It's easy to find yourself getting precious about what remains other people's intellectual property. From a European perspective the idea of a six-seat SUV with a 10-speed automatic gearbox might seem to be the exact opposite of what Ford's ST branding has stood for throughout the last 20 years - agile and accessible performance with a minimum of distraction and the guarantee of a clutch pedal.
Yet in the U.S., where the last Fiesta and Focus were the country's only previous STs, there's no sense in heresy at sticking the badge on something the size and shape of the Explorer SUV. Over there ST doesn't mean anything beyond "fast version", and this Explorer is certainly that. And as it won't be coming to Europe - I drove it in Michigan - does the incongruous sight of the ST badge really matter?
The Explorer has long been one of Ford's better-selling U.S. models, with the sixth generation that was launched earlier this year switching back to longitudinal engines and native rear-wheel drive, although only the cheap versions send power exclusively to the back axle.
Sitting close to the top of the range, the ST gets all-wheel drive as standard and also the most powerful 400hp version of Ford's 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6. It also gets firmer springs and dampers when compared to the plusher Explorer Platinum, plus a tweaked electric power steering system.
It certainly looks big and tough. Many U.S. States have turned to Explorers for police cars following the demise of the erstwhile Crown Victoria, and there is something very interceptor-like about the huge black front grille and the bumper's black cladding. At 5060mm from front to back it is almost exactly the same length as an Audi Q7 but is taller and looks considerably chunkier and more menacing in the metal. (Bear in mind that Ford still sells the even bigger Expedition in the 'States.)
Inside the cabin is big on black trim and conspicuously short of any ST touches beyond a small logo on the bottom of the steering wheel and the video display screen saying "Ford Performance" on start-up. Materials feel pretty good - fingers have to wander to find naked hard-touch plastic in the front - and standard spec includes nav, auto parking, leather trim, heated and ventilated front seats and a heated second row. It's a two-two-two seating layout, and although room for front and middle row occupants is generous the fold-up third row is as cramped as such boot-pews tend to be.
While hugely effective, the powertrain is lacking the sort of cohesion that ST branding normally implies with the engine and gearbox rarely in full agreement. The V6 makes a peak 400hp but sounds gruff at low revs and becomes loud and angry when worked hard, without ever becoming harmonic. Longitudinal G-forces are easily created by big throttle openings - Ford claims a 5.2-second 0-60mph time and the ST hooks up cleanly when launched hard.
It has plenty of mid-range torque, too - although much of this is squandered by the 10-speed autobox's determination to change into the highest possible gear as soon as possible, even in Sport mode. There are so many ratios that getting back to the boost can require multiple downshifts, the transmission seeming to lack the intelligence to find the right gear first time. It can be shifted manually, but the sheer number of ratios to get through makes this feel a bit too much like a chore: similar to the experience of shifting the pretend ratios in a CVT 'box.
While the ST's ride is firmer than the SUV norm, it isn't excessively harsh. On the sort of lumpy, frost-broken Michigan roads which do a good impression of low-rent British tarmac the Explorer showed good body control and rode out rough surfaces with no sense of the sort of structural wobbling that used to come as standard on larger American SUVs. Grip levels from the Pirelli Scorpion Zero tyres were high, although with no sense of throttle adjustability beyond the need to back off to stop the front from nudging wide in slower corners.
Steering was the big disappointment, indeed the area where this ST feels categorically unlikely pretty much everything else to have ever worn the badge. The electric assistance has too much weight and there's no sense of connection to the front axle; hard cornering produces no more perception of load than a gentle trundle. On previous form this should be one of the areas where any ST excels, and as there are rival SUVs with much better feeling helms out there it feels like a missed goal. Or a fumbled touchdown.
There's a fair bit lost in translation here, and I fully acknowledge that my criticism of the Explorer ST's lack of ST-ness doesn't really apply in its homeland. It hasn't been developed with Europe in mind and won't be sold here; the only Explorer that will cross the Atlantic will be a PHEV version that will be limited to certain left-hand drive markets.
Consider this ST to be a slightly firmer, slightly faster version of the existing Explorer then it makes sense, offering some significant performance improvements over the regular car, looking far tougher as well. But from a European perspective it feels like a distant outlier, a trim level rather than the sort of fully developed product we'd normally associate with the sub-brand. Of course, we'll get to experience our own ST-badged SUVs soon as well; I just hope they feel worthier of their badge than this one.
SPECIFICATION - FORD EXPLORER ST
Engine: 2956cc, V6, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 10-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400 @ 5500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 415 @ 3500rpm
Top speed: 146mph (limited)
Weight: 2200 kg
Price: $55,935 (£43,052)
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