It was such a simpler life, a decade ago, when Ford Motor Company owned Volvo and had a solid percentage of Mazda, and it used those two affiliates very well in networking to create some excellent vehicles.
Briefly, Ford saw that Mazda was building the Tribute compact van, which was exactly what Ford was thinking of doing, so they collaborated and Ford built both the Tribute for Mazda and the Escape for itself. Mazda supplied Ford with an exceptional 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine for its smaller vehicles, and Ford provided its new 3.5-liter V6 to Mazda, which immediately upgraded it to 3.7 and shared the advancement with Ford. Ford also brought in the rock-solid Volvo platform to underpin the Edge and the Taurus, and used the same technology under the new Explorer. The very successful European Focus was another perfect example of the joint global treatment, as Ford equipped it with the 2.0-liter Mazda engine, and built it on a platform from Volvo.
When the economy sputtered, Ford divested itself of its connections to Mazda and Volvo, and all three went their separate ways. All three continue to build impressive vehicles independently. Ford is doing the best its ever done, making major headlines with its EcoBoost powerplants. Mazda has continued to make technical breakthrough engines with a new Skyactiv concept. And Volvo has improved its breed, selling its rights to a Chinese holding company. As a company that continues uncompromising in its attention to safety, all Volvo needs is financial support, and the parent company of Chinese auto Geely can provide that.
That makes it interesting to take a look at what the three are doing in the midsize SUV market segment, where they used to collaborate.
The Explorer is generally credited with igniting the move to downsize from the largest SUVs to more maneuverable and more efficient midsize vehicles, but because Ford has squeezed the Edge, Flex, and Escape under the Explorer, the latest version is larger, almost as if to bridge the gap from midsize to large.
The Explorer benefits from the EcoBoost outlay of smaller-displacement engines, turbocharged to reclaim the power of larger competitors. The enlarged Explorer can range from a 2.0 EcoBoost four, to a 3.5 V6 with 290 horsepower. All-new for 2013 is the Sport, a specialty Explorer with blacked out grille and lower front fascia, and the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6.
The Sport engine, with twin turbocharging, delivers 350 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque, and it jacks the towing capacity to 5,000 pounds. A 6-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddles is well coordinated with Ford’s terrain management system, which seems to be a thinly disguised copy of the system used by Range Rover — another recent Ford affiliate. Settings for smooth pavement, foul weather, and even off-road terrain are available at the twist of a console knob. The Sport package also has a stiffer suspension with specially tuned steering, and unique 20-inch wheels.
Leather seats are just among the luxury touches on the option list of the new Explorer, and in the elongated new vehicle, a third-row, fold-down jump seat fits into the rear. Hill-descent and hill-start assist are both options that are included standard on the Sport upgrade, along with trailer sway control. Ford’s Sync and MyFordTouch connectivity systems are also standard on the Sport, and a Sony 390-watt, 12-speaker audio can fill the otherwise sound-deadened interior with sound.
Explorer prices start at $30,000 for the front-wheel-drive base model, and move up according to choices. Fuel economy is an issue, because the EcoBoost 4 might get up to 28 miles per gallon if you don’t keep stomping on the gas pedal, while the larger V6 EcoBoost is more likely in the 23 mpg range. The Sport lists for $40,720, although when you add options such as voice-activated navigation, power liftgate, push-button start with remote, and trailer towing package, you can easily see the sticker rise to the Sport test vehicle’s $46,740.
When Mazda introduced the CX-9, its largest SUV, it won North American Truck of the Year honors for its styling, roominess and efficient operation. The newest CX-9 has been restyled to share the newest corporate nose, which is taken from recent Mazda concept show cars and resembles the CX-5 front, which stretches over to cover the new Mazda6 sedan as well.
The larger under-hood area will house Mazda’s elaborate exhaust manifold on the Skyactiv design, but the vehicle we tested for a week is the 3.7-liter V6 originally designed by Ford but modified significantly by Mazda, with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve-timing to produce 273 horsepower and 270 foot-pounds of torque. A 6-speed Aisin transmission shifts powerfully but smoothly.
Performance is always a mainstay of Mazda vehicles, and the CX-9 is no different. Active torque-split all-wheel drive and 20-inch alloy wheels aid cornering, but the best features of the CX-9 are inside, where the styling is simple and straightforward, but can accommodate all sorts of people — seven — and/or luggage. A neat feature of the CX-9 is that is has extra wide rear doors, which not only make it easy to climb into the second row seats, but also make it easier to access the third row. The second row slides forward at the touch of a button, making climbing into the rear easy — especially for kids.
The CX-9 can climb to the mid-20s in mpg on the highway, but may struggle to stay above 20 in city driving. The test vehicle was the Touring model with AWD, and it has a base price of $36,375. Significant options include a Bose audio system with 10 speakers, a full color touchscreen for navigation and other controls, and a power moonroof. That runs the sticker up to $39,755.
VOLVO XC60 T6
Volvo had great success augmenting its various sedans with the XC90 SUV, which had all the safety assets of Volvo sedans and adds the over-engineered ruggedness of a true off-roading vehicle. The XC60 is a junior-sized version of the XC90, and it makes good use of its lighter and more agile frame and shape.
Base engine in the XC60 is a fully adequate 3.2-liter inline 6 with 240 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque, but the test vehicle came with Volvo’s potent 3.0-liter turbocharged inline 6, and it develkops 300 horsepower at 5,600 RPMs and 325 foot-pounds of torque that peaks at a mere 2,100 RPMs and runs up at a plateau until it meets the horsepower peak.
A 6-speed Geartronic transmission has sport mode and its all-wheel drive has instant traction. It’s always impressive to see that Volvo can stick to its greatest strength, which is safety, featuring unibody high-strength steel passenger safety cage, plus dynamic stability traction-control, roll stability control, and excellent brakes, and then inject a whole lot of high-performance features. All the time, the XC60 provides excellent support from its seats, and all the luxury touches you might want, from 8-way power leather seating, panoramic sunroof, 7-inch color monitor screen, rear park assist, premium audio, power tailgate, heated seats and heated windshield washer nozzles.
Base price of $40,450 includes complimentary scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles, and adding the Platinum package boosts the sticker to $48,145. Fuel economy ranges up to mid-20s on the highway, which makes it about the same as the Explorer or CX-9, and while it doesn’t have the third-row seat of the Ford or Mazda, the solid feel of the Volvo’s structure is unexcelled.