ANN ARBOR, MI – Ford’s new ’13 Explorer Sport shows how much the marque has evolved since launching as a body-on-frame SUV in 1990 with a overhead-valve 4.0L V-6 making 155 hp.

The latest version shown at a media event here is powered by a 365-hp direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 and has its sights set on luxury buyers, says Jacques Brent, Ford’s large car and SUV marketing manager.

Some 51% of consumers who have purchased the all-new ’12 Explorer, reintroduced to the U.S. market last summer on a car-based platform, have been conquest buyers, he says, with 12% trading in such high-end models as the the Range Rover Sport, GMC Acadia and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT.

To better serve upscale buyers, Ford this year is introducing an Explorer Sport model that features 75 hp more than the V-6 offered in the standard Explorer.

“A lot of people came out of V-8s and are moving down to a V-6, so there’s always going to be questions about that,” Brent tells WardsAuto. “I don’t think on the 3.5L we ever had someone concerned about performance. But I think (the Sport version) allows that opportunity to cater to more to customers who are used to having a V-8.”

The Explorer Sport also provides Ford with another offering in the expanding midsize SUV segment, which Brent says has grown 44% over the past two years.

Sales in the midsize SUV segment climbed 15.6% through the year’s first nine months to 342,191 units, according to WardsAuto data. Explorer deliveries in the period jumped 21.5% to 117,803.

In addition to extra horsepower, the Explorer Sport gets a number of upgrades over the base model, including a 3.16:1 final-drive ratio to improve acceleration from a standstill and provide better highway fuel economy. Ford says the 7-passenger Explorer Sport achieves a combined 16/22 mpg (14.7-10.7 L/100 km) city/highway fuel-economy rating.

Engineers also added larger brakes for improved pedal feel and stronger resistance while towing.

The Explorer Sport’s terrain management system, developed in conjunction with Land Rover, also has been modified from the base model’s. The system settings – sand, snow, rutted mud and hill descent – all have been optimized for increased power and torque for on- and off-road conditions.

The ’13 Explorer Sport has new 20-in. painted and machined wheels, blacked-out headlamp and taillamp treatments, black roof rack rails, side-mirror skull caps, liftgate appliqué and a low-gloss mesh grille.

The SUV’s interior, which Ford says was inspired by design houses such as Balenciaga and Prada, is done in a 2-tone motif. Special stitching in the seat and steering wheel are meant to convey a handcrafted appearance.

Bill Gubing, chief engineer for Ford’s Explorer, Taurus and Police Interceptor vehicles, declines to reveal an expected take rate for the Sport, currently on sale with a starting price of $41,000. “We’re going to put it out there and let customers decide the take rate.”

bpope@wardsauto.com