared wheel arches. Doors run deep to make cabin entry and exit easy and seats are elevated so all riders sit erect and in a high-hiked position for comfort and keen visibility.
At the tail the dark window rap works because rear roof pillars are tinted in black. There's a spoiler on the top edge of the big liftgate and large LED taillamp clusters dot the rear corners as two oval tailpipes protrude below the thick black fascia.
Explorer Sport carries independent suspension components -- a short-and-long-arm (SLA) front suspension with a thick 32-mm stabilizer bar and upgraded strut tower support, and at the rear a multi-link arrangement with coil-over-shocks and 22-mm stabilizer bar -- which work in concert to deliver incredibly smooth ride characteristics for passengers.
The passenger compartment is large with total volume of 151.7 cubic feet and 80.7 cubic feet of flat-floored stow space stretching from front-row seatbacks to the tail-side liftgate. Three rows of seats are standard and legroom for riders is good -- 39.8 inches for second-row seats and 33.2 inches for a third-row split bench.
Contrasting stitching applies to seats in Sport trim and two-tone Charcoal Black and Sienna leather-faced seats are available.
The list of standard equipment for Explorer Sport includes twin-zone automatic climate controls, heated power front seats, a backup camera, premium audio system with 12 speakers and the latest versions of MyFord Touch and the Microsoft-powered Sync system with Wi-Fi capability and voice-activated control over in-car phones, media players and USB storage devices.
Optional gear ranges from a twin-pane sunroof to power-adjustable pedals, a power-motivated liftgate, power-folding exterior mirrors, a keyless entry device with push-button start, 110-volt electrical outlet and Class III towing kit.
Ford hones MSRP figures for the new 2013 Explorer Sport from a base point of $40,720.