The Australian-influenced Ford Ranger ute brings one of the most car-like experiences to the segment.
The Ford Ranger may not be built here, but the big ute arguably has as much right to describe itself as Australian as much as the likes of the Toyota Camry and Holden Cruze.
The Blue Oval’s new-generation utility was designed, engineered and tested primarily by Ford Australia, and predominantly in Victoria.
All-new from the ground up, the Ford Ranger is being sold around the world as part of the company’s One Ford product strategy. It’s imported to Australia from Thailand where it’s built alongside the twin-under-the-skin Mazda BT-50.
There’s no confusing the two utes, though. Where Mazda has opted for a polarising exterior, particularly the drooping front end, Ford has stuck with a design that reflects its long-associated ‘Built Tough’ slogan.
Ford says it mixes elements of US Ford design and the Ford Europe ‘kinetic’ design language, though it’s the former that dominates most – notably the front end with the bold, triple-bar chrome grille.
And it’s arguably the best-looking ute on the market.
The Ford Ranger, released in September 2011, now has its full range available – with supply normalised after disruptions caused by last year’s Thai floods.
There are 20 variants all up, comprising Single Cabs (single-cab chassis, single-cab ute), Super Cabs (extended-cab chassis, extended-cab ute) and Double Cabs (dual-cab chassis, dual-cab ute). There are ‘Hi-rider’ versions with raised suspension, two main trim levels (XT and XLT) and a choice of 4x2 or 4x4.
We tested a Ford Ranger XLT 4x4 dual-cab ute that sits towards the top of the pecking order, a place below the range-topping Wildtrak, and costing from $53,390.
The XLT is a more luxury-focused trim compared with the more workman-like XL.
That brings more convenience/comfort features, such as dual-zone climate control, floor carpets, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear view mirror, and privacy glass.
XLT also adds multiple chrome touches – grille, door handles, tailgate handle, rear bumper, side steps and sports bar.
There are also rear parking sensors that are much needed for such a large vehicle – though it’s a pity the Wildtrack is the only Ranger to be fitted as standard with a reverse-view camera.
The Ford Ranger was previously a big unit but now it’s even taller, longer and wider than before.
It stretches to 5.35 metres, with 3.22m of that accounting for the wheelbase.
Shifting the 2159kg mass of this Ranger XLT is a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel, mated to a $2000 optional six-speed auto in our test model rather than the standard six-speed manual.
It produces 147kW at 3000rpm though buyers looking for grunt will take greater note of the torque figure: 470Nm delivered between 1500 and 2750 revs.
In terms of literal pulling power, the Ranger XLTs 3350kg towing capability is beaten only by the 3500kg mark of the all-new Holden Colorado. (A tow bar is also standard on the XLT.)
On the road there’s bucketloads of torque from the deep well of the Ranger’s five-cylinder. There’s so much muscle low down in the rev range that it’s easy to chirp the rear tyres.
The diesel is quite refined when cruising, though there’s a more pronounced rattle under acceleration.
The delivery of power is generally superb, however – both linear and meaty. And the Ford Ranger XLT is effortless to drive even on light throttle, with smooth gearchanges provided by the excellent auto.
That’s just one of the factors that makes the Ranger one of the picks of the dual-cab segment that continues to expand its appeal beyond work sites to those looking for an ultra-versatile vehicle that can help with the trade during the week while transporting family or lifestyle equipment at the weekend.
Another key area is how the Ford Ranger drives.
While there’s no revolution underneath – the Ranger continues with almost-prehistoric rear leaf springs that are biased towards load-carrying abilities – Ford’s ute rides surprisingly comfortably, with little of the bouncing tendencies experienced with some rivals such as the category-dominating Toyota HiLux.
The Ranger’s steering is also relatively brilliant, for a ute – more direct and car-like than the segment norm. The turning circle is also surprisingly tight, making the big Ford fairly easy to manoeuvre around both city and suburbs.
It also goes around corners well to a point, but while the those leaf springs inevitably limit the Ranger’s dynamic qualities.
So you’ll discover an effective stability control system – standard across the Ranger range unlike some other utes such as the HiLux – keeping things in check if you’re too eager with the throttle, especially when cornering in the wet.
A load in the tray – which is competitively sized, by the way - would certainly help that rear-end stability. On dirt or gravel tracks, drivers can engage four-wheel-drive (high or low) via a centre console switch (there’s also hill descent control and a rear differential lock for off-roading).
Ford’s designers have also made the Ranger’s interior more car-like.
Tough plastics are still the go, but there’s a strong argument for durability over tactility for utes.
Otherwise there are stalks, buttons and dials familiar from Ford passenger cars such as the Focus small car.
There are also similar design cues though the Ranger, suitably, gets a masculine-looking approach that matches the exterior.
The instrument cluster is even inspired by Casio’s chunky G-Shock watches.
Dual-cab utes used to feature perpendicular rear seats that left passengers bolt upright, but the newer models are less neglectful and the Ranger is typical of the modern breed by offering a more comfortable reclined seatback position.
Ford claims the Ranger has 20 storage spaces, and we certainly never struggled to find places to store various items such as mobiles, coffees, wallets and bottles of water.
Peace of mind is also offered by six airbags – dual front, side and curtain airbags – and the fact the Ford Ranger scored a maximum five stars in independent crash testing by NCAP.
One of the only major irksome points with the Ranger is that the twin Mazda BT-50, the XTR dual-cab 4x4 3.2 diesel, costs a few thousand dollars less at $48,810.
The Ford Ranger still sits among an elite group of dual-cab utes, which also includes the Mazda and the Volkswagen Amarok, that have distanced themselves from competitors in leading safety scores and features, and in the way the drive.