Though sport sedans and trucks have been mainstays in the American auto industry for more than a quarter-century, performance-oriented SUVs are still a relatively new phenomenon. While domestic automakers jaunt into less-trodden territory may seem risky, the growth of the segment appears to have nowhere to go but up. In today’s market, the popularity of the hot SUV is unparalleled and the desire for performance has never been greater.
The segment’s history contains only a small number of models, but its roots date back to 1992 when the GMC Typhoon was released as a modified version of the pedestrian Jimmy. With all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 4.3-liter V6 engine producing 280 horsepower, the Typhoon was the first recognized hot-rod SUV made by an American manufacturer. To the dismay of Corvette owners, the Typhoon was even faster than GM’s halo performance car.
The Chevy TrailBlazer SS made from 2006 to 2009 followed suit with its 395 horsepower LS2 V8 engine and optional two- or four-wheel drive. In either configuration, the near 5,000-pound tank performed exceptionally well, with agile handling and 13-second quarter mile times a reality for the first time in an SUV.
In the U.S., the SRT Jeep Grand Cherokee leads the charge and offers true supercar levels of performance with its 475 horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi engine. The rest of the field is comprised mainly of European offerings like the BMW X5 M, Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, and supercharged Range Rover Sport SVR. But with sticker prices in another stratosphere, you better be prepared to mortgage your house. You get what you pay for though, as all three are in another league in regards to luxury and performance.
Luckily, there’s another option in the domestic SUV market that offers 75% of the performance of a SRT Grand Cherokee for nearly $21,500 less than its $64,895 starting MSRP. For the first time since the TrailBlazer SS was discontinued in 2009, the SRT finally has a worthy domestic challenger — only this time the Chevrolet bowtie is nowhere to be found.
Enter the refreshed 2016 Ford Explorer Sport. Though it may not have the performance credibility of the more established SUVs, the Explorer Sport has gradually made a name for itself in the segment after its introduction in 2013. No, it doesn’t have the SRT’s snarl at wide-open throttle or thunderous exhaust note that will steal your heart. But with sub-six second zero to 60 sprints and mid 14-second quarter mile times, that doesn’t make its 365-horsepower twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 engine any less exhilarating.
The Explorer’s 350 pound-feet of torque is channeled through Ford’s Intelligent 4WD system that continually adjusts to eliminate wheel-spin. Believe it or not, that will come in handy during neck-snapping stoplight launches against unsuspecting pony cars. You didn’t hear that from me, though.
Its impressive performance aside, the refreshed Explorer Sport’s styling is arguably on par with its European competitors. Its refreshed front fascia is far more aggressive than the outgoing model and almost enables the Explorer to pass for a Range Rover at first glance. That’s high praise for a model with a starting MSRP of $43,500. With ambient lighting, ventilated massaging seats, and power folding third row seating, it certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to luxury amenities either.
Though it performs comparably to many of its more expensive competitors and even has the aggressive styling to match, the Explorer Sport is often overlooked due to its lack of brand recognition. You’re probably not going to wow your friends when they find out you drive a Ford Explorer as opposed to a more-prestigious BMW X5. But if impressing others isn’t high on your list of priorities, the Explorer Sport is undeniably the best value in the performance SUV segment today.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.