What is it with Ford lately?
To say that several of their products have become better in the past three years could possibly be one of the biggest understatements in automotive history. Think Focus, Fiesta and Explorer, three of the four major models they have unleashed onto the motoring scene; models that have definitely redefined what we can expect in their respective classes. It's like someone lit a bonfire under the seats of the engineers, designers and product planners... what's best of all, is that it's working very, very well.
How then, will the fourth model (third, chronologically), the Ford Ranger, fit in with such a profoundly better line up? Time to take it for a spin.
From the ground up, the Ranger (called the T6 internally) has been completely redone... and I mean completely. Designed by the guys at Ford Australia, the exterior of the Ranger T6 shares none of the panels or lines of old. The front definitely has quite the presence, something helped along by the rather cool pick-up truck profile. Overall: outward machismo in a rather sophisticated looking package.
It also helps that on all fronts the Ranger has grown, as it is significantly longer, wider and taller than the old high rider version (i.e. the previous Wildtrak) at 5,351mm long, 1,850mm wide and 1821mm tall. I particularly like the flares and details like the grille, though that goes double for the new 4x4 Wildtrak versions (which we'll get to drive later). The previous Ranger had one of the longest beds in the class, albeit a bit narrow. This new model has a rather square bed, as it measures 1,549mm long, 1,560mm wide and 511mm deep.
If you've become used to the rather spartan interiors of pick-ups, then the Ranger's cabin will be a highly unfamiliar experience; in a very good way. It's still plasticky and gray inside (what did you expect?) but the overall interior design (the way the dash panels were molded, installed and fitted) lends you to think that you could be sitting in a modern crossover rather than a truck. In a way, it reminds me of how the Strada changed perception that because a vehicle is utilitarian doesn't mean that its cabin couldn't look like it came from a concept car.
The seats are of particular note, as they are most definitely comfortable and offer very good side bolstering (more on that later). I would give head, elbow, knee and legroom (the latter two the common bane of pick-ups) top marks for the class, and I'm talking about the back bench seat as much as the front. No leather here, but the fabric upholstery will do; again, this is still a truck. I like the way the wheel feels in my hands, and same goes for the feel of the various buttons and controls around the cabin.
Speaking of controls, the Ranger comes with what could easily be the best integrated entertainment technology package in the class. Out of the box, the XLT 4x2 comes with Bluetooth compatibility, USB input, Auxiliary input, iPod compatibility, steering wheel controls for the audio system as well as cruise control; the last one a first in the local pick up segment. In between the dual primary gauges (speedometer, tachometer) is an LCD that displays the usual info like fuel consumption, trip meter, average speeds and other pertinent data, but the best bit to show off to your buddies is the voice recognition system, allowing vocal commands after pressing a button on the wheel for select songs, playlists and even artists; English, Tagalog or otherwise. There are more commands to learn and it takes a while to memorize all (not to mention get fully comfortable with the system) but for the more old school of us (myself included), you can opt to use the 4-way directional pad switches and other buttons on the center console.
Central to the Ford Ranger is an all new engine: a 2.2 liter, twin cam, 16-valve inline-4 diesel. With direct injection via a highly pressurized common rail system as well as a high power turbo, the Ranger develops 150 horsepower at 3700 rpm and dirt kickin', trailer-pullin' torque rated at 375 Newton meters. On this 4x2, rear-wheel drive XLT model, the power is handled by a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Off the line at full acceleration, the Ranger will easily get its rear tires to chirp as they find grip. While the 2.2 liter TDCI engine has less displacement than the 2.5 liter TDCI in the previous gen model, it does have more power and torque, and easily handles the newer, larger, heavier model. The powertrain will easily push the Ranger well past the posted speed limits on the highway (again, do so at your own risk), but what surprised me is the fuel economy: on the highway, it can easily do 14.4 kilometers per liter at a cruising speed of 100 km/h (driver only, light traffic). In the city (two passengers, light to moderate traffic) the Ranger returned 8.9 kilometers per liter. Not bad at all.
Handling is decent; on corners, the Ranger feels composed but tends to have much more body roll than the previous version. What has definitely improved is the ride comfort, as Ford worked hard on the Ranger's NVH characteristics, and the result is quite profound. If you read my review of the previous Wildtrak when it was new in 2009, the ride quality (or the lack thereof) generates bumps and vibrations that can turn body fat into butter. Not in the new one.
On corrugated streets, the Ranger performs admirably, all things considered. I'd say the Strada is still softer sprung, but the Ranger has the better compromise between ride, comfort and payload capacity; the last one being the primary reason for stiff to extremely stiff rear suspensions on trucks. As such, the new Ford Ranger has become a truly comfortable truck you can use everyday whether for short hops within city limits as much as it is suited to handle the commute to some far flung construction site, amidst rough roads.
Of course, no vehicle is perfect, even one that is obviously out to conquer its own category. The first issue is the transmission. Ford seems to have quite a few bugs in the transmission department, as I detected a quite bit of gear hunting in lower speeds (at times it just won't make its mind up on which gear to use), so sometimes you might want to just do away with full auto mode and slot the shifter into the manual +/- gate for better control.
The second one is the voice command system, which, while it adds an unprecedented level of functionality and was intended to help keep the driver's hands and eyes on the road, it does have a few bugs (i.e. won't recognize your commands at times), becoming even more of a distraction. Perhaps a software/firmware update could remedy this, or perhaps an upgrade to the newer Ford SYNC system would be a welcome addition.
Lastly, there seems to be an inherent characteristic that lends the Ranger a bit more lateral movement than what we've become accustomed to in the class. By this, what I mean is that while in the cabin, you can feel a bit more side to side sway or jerks as the Ranger takes on our rough city streets... or even when approaching a speed bump or parking ramp at a bit of an angle.
Are these niggles enough to deter us from the Ranger? Well, no. Overall, Ford has presented a truck in the Ranger (2.2L TDCI 4x2 XLT 6AT) that offers a great balance between opposing factors like lifestyle and utility, on-road comfort and off-road machismo (well, for the 4x4 models), as well as a long, long list of tech features for a price many of us would consider a steal: PhP 1,119,000. Priced as it is, this particular variant can easily make a case to switch from the top end of the compact family car class.
In nearly every aspect, the Ford Ranger could very well be unstoppable. Only a true and complete comparo will reveal how it stacks up when driven back-to-back-to-back with its peers, but somehow we think that even if we subjected the Ranger to that, it's doubtful that Ford will even break a sweat.