Car reviews - Ford - Ranger - utility range
Comfort, refinement, ride and handling, interior space
Room for improvement
Steering-rack rattle on rough roads, high-end engine torque, no digital speed readout, price increases
26 Sep 2011
LIFE has just got a lot harder for the Toyota HiLux.
First it faced the challenge of the new Volkswagen Amarok and now it has to contend with the all-new Ford Ranger, which was developed locally by around 500 engineers with a hefty budget.
And it is a remarkably good thing.
Our first impression was limited to testing just one model variant, the drive was relatively brief and there was no towing, water-fording or suburban duty, but our time in the car on twisty tarmac, undulating dirt and extreme rock climbs indicated this could well be the best ute in the business.
The Amarok lifted the bar in the workhorse class and first impressions are that the Ranger is a match or better in many key areas.
Importantly, the Ranger will have a much wider spread of models – 20 all up – in place by Christmas while the Volkswagen is still tiny in comparison (although an automatic is being added early next year and a single-cab is on the way).
As for HiLux, the Ranger will have a tough battle to win over loyal customers, and many will wait to see whether it is as durable in the longer term as the recently updated Toyota sales champion, but test drives should help the cause.
The new Ranger is a massive step up from the old Courier-based model, not only in terms of payload and towing capacity but also in terms of refinement and on-road manners.
The outgoing Ranger was a rough old thing and you often felt tired after a long stint behind the wheel. That was just the way those utes were for so long, but the latest Navara and the HiLux moved the game along and now the Ranger has more than caught up.
Our first test on tight and twisty roads just out of Adelaide in the double-cab 4x4 model equipped with the top-spec 3.2-litre turbo-diesel was enough to show that the new Ranger is remarkably civilised.
The cabin is almost eerily quiet. You can still hear some diesel clatter, but it is well isolated and much better than the class average, while road and tyre noise are minimised to the point that on the surfaces we covered you could have a conversation with someone in the back without raising your voice and that is quite something.
People who buy these utes don’t choose them for the handling, but a poor handling ute is no fun. The Ranger is still a ute, but it is so well sorted that you tend to forget that at times.
It does have some body roll, but it is very well controlled and, while there isn’t lots of steering feel, it is precise.
The ride quality is a standout. Whether that is down to the fluid-filled chassis mounts, a more rigid frame or an optimum footprint, it is very comfortable, without the constant wiggling and jiggling that comes through the cabin in most workhorse utes.
Different tyres between the XL and XLT models appeared to make a difference, with the XLT being more comfortable, but both seemed to have stiffer bodies and better-isolated cabins than expected.
The ride was exceptional on undulating dirt tracks in the Flinders Ranges, with a good level of vertical travel, but not to the point it was wallowing, and it coped with some serious bumps without unsettling the body.
The 3.2-litre diesel is a strong powerplant and, thanks to its variable geometry turbochargers, delivers the torque in a relatively linear way rather than just a great lump when the turbo gets going.
It doesn’t have the same punch as the top-shelf 550Nm Navara ST-X rocket, but is still at the pointy end of the class. We did a run with 700kg of weight in the back and the Ranger really didn’t notice it at all.
Having a regular-sized engine, instead of a smaller unit such as the Amarok’s 2.0-litre, is probably a good thing in terms of market acceptance.
The six-speed automatic carries out clean and crisp changes, although it hunted around a little more than it should have. It is adaptive, though, and constant flogging at the hands of journalists is likely to have encouraged it to change down more often than required.
As a default, it has been tuned for economy and will generally go for sixth gear at 70km/h to limit fuel use.
The manual is a good solid unit, although the shift feel is not class-leading. Its clutch is light, so the impact on the left calf is not what it used to be.
While safety hasn’t previously been a big motivator in this market, OH&S requirements and the increasing use of crew-cab models as part-time family cars means it is starting to matter more.
The safety gear loaded into the Ranger is reassuring and the ESC system appears to work extremely well judging by some lane-changing tests on slippery dirt we carried out.
As for its off-road capability, the 4x4 ate up some very steep and slippery tracks on the launch drive and felt as though it had a lot more capability in hand. The combination of low range and a rear differential lock for both manual and automatic models is a big plus, while other items such as hill-hold are handy.
The hill-descent control can be helpful and the ability to increase or decrease the speed with the cruise control buttons make it even more useful.
The heavy-duty towbar mount, a great big lump of a thing, did scrape on a couple of occasions, but there were no other issues.
We noticed there was a degree of steering-rack rattle on low-speed rough roads and the steering felt overly light, moving around like a PlayStation steering wheel when covering rocky roads.
The cabin has been well-executed and the spaciousness of the double-cab will be very much appreciated. A 6ft 2in bloke was able to sit in the back while the driver extended his seat as far back as it would go and there was still space between his knees and the seatback.
This feeling of space is aided by the sculpted front seatbacks, which are scooped out to maximise rear legroom. There is also ample head and shoulder room, while access is aided by wide-opening doors.
The dashboard is well laid-out and the controls are generally easy to use. The rugged design looks cool, but doesn’t spoil the practicality. We would like to see a digital speedo added to the trip computer in between the speedo and tacho as they are especially useful in Australia, if not in other locations where the Ranger will be used.
The first impression is that the Ranger represents a huge step forward for Ford’s workhorse ute and jumps past rivals in many areas such as comfort and driving experience while delivering on huge trailer-load and payload limits.
The new Ranger isn’t cheap and some models are significantly more expensive than before, but this is a significantly better product and could well be the best workhorse ute on the market.
Whether it can come close to the dominant HiLux in terms of sales is another question, but this is a great achievement by the Ford Australia development team and has demonstrated its capability to develop world-class global vehicle projects.
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