CLEAR AND PRESENT RANGER
Has the latest Ford Ranger got the wherewithal to challenge for top honours in a competitive Pick-Up sector?
Ford haven't done things by halves with this Ranger
America; the land of the free and the home of the pick-up truck. Over there, the pick-up is the single most popular type of vehicle, racking up annual sales equivalent to those of the entire UK car market combined. Low fuel prices, a surplus of road space and a countrywide adherence to the old 'bigger is better' maxim have seen pick-ups grow in size and superfluity largely unchecked. Japan could hardly be more different. Wide open space is at a distinct premium and a national obsession with miniaturisation means huge pick-up trucks are hardly de rigueur. So why is it that in the UK we buy so many of our pick-ups from Japanese marques while Ford's Ranger is the solitary mainstream US representative?
I guess that's the globalised automotive industry for you and besides, the Ford Ranger is hardly an all-American thoroughbred in any case - it's manufactured in Thailand. The latest model looks to be manufactured to an impressively high standard as well. The previous generation Ranger was never that close to the cutting edge, even in the relatively low tech environment of the UK pick-up market. The Japanese contingent, represented most prominently by Mitsubishi's L200 and Nissan's Pick-Up, always felt more polished than the Ford, although they weren't necessarily any more capable. Then came the big shake-up. Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi all unveiled new pick-up products which moved the game forward significantly. The old Ranger couldn't hope to compete on equal terms and the result is the latest model, the one we examine here.
One reason why we don't get too many American market pick-up trucks on these shores is that they are almost totally unworkable. Ford's F-Series truck is the top seller stateside but it's over half a meter longer than a Ranger and 20cm wider. Suffice to say it's not ideally suited to narrow country lanes and even a dual carriageway can feel a little tight when you're perched up there behind the wheel. The smallest, most fuel efficient engine you can get in an F-Series is a 4.2-litre petrol V6 which would incur taxation and running costs to give most UK businesses serious second thoughts. In the UK, we like our pick-ups on a more rational scale and the Ranger is much better suited to our needs and sensibilities.
Today's Ranger is instantly distinguishable from its predecessor. The large rectangular grille is trisected by two thick horizontal bars and framed on each side by big rectangular headlamps. Below, the chunky bumper juts out from the bodywork with a wide central air intake and deeply recessed fog lights. Mitsubishi's L200 has been credited with adding curves to the UK pick-up design language but the Ranger remains all straight lines and angles. Only the bulging wheelarches deviate from this setsquare theme and the high window line adds to what is a highly purposeful look.
Power for entry-level models is supplied by a 2.5-litre common-rail injection engine that is streets ahead of the 2.5-litre direct injection unit from the old Ranger. It's up on power for a start, producing 141bhp as opposed to 108bhp and doing so at a usefully low 2,000rpm. Many operators will be more enamoured with the 22% improvement in fuel economy, however. Torque of 330Nm at 1,800rpm puts the Ranger's powerplant amongst the best in the class and promises muscular performance for towing duties and offroad work. The engine features a Dual Mass Flywheel which sharpens responses while also reducing vibration and a variable geometry turbocharger is employed to cut turbo lag and extend the torque band. If you need more power, there's a 154bhp 3.0-litre engine option available with the higher spec-derivatives and this unit is available with an automatic gearbox.
The common-rail architecture of the Ranger's engines has intrinsic benefits when it comes to the pick-up truck's old adversaries, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) but Ford have also taken additional preventative measures. This Ranger is stiffer all round with revised engine and body mounts to control vibrations being transmitted through the vehicle. The chassis frame is stronger too with door seals and upgraded insulation also acting to muffle road noise.
The Ranger's driving experience has never been of a standard that was in-keeping with the Blue Oval's passenger cars. Where the Focus and Mondeo lead their respective classes on grounds of steering sharpness and chassis balance, Ford's pick-up was always a bit of a blancmange by comparison. Larger suspension control arms, shock absorbers and spring bushes combine with bigger wheels to enhance the ride quality in the latest version. The spring and damper settings have been specially tuned to give optimum handling whether the vehicle is laden or unladen and a revised rear stabiliser has been introduced along with an improved hydraulic braking system with ABS on all four wheels. For offroad jaunts, ramp and departure angles have been maximised and the 4x4 system can be electronically engaged while on the move.
The Ranger's interior reflects the growing popularity of pick-up trucks as business vehicles that can also double as family transport on weekends. The workmanlike decor in the old Ranger and other previous generation pick-ups can no longer cut it. Angular styling themes are carried over from the exterior with chrome detailing very much in evidence. Much thought has been given to the provision of storage space, there are no fewer than five cup holders, a pull-out tray in the instrument panel and two deep storage bins in the centre console to keep your odds and ends in check.
Ford offer the popular Thunder and Wildtrack high-spec derivatives for buyers who really want to push the 'lifestyle' boat out. Both are well equipped. The Thunder, for example, features a tubular sports bar to beef-up the front end, chrome side sills, leather seats, a six CD stereo and air-conditioning, amongst other things. All Ranger models get twin front airbags and seatbelt pretensioners with further safety equipment available from the options list.
Ford haven't done things by halves with this Ranger, testing the vehicle rigorously throughout a development process which took engineers to Northern Thailand, the Nepalese Himalayas, the jungles of Borneo, South Africa's Kruger National Park, the Australian Outback and the deserts of the United Arab Emirates. It sounds like one long adventure holiday but we're assured that plenty of serious testing was done in between sightseeing and cocktails. You'd hope, therefore, that the Ranger will be well up to the toughest treatment that the average UK operator is liable to dish out.