The Explorer Sport doesn’t drive so much as swagger. Even before you see it, you can almost sense the big Ford roll up beside you at a stoplight. Such is its presence. And while it looked sleek enough when it launched, this facelifted edition is a leap up in looks and positioning.
It certainly helps that the Explorer Sport bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain upscale British SUV brand. Who says only the Chinese can copy well? Only in this case, Ford’s homage is legitimate, as the former owner of Land Rover.
The Sport adds ’tude here, with blacked-out trim including the grille, mirrors, door handles, rear garnish, and even the front ‘Explorer’ badge.
Like The Rock swinging a machine gun under his arm, the Explorer Sport has the hardware to back up its bluster. Under the hood is the familiar Ford 3.5-liter V6. This one is boosted by twin-turbos, upping the power to 365hp. The V6 doles out smooth torque off the line, letting its displacement do the work. Then when the boost comes on--oh my lord. The big SUV is pulled forward with turbine-like thrust.
The on-boost acceleration is thrilling, but also dampened by the car’s mass. The delivery and timing of the thrust make this more of a highway warrior than a backroad bruiser. Long stretches of smooth, straight road are where the Explorer Sport does it best. Overtaking and ramping up to highway speed are effortless. All this is accompanied by a hungry growl whenever the engine hits its stride.
Ford had us at ‘twin-turbo,’ but fortunately, it didn’t stop there. The similarities to British automotive royalty continue inside. The cabin features upscale materials. The touchscreen interface is top notch. Then there are motorized controls for things that move. Which ones? Practically all of them: front seats, rear seats, rear door.
A unique feature is the power-adjustable pedals. The steering wheel, too, tilts and telescopes using motors. And all settings can be locked in memory, or even associated with a particular key. Every amenity is packed into the Ford. The rear seat folds and tucks into the floor at the touch of a button, and the rear hatch can automatically open with a wave of your foot.
The Explorer Sport can play school transport while switching to weekend warrior for a quick getaway from the city. The low-profile, highway-oriented tires may seem to limit this SUV to the pavement, but it is equipped with the sophisticated Terrain Management System. The lack of a low-range transfer case would limit its off-road abilities, but it can tackle the slippery driveway of a country estate with ease. All while keeping the occupants in a cocoon of sporty luxury.
SPECS: FORD EXPLORER 3.5L V6 SPORT AWD ECOBOOST
Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC V6
Power: 365hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque: 475Nm @ 3,500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
UP NEXT: Honda Pilot
Where the Explorer Sport wears its performance on its hard shell, the Pilot is more low-key--docile and seemingly harmless, but capable of kicking ass when provoked. Think Liam Neeson, with a katana tucked behind his back. That killer engine is a 3.5-liter V6, matching the Explorer Sport in displacement. An elegant weapon from a more civilized age, the Honda does away with turbos. Instead, it uses the VTEC variable valve timing and lift system to produce sufficient low-end thrust and to run smoothly till redline.
Let’s take a closer look at this animal. The Pilot is a handsome ride, but it lacks distinctiveness. It can easily disappear in a mall parking lot, mistaken for a CR-V. Until you park it beside a CR-V and see how it dwarfs the compact SUV.
What is excellent, without any ifs or buts, is the Pilot’s interior. What a space to be in. It’s expansive, it’s comfortable, and it’s intelligently done. Our living rooms should be as good.
First of all are the seats. The front perches are large and comfortable, the leather buckets giving the right support for long stretches of driving. They are power-operated and have a memory feature. The steering wheel’s tilt and telescopic function makes do with manual adjustment. The gearshift has been tucked to the side. This frees up space at the center console, which can now swallow a 12-inch laptop or tablet. A small tray acts as a catch-all for small objects, and slides out of the way when not needed. Clever, that.
Cleverness is what the Pilot is all about. The middle seat tilts and slides forward with the soft push of a button. An electric mechanism releases the seat to allow easier access to the third row. The rear seat also split-folds for greater cargo space. That rear seat is suitable for adults--and three of them across, making the Pilot an eight-seater versus most SUVs' seven.
The Pilot is a cinch to drive in the city, thanks to excellent visibility and large side view mirrors. The turning radius is tight, making it feel like a giant version of the Honda Jazz. But no Jazz delivers thrust like this, at least after some fiddling. The V6 is as smooth as Tsukiji sashimi, but with the Honda engine programmed for efficiency above all else, we’re soon looking for the Sport mode. Alas, there is none. Nor are there paddle shifters. Then we found it, disguised as the Econ button.
In this case, the Econ button acted as a reverse Sport mode. With Econ on, the Pilot acted like Liam Neeson in father mode, engine shifting early and responding only mutely to prods on the accelerator. Push Econ off, and the Pilot goes into full Taken or Ra’s al Ghul mode, eager to lunge forward. The big Honda SUV finally delivers driving pleasure, all while hauling the family along for the ride.
SPECS: HONDA PILOT 3.5L V6 EX-L AWD
Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC V6
Power: 280hp @ 6,200rpm
Torque: 353Nm @ 5,000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
UP NEXT: The Verdict
At first, this would seem to be a lopsided battle in favor of the Explorer Sport. It has more horses and torque, at 365hp versus 280hp and 475Nm to 353Nm, respectively. The Pilot is no slouch, and once you turn off the Econ mode, it feels like a properly responsive premium SUV. But with its power, the Explorer is capable of playing at a higher level.
Looks are, of course, a matter of taste, but the Explorer would likely win over 99% of the population. The Pilot is a handsome vehicle, to be sure, but the Explorer just has that mean yet elegant appearance, making it look like it was worth twice its price.
Speaking about price, the Explorer likewise has a massive advantage over the Pilot. The Explorer starts at a reasonable P2.87 million, undercutting the Pilot by P510,000. There’s also the matter of the four-cylinder Explorer variant, which nearly matches the Pilot in power (270hp) and even surpasses it in torque (408Nm). If we were to consider that Explorer, which is also very well equipped, the price difference is P900,000.
There’s only one chance for the Pilot to win, and that’s if you’re considering these primarily as family vehicles. Only here are the tables turned. The Explorer Sport certainly has the space and the entertainment features. But Honda just excels at making the Pilot feel like a living room on wheels. If money is no object and comfort is paramount, the Pilot makes its case as an excellent all-weather alternative to a minivan. Parents will swoon at its conversation mirror, the push-button entry for the third row, and that wide backseat, more than at the Explorer’s twin-turbo V6. That’s what middle age and having a family does to you. Everyone else can head straight for the Explorer Sport.
Note: This article first appeared in Top Gear Philippines' September 2016 issue.