First Drive: 2023 Ford Ranger
That title is correct. We do have some mixed feelings about something that happened very recently.
No, we're not talking politics. We're talking about the new generation Ford Ranger.
Ford seems to have gone to a very controversial spectrum with their truck, and it has our opinions split. But we'll get to that later.
A few days ago, we arrived in Thailand. This country is one we frequented in the last 10 years with Ford because they have their regional headquarters and manufacturing hub there, but the pandemic put our travels on hold. For many of us, it was a chance to get back into our normal pace, and what better way to do it than with a truck that promises a lot.
Honestly, I'm tired of the term “game changer”. Ford actually played that like a broken record with models like the Fiesta, Focus, EcoSport and Everest, but undeniably it's the Ranger that can truly own it. Before the T6, trucks used to be perceived as just beasts of burden. Like the humble carabao, they were meant to pull or carry, but not much more.
Since 2011 though, the T6 Ranger changed all that. Many trucks didn't have things like cruise control, advanced safety features, voice command, Bluetooth, or even USB, but Ford changed it up and showed us that a truck can be sophisticated too. While many trucks of the time were uncomfortable on any surface, Ford gave us a truck that can be an everyday car without scrambling a carton of eggs in their shells. Sure, they still focused on things like toughness, power, and load capability, but what they did with the T6 was tweak the formula so much that customers took notice, and others had no choice but to follow suit.
This new Ranger takes it to an entirely new level; the result of an effort that began sometime in 2015.
They started not by putting pen to a virtual sheet of paper. That's normally how cars start off. Instead, they started by talking. And by that, we mean to customers; to truck owners worldwide. The feedback they got was collated and distilled, and they ended up with a wishlist/checklist. Then they started ticking boxes.
Customers wanted a truck that looked tough, and that's exactly what they delivered. The front looks like it's been chopped; not rounded or sculpted. And then they peppered it with many signature design elements from its big brother: the F-150. Things like the grille and the C-clamp headlamps look very distinctly Ford, and that's a good thing; the goal is to develop a truck family, and Ford does have the F-150 (which we also have in the Philippines) and the Maverick (which we don't) to draw inspiration from. This is the middle brother, and it will not be outdone.
The side actually looks very much like the outgoing model that has been so very popular with Ford especially when pickup truck excise taxes were removed. The reason for that is simple: this is still a development of the T6 Ranger, not a “T7”. The code T6 is what Ford uses to refer to the platform of the vehicle, much in the same way that Honda uses FK8 for the Civic Type R, how Nissan uses Y62 for the current Patrol Royale, or how Toyota uses J300 for the latest Land Cruiser.
It just simplifies things because there have been so many types of Ranger in the past in different markets; there's the Ranger for the Americas, and that's different from the Ranger other countries have had. Strictly speaking, this is the 4th generation of the international/global Ranger, but it's the second generation of the T6. If you want to be somewhat more specific, call it the T6.2.
Ford, however, made some significant improvements to the T6 platform over the years. One of the bigger updates was in 2015/2016 when they came out with the Everest, as the platform was adapted to be able to use coil springs and other bits, and was also made as a 3-piece. That would probably be T6.1. This T6.2 likewise has changes, as Ford reworked the rear suspension to have the shocks on the outside of the frame; that was for better control of the rear axle.
The other bit is that they moved the front wheels about 2 inches forward and 2 inches wider; the reason is to allow for a larger engine bay to make space for future upgrades. And by that, they're talking about electrification. That seems to be the key to automakers now: they are designing their vehicles to be modular and allow for easier upgrades as time goes along. It's future-proofing.
Let me tell you now that my favorite upgrade is what Ford did to the bed. Depending on the country, we refer to this by different names: some call it cargo box, some call it the “bakkie” bed, some call it deck, while we just call it the cargo bed. Whatever the case, they really made some meaningful upgrades.
For one, it's bigger. I'm not one to trust official dimensions in millimeters for the bed because sometimes it doesn't factor in a bedliner that may be included; that's why I always bring a tape measure with me. The dimensions measured from the top opening are about 55” x 55” which is pretty big. Of course, it gets a bit narrower between the wheel arches, but what loaders will like is that it can accommodate a rectangular European-sized pallet (1200mm x 800mm) in between there. That means if you're using that pallet, a forklift will come in very handy for speed loading cargo. I don't think that's the standard we use in the Philippines though; last I checked, we use square pallets, but it should still fit.
But personally, I like how Ford made the rear more functional, particularly on the Wildtrak versions that have the bedliner. And that's from my point of view as a weekend woodworker. For starters, you can cut down a 2x4 and fit it to slots on the bedliner walls. That lets you divide your bed/deck/bakkie as needed, especially on a jobsite.
There are multiple tie-down points so you can secure your cargo easily, including pre-determined points on the bed rail. I particularly liked the steps they incorporated on either side of the bed that makes life easier for the vertically challenged (like me), but also the pockets for clamping down a board on the tailgate. That's a feature I saw on the F-150, and I love that they put that in the Ranger. I do wish they also included the built-in ruler like on the F-150's tailgate, but that's what a tape measure is for.
When we got on the road, three things became apparent away: the powertrain, the new interior, and the tech package.
The powertrain is largely unchanged: the one that was assigned to us is the 4x4 Wildtrak, and it has the bi-turbo 2.0L turbodiesel which is familiar if you own a current Wildtrak or Raptor. That means it will use the same parts, so it should be fairly easy to maintain on your own (e.g. filter change, oil change, etc.) if you're not a fan of dealer service. Depending on the market, the Ranger will also be made available with the single turbo 2.0L diesel with either 150 PS or 170 PS, along with a 3.0L V6. Neither of those were in the fleet, so only the bi-turbo 2.0L for now.
The drivetrain is also familiar: it's the 10-speed automatic. There will be other transmission options like a 6-speed automatic, a 6-speed manual and -strangely- a 5-speed manual. We'll have to wait to find out what combinations Ford Philippines will opt for, but we're curious about the decision for a 5-speed manual. That must be reserved for customers that need a basic and easy-to-maintain work truck.
The second bit is the interior: yes, it looks really good. The materials they selected look very high quality, and the fitment of the interior panels do appear to be very consistent. The steering wheel is really quite good; granted, the steering wheel on the Ranger has always been good, but this one is better. The front seats aren't as bulky as before, but still very comfortable.
The rear looks like it has been improved too, and has multiple charging options including an A/C outlet. But what I really liked is how Ford increased the functionality of certain things like having the cupholders neatly tucked away on the dashboard in front of the A/C vents, the upper and lower glove boxes with a pocket/pad for your phone, as well as the wireless charger that is neatly positioned under the A/C controls.
But the big deal is the tech package, and you can tell by looking at the dashboard. The instrument panel is a digital screen with a display layout that reminds me of Windows Mobile. It's strange, but all the info you need to know is there, and I've always believed that if you're going to go for a digital display, you might as well move away from the round tachometer/speedometer layout.
The coup de grace and the main talking point have to be that large iPad-like central screen that really looks like it was lifted from a Tesla. You control almost every feature on that central screen as Ford did try to reduce a lot of the buttons on the vehicle. If they went for buttons, drivers may have to undergo training similar to pilots because there are a lot of features on the Ranger Wildtrak that are way beyond the usual.
The Ranger Wildtrak drives well. I always felt the steering of the previous Ranger was a bit too light, but this one is just right. The body control of the Ranger has always been good, and the new one seems to be better. It's hard to get a reference point for the Ranger when it comes to comfort though; I think it's more comfortable, but the roads in Thailand are generally better than the ones in the Philippines. Even the concrete roads are better and not as aggressively ridged/corrugated, so it's hard to judge. We'll have to wait until it's here to find out. The part I think that needs to be improved is the glass; you just hear more motorcycles in the Ranger because it seems the glass isn't as good as the ones on the Navara.
The drivetrain also does well. That's to be expected anyway. I pulled over to do a 0-100 km/h test, and while it didn't seem quick, the 10.3 second time was actually pretty good. That's quicker than the Hilux Conquest (204 PS 2.8L with 6-speed A/T) which did it in 10.8 seconds, and the Navara Pro-4X (190 PS 2.5L with 7-speed A/T) at 12.3 seconds. We didn't get a usable fuel economy number, but we can always do that later on.
What also stands out is actually something that doesn't stand out: the advanced safety features. I mean this has adaptive cruise control (which does work well), auto emergency braking, and the like, but what I'm talking about is the lane centering of the truck. Normally, lane centering and lane follow functions feel a bit weird, but the one on the Ranger Wildtrak is nice because it isn't intrusive. It's just gently guiding you along unlike other systems that feel like a driving instructor grabbing the wheel if he spots you making a mistake. On the Wildtrak, it's reassuringly natural.
We pulled off the main highway and entered what looks like a quarry site, and here we're going to put the Ranger's off-road abilities to the test. In the old days, off-roading depended on tried and tested mechanical bits like a good engine, a rugged gearbox, big knobby tires, a robust chassis, a good 4x4 drivetrain, front and rear live axles with locking differentials, and driver skill and courage. But many of those qualities that make a truck or SUV invincible off-road make it terribly uncomfortable and clunky on-road, and the latter is where many truck owners will spend a majority of their time on.
So what did Ford do? They took their bag of 4x4 tricks, and they didn't reach in to pull a few things out. I mean they could have just done that because the T6 Ranger has always been capable with the 4x4 system with low range, rear diff lock, and high ground clearance. Things like the 800mm water wading is still maintained, even though the ride height has already increased by a bit. On the rocky course, there was no scraping of any kind even though there were rocks that would have gotten a driver to clench a bit.
No, what Ford did was to upend a bag of electronic tricks and built a new terrain management system. The goal is to have a truck that is more capable on any kind of surface with settings for rocks, sand, slippery dirt, and mud, yet still on stock highway tires. They achieved it by working on how the vehicle delivers power to the ground so they can keep the Ranger moving and reduce the chances of getting stuck.
On the road, you want instant torque, but if you're on a tricky surface, you don't want instant torque all the time; you want it tempered a bit depending on the surface because otherwise you slide off or get stuck. If you're going down very tricky slopes then you want a slow and controlled crawl using the engine and gearbox. If you're going over elephant tracks (oddly apt for Thailand) where one wheel may be in the air, you don't want the path of least resistance to be that wheel and have it spin wildly and wastefully; you want it on the wheel on the ground to get that power and take you through.
What Ford is doing with the Ranger is simulating the techniques of an expert 4x4 driver when it comes to throttle control and brake control depending on the situation. It does this by using the sensors at its disposal to sense trouble, and tell the computers to sort it out instantly. It takes experience for a driver to recognize these things off-road, but with trucks like the Ranger, even a novice will be flattered so long as he knows what to activate and use it as intended. For a good 4x4 driver, then it makes you even better and lets you work less.
Overall, I'm really liking the Ranger. Looks good, feels good, and many of the upgrades to the bed are seriously making me envious. Our first sample of the truck has many of us impressed, but I have concerns too: the reliance on electronics.
That is my sticking point with the T6.2 Ranger: it may have too much electronics. Granted, it's really good; even on the highway tires and without pressuring down for the loose surfaces (e.g. sand) no one got stuck. But anyone who has ever ventured out into a trail in the middle of nowhere would tell you that the simpler, the better. And while the big central display and control screen would elicit a wow at the showroom, out in the wilderness it could be a vulnerability. Even the 4x4 rear diff lock is controlled on that screen and not by a physical button. If it fails and you really need diff lock, it'll be tough to trace the wire to jury-rig something in an emergency.
We brought it up with the engineers and designers, and they've reassured us that it works. But my concern is what about the day it doesn't. Like if you're out cruising in the Aussie outback, carrying loads to far-flung towns in Africa, or simply enjoying a trail somewhere in the Philippines where there's no signal to call for an emergency tow.
Maybe that doesn't matter to the majority. Maybe they're willing to look past certain concerns because it looks good and seems impressive. I guess the real test will be time.
Still not talking about politics.