DEARBORN, MI – Ford hopes to snatch buyers away from luxury competitors with the introduction of the high-performance ’13 Explorer Sport.

The Explorer SUV, currently available with a 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost engine or a 3.5L V-6, already is luring customers away from other brands, including high-end marques such as Land Rover and Range Rover, the auto maker says.

Eric Peterson, marketing manager for Ford utility vehicles, expects that trend to continue with the 350-hp Explorer Sport, set to launch later this year.

“You have higher-end powertrains in some luxury vehicles, so if they’re already buying or shopping Explorer, they will be even more attracted to it with (more powerful) powertrain,” he tells WardsAuto here. “Certainly we’d like to see higher (luxury) conquests.”

The Explorer Sport, powered by a 3.5L twin-turbo V-6 EcoBoost engine, also is targeting domestic competitors. Peterson says the new Explorer should take a bite out of Dodge Durango R/T and Grand Cherokee sales.

“We get a lot of conquests from Dodge and Jeep already, and we think this will certainly help with that,” he says.

The luxury SUV segment is growing, Peterson notes, and Ford wants to take advantage of that growth. Consumers shopping the segment differ from many other buyers in that they often look at performance numbers first and fuel efficiency second.

But with gasoline prices eclipsing $4 a gallon in much of the country, Peterson says the Explorer Sport’s estimated 16/22 mpg (17.6-12.8 L/100 km) city/highway rating provides car buyers with both performance and fuel efficiency.

Consumer requests, including from former Explorer owners, also played a role in the decision to offer the Sport model.

“We have a lot of customers that think of Explorer’s heritage with V-8 engines, and a lot of them wished it had more performance,” Peterson says. “People were asking about it.”

Ford isn’t zeroing in on a particular demographic with the Explorer Sport, although the typical customer likely will be married but not have children.

Pricing for the new model has not been released, but Peterson says it will be positioned close to the Explorer Limited, which starts at $38,680.

Ford isn’t revealing volume expectations for the new SUV.

In addition to the new powertrain, the Explorer gets a number of other performance upgrades, including a 3.16:1 final-drive ratio for responsive acceleration, a reinforced chassis to improve stiffness and handling and larger brakes.

Exterior treatment includes a contrasting low-gloss mesh grille, 20-in. machined wheels, blacked-out headlamps and taillamps, black roof-rack rails, side-view-mirror skull caps and a new liftgate appliqué.

The new SUV also has the Explorer name spelled across the top of the hood, a design cue borrowed from the revamped Flex cross/utility vehicle.

The Explorer Sport will be available in four colors – Ruby Red Metallic Clearcoat, White Platinum Metallic Tri-Coat, Tuxedo Black Metallic and Ingot Silver Metallic.

Inside, the SUV gets leather-trimmed seating, new door-panel appliqués, floor mats with the Sport logo and illuminated scuff plates.

bpope@wardsauto.com