When Ford asked me to test out the new 2013 Explorer Sport, I knew my home base of New York City couldn’t offer the driving conditions it was built for. Sure, I’d hit plenty of potholes and swerve to avoid taxis cutting across four lanes of Broadway, but an Explorer seems to long for more natural extremes, like snow, ice, and treacherous mountain passes. The Explorer Sport attempts to solidify its position in the crossover SUV category—compared to the pickup truck-based platforms of previous generations—and almost seemed to challenge me to exploit the multiple personalities it embraces, from fun and sporty, to practical and comfortable, to capable and confident. Challenge accepted.
In the middle of winter there are few things that consume my thoughts as much as finding the best snow possible, and for this assignment the destination was obvious. I called up a buddy and we packed our bags and hopped a flight to see what our neighbor to the north had to offer. Shortly after landing in Calgary, we rendezvoused with our ruby red metallic Ford Explorer Sport. At first glance, it’s clear that what separates the Sport from your standard Explorer is the use of black exterior trim accents where you’d otherwise find aluminum. A black front grill and rear lift gate badge, slightly smoked front and rear lights, and, most notably, the black and polished aluminum 20-inch sport wheels add a healthy touch of aggression.
We made quick use of the Explorer’s roomy interior. While not power-assisted, the second and third rows of seats folded down quickly and intuitively with the pull of a few levers, creating 80.7 cubic feet of space, enough for two large ski/board bags and two large rolling suitcases to lay comfortably, while still allowing full visibility out of the rear windshield.
Anyone who hasn’t been in a newer model Ford—say, in the last four to five years—usually pauses for a second, looks around, and, with a dumbfounded look says, “This is a Ford?” Gone are the days of cookie cutter layouts and cheap materials. The overall fit and finish of the new Sport is superior, with a great blend of glossy black, brushed metal, and leather-wrapped surfaces throughout. From the driver’s seat, everything is within easy reach, and thanks to the adjustable seats, steering wheel, and pedals, there is no compromise in finding the perfect driving position, whether you’re of basketball point guard or jockey stature.
Making myself familiar with the center dash and MyFord Touch SYNC entertainment system was easier than most, although I would still opt for physical buttons and dials over touch-sensitive buttons and screens. I found myself taking my eyes off the road for far too long to perform simple tasks such as adjusting the temperature or switching between the navigation and radio. Unfortunately, the touch trend is spread industry-wide, so it’s unfair to single out Ford for embracing it. Indeed, once familiar with the layout I found the Sport’s controls more intuitive than the majority of its competitors.
Once fully acquainted it was time to shift our attention back to what we came here for: snow, and lots of it. Revelstoke Mountain boasts the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in North America, with a season-to-date accumulation of over 400 inches at the time of our visit, so we programmed the navi and pointed the Explorer west to find our flakes.
The nearly five-hour, 254 mile jaunt provided plenty of distractions by way of awe-inspiring views of the sprawling Canadian Rockies. What started as a few mounds in the distance soon became mile-high snow-covered giants, which caused us to utter “wow!”, “amazing!”, and “incredible!” on a perpetual loop throughout the drive. Feeling a bit peckish, we scheduled a pit stop in Banff, where a few friendly locals directed us to Bear Street Tavern. Despite hailing from the pizza mecca of New York, we ordered a wood oven-baked pie and devoured it with their signature chili oil and honey dipping sauce slathered on every bite, a delicious combination I was glad to discover. With our appetites quelled we hit the open road to find out if the Sport was deserving of its title. Spoiler alert – it is.
Most notably, this nearly 2.5 ton hauler of seven will charge to 60 mph in just over six seconds, a full two seconds quicker than its non-turbo sibling, the Explorer Limited. This upgraded figure owes it all to the aluminum 3.5-liter twin-turbo intercooled EcoBoost V6, a beast of an engine that produces 365 BHP and 350 foot-pounds of torque. With wide open stretches of highway to attack, I was especially thankful for the increase in power, as it instilled confidence when passing the massive, trans-Canadian freighthaulers these parts are known for—not to mention the 45 minutes it shaved off our estimated drive time.
As we drove along, the snow banks lining the road grew higher and higher, from a paltry foot outside Calgary to nearly six feet as we approached Revelstoke. Exhausted from our 5 1/2 hour flight and 4 hour drive, we made haste to The Sutton Place Hotel, Revelstoke Resort’s ski-in/ski-out lodge situated at the base of the mountain.
With the Explorer Sport safely tucked away in the heated underground garage, we made our way to the room to see what The Sutton Place had to offer by way of accommodations. Throughout the hotel it was clear that no expense was spared when it was built less than six years ago. Our 475 square foot studio suite was equipped with a kitchen, gas fireplace, balcony, and an oh-so-necessary washer and dryer.
After a much-needed good night’s rest, I slipped on my new AirBlaster Ninja Suit (a base layer you will never go without after you try it once), followed by the rest of my gear. I was about to experience one of the more technical mountains North America has to offer, and I knew I would need a board that could handle it all, from open powder bowls, to tight trees, and even the occasional groomer, so I grabbed the newest addition to my quiver, the hard-charging, all-mountain Jones Flagship. (Story continues below.)
Despite its claims, I found myself cursing the Flagship for the first few runs, primarily due to my lack of familiarity with it, and partly due to the fact that the Flagship was created by snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones. Not surprisingly, his namesake board requires a certain degree of skill to control. The biggest contributor to this is the Flagship’s incredible stiffness, which makes slow turns and hard stops all the more difficult for the uninitiated. This is a board you cannot fight, because no matter your strength, it will win. Once I came to realize this and decided to put more of my trust in the board I fell in love with it. All the negatives I found earlier in the day turned into positives as it tackled everything from tight glades, to cliff drops, to hard-packed groomers with confidence.
During our time at Revelstoke we made use of all the terrain the mountain had to offer. With only three upper mountain lifts, we were blown away by the amount and variety of accessible in-bounds terrain. That said, only advanced to expert skiers or riders will be able to fully enjoy all that Revelstoke has to offer, particularly in the way of glades. And while you can hit glades on every run, the north face of the mountain, serviced via the “Ripper” quad chairlift, is where you’ll spend the majority of your time if you’re a true tree hugger.
Knowing that British Columbia is home to some of the best backcountry terrain in the world, we decided it was time to continue our journey to meet up with our friends at Big Red Cats, a snowcat skiing operator. With the daylight hours dwindling we packed up the Sport and headed south to Rossland.
Had I known the treachery of the five-hour drive that lay before us, I would have preferred to have the sun on our side, but the Sport’s improved handling kept my confidence high as conditions deteriorated. The Canadian word for highway surely can’t share the U.S. definition, because Highway 6 is nothing more than a mountain road that would put most race tracks to shame. For nearly the entire drive, the two-lane ribbon boasted a sheer mountain face on one side and 150-foot-plus drops on the other, with two-way traffic that included an endless stream of big rigs blasting past us at high speed.
With the roads covered in a mix of gravel and ice, I set the dial on the Terrain Management System to the Gravel/Snow setting, taming the otherwise sporty throttle response to minimize wheel slip. During lulls in oncoming traffic, I seized the opportunity to push the limits of the Sport’s upgraded suspension, larger brakes, 20-inch wheels, and increased steering response. Under pressure, I felt the weight of the Sport in the form of body roll, but the upgrades to the overall handling provided a level of control similar to that of your standard mid-sized sedan, an impressive feat considering its hefty curb weight.
Despite its powerful engine and responsive handling there was one flaw to the Sport that prevented us from coming in under the drive time calculated by its navigation system. Like Mr. Hyde, the Sport’s one major downside only presents itself at night, in the form of “are-they-on?” headlights. As the winter sun slipped below the horizon, more than once I found myself wondering if the headlights were turned on at all. Once I confirmed that they were, I was shocked to learn that a 2013 model car costing nearly $50,000 not only didn’t come with HID headlights standard but they aren’t even an option. Adding to the halogens’ sub-par performance are the lack of headlight washer nozzles, which came as an even bigger surprise considering that, at the end of the day, the Sport is still an SUV, and is expected to be exposed to dust, dirt, sand, snow, and whatever else the environment can throw at it.
Poor visibility aside, we pulled into Red Mountain Resort thirty minutes ahead of schedule and checked into one of their mountainside two-bedroom suites, complete with a full kitchen, sleeping room for up to six, and a private outdoor hot tub that we made instant use of to loosen ourselves up for the three days of powder hunting which lay before us. (Story continues below.)
Early the next morning, we met up with Kieren Gaul, owner of Big Red Cats, for a quick but thorough avalanche safety briefing, avalanches being the most prevalent danger we would face in the backcountry. As the biggest Cat skiing operation in the world, Big Red offers three different skill levels: intermediate, advanced, and expert. Naturally, we opted for expert to see if we could hang. With my powder-specific Jones Hovercraft in tow, we started on our twenty-minute ascent to the first peak, grinning anxiously as the air grew thinner.
In the three days that followed we would explore just a fraction of the 5,000+ acres of back country Big Red operates in. The guided trips (Kieren leads the majority of the expert-level trips himself) would deliver us to a mix of open bowls, cliff drops, pillow lines, and glade runs, all of which shared one thing in common: fresh powder lines of the face-blasting variety. Separating itself on uniqueness alone, one run had us weaving fresh tracks through five-foot high baby pine trees, which we aptly named the “Christmas Tree” run. While certainly not inexpensive at $450 a day, it’s still half the price of the cheapest heli-skiing trip, and something any avid skier or boarder should treat themself to at least once in their lives.
As our snowy week came to a close two things were blindingly apparent: If you’re looking for the best snow, head to British Columbia. And if you’re looking for the best car to drive for your search, get a Ford Explorer Sport.