The Road to the River Kwai

The Road to the River Kwai image

Text: Iñigo S. Roces / Photos: Iñigo S. Roces , Ford | posted May 30, 2009 19:17

The New Ford Ranger in Thailand

Blame it on the iPod. It introduced consumers to the importance of style. In these fast-paced, information technology driven, fashion conscious times, it's not enough to design a product that simply works. It also has to feel good, look good, and, most difficult of all, jive into a buyer's designer lifestyle.

The same is true of the automotive industry. I can go on and on about how a Ssangyong Stavic has some of the most innovative interior features I've ever seen on a van (No, really!), yet its own style may have had something to do with its less than stellar success.

Cars, after all, are an extension and expression of one's personality. If this weren't true, then we wouldn't have vehicles like Ferraris and Hummers. After all, who really needs to travel 300 kilometers per hour or traverse through war torn regions? Most vehicles might never see their full potential tapped, but it's certainly nice to know it can do it and that it looks the part.

It's the same idea that has steered the design direction of the new Ford Ranger. Today's truck buyer can't be slotted into a typical stereotype and neither can the vehicle. He will expect performance both on and off-road, styling that is not out of place in the country as it is in the business district, and moreover an interior environment that taps truck sensibilities but also bows to modern conveniences. It's a laundry list of contradicting requirements that an increasingly tech and design savvy buyer has come to expect.

In spite of this, Ford has willingly obliged, producing a new Ranger that blends strength and style into - Tough Style - as they call it. The look is inspired by the Ranger MAX show truck unveiled at the Thailand International Motor Expo last November.

The front fascia features a raised hood and wraparound headlamps with distinctive eyebrows that subtly connect to the three bar grille with its large functional vertical nostrils. The line detours around the extended opening below the bumper line before meeting again. Take a glance at it again and it resembles a steel "I" beam.

Much of the body is sleek and sculptured, broken up only by the side vents, chrome door handles and prominent wheel arches that house the newly designed six spoke 16 inch wheels. The vehicle ends with clear tail lamps, body colored bumpers and a smooth finish tail gate.

And to demonstrate that the Ranger is just as savvy in the city as it is in the country, Ford flew in members of the Philippine media to its unveiling in Thailand.

Upon our arrival in Thailand, we were brought to the Mae Sri Ruen Restaurant in Bangkok for a briefing on the new Ranger and the itinerary for the next couple of days. We were to drive over 500 kilometers in the pickups through terrains ranging from highways, mountain roads, country roads, gravel, and even an off-road course. Along the way, several stops were added to allow drivers to switch, sample the other Ranger variants, and of course, tour the Kanchanaburi region, the country's third largest province that blends a bit of World War II history with a more distilled sample of Thai culture.

It may seem like quite a distance to traverse but Thailand's smooth and orderly highways turn this trek into a speedy hour drive. We also had Ford's powerful and torquey 3.0 liter common-rail turbo diesel engines to make short work of it. Equipped with a variable geometry turbo for a wider range of boosted power, it produces 152 PS at 3,200 rpm, but its greatest strength lies in the monstrous 38.7 kilogram meters of torque that comes in as early as 1,800 rpm.

A few stops at scenic places like the Pueang Soonthorn Coffee Shop and Khao Zon Wildlife Breeding Center made for welcoming breaks from the drive as well as interesting diversions what with the breeding center's exotic collection of wildlife like a tiger cub, hornbills, endemic birds and a few monkeys.

From here, it's another hour's drive to Kanchanaburi's most famous tourist attraction, the Jeath War Museum and a ride up the River Kwai.

This region played a pivotal role in battle and is home numerous war related sites along with the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai" as immortalized in the movie of the same name.

Before heading to the Bridge, we first stopped by the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The pristine cemetery contains the remains of 6,982 Allied POWs who perished during the construction of the ‘Death Railway' which links to the famous bridge. It is festooned in flowers and though arranged in true platoon formation, starkly contrasts the typical austere military cemetery you usually see.

After paying our respects, we walked through the Jeath War Museum to gain more insight into the POWs plight. JEATH stands for the five main nationalities involved in the construction of the railway: Japanese, English, Australian, Thai and Holland. It is located on the grounds of a temple at the junction of the Khwae Yai (pronounced as ‘Hay Yai') and Khwae Noi rivers in Kanchanaburi and narrates the construction of the Death Railway.

The most enjoyable is saved for last - a ride on along the Khwae Yai River via a long tail boat. Strap on your lifevests and hold on tight. The long tails are faster than they look, being powered by an automotive engine cantilevered onto the back of the boat. The friendly boatmen slowed down near the bridge to give us a chance to take photos and, fortunately for us, catch a train crossing it.

Further up the river was the Inchantree Boutique Hotel, with an entrance right at the river. The quaint accommodations made for a relaxing respite from the day's travel.

With reservations at the Kee Ree Tara Restaurant, just a short walk from the hotel. We got ourselves a table on the barge that sits you over the flowing river. It made a perfect place to watch the release of sky lanterns from the resort just across. We'd have to call it a night for now as a whole day of off-road driving awaited at the destination the next day.

Some 78 kilometers away lies the Park ‘n Ranch off-road track. The sprawling estate is owned by an off-road enthusiast and includes a 6 kilometer long rally track, as well as a technical, purpose built off-road area.

The track was a leisurely drive around the property, composed of access roads that led around orchards and fields. Nothing that even a 4x2 couldn't handle. The off-road area contained steep climbs, descents, dips, bumps, and even water-filled trenches to put the Ranger through its paces.

We needed four wheel drive with low lock for this area, achieved by simply twisting the electronic control dial below the automatic shifter or by shifting into 4L with the second stick in the manual. The steep climbs were a cinch, thanks to the standard limited slip differential that provides more than enough traction.

Rigid underpinnings means the body sits on a purpose-built truck backbone with an overlapping, cross braced ladder frame. It is suspended by double wishbone front suspension with torsion bar springs while the rear is kept aloft with long-leaf springs and oversized 32mm gas shock absorbers. The combination provides approach angles as steep as 33 and 34 degrees and a ground clearance of 214mm. Specs like these made the Ranger easily take on all the punishment the course had to offer.

With everyone having completed the course by noon, the final stop would be lunch at the charming The Scenery restaurant, just a short drive away. A sheep farm, turned resort, The Scenery served delectable modern takes on traditional Thai cuisine. The backdrop was a picturesque rolling hills against a mountainous backdrop with the farm employing Thai hallmarks with a touch of the American Wild West.

After a photo op with all of the Ranger variants lined up, it was time to bid farewell to the very accommodating hosts and impressive new Ford Ranger and head back to Bangkok.

In this drive, the Ranger demonstrated its surprising quiet, adequate comfort and life-saving 4-wheel ABS. The trucks handled exceptionally well on the twisty roads while the 4x2 demonstrated surprising ability off-road. Naturally, the 4x4 was a breeze on the technical track, easily overcoming obstacles with its 280 pound feet of torque.

Its departure from conventional pickup styling might alienate some, but Ford hopes its Built Ford Tough reputation will back-up the new urbanite approach. As always, it is easy to operate even for a neophyte while the torque output is one of the highest among pickups offered today.

Besides road testing, the trip also provided a glimpse of pick-up crazy Thailand and the daunting range of abilities the Ranger has to face in a country where trucks account for 51 % of all vehicle sales. It's in seeing these pickups being used from lifestyle statements to workhorses where the Ranger's change to a more well-rounded design direction justifies itself. It's difficult to meet such contradicting demands, yet the new Ranger has willingly took up the challenge. That in itself proves some tough mettle and to do it in Thailand certainly accounts for style.