The Ford Ranger may be one of the most popular 4x4 dual-cab utes in Australia, but it's New Zealand where they can't get enough of them.
Where Aussies tend to prefer passenger cars and SUV's over light commercial vehicles, in NZ the Ranger is currently the single most popular vehicle overall. In November and 2015 year-to-date it has outsold the Toyota Corolla which is the highest selling passenger car and the sales winner across the ditch from 2014.
Dual-cab utes are flavour of the season and we see a lot around town. But how does this Ford stack up as a workhorse in a tough environment?
The southern island of New Zealand is a harsh and unforgiving place, and on the shore of Lake Wanaka lies Minaret Station. This 20,000-hectare alpine farming property is accessible only by helicopter or barge and largely consists of steep, mountainous terrain. The peaks of the mountains on the property remain snow-capped even as summer begins.
It's a stunningly beautiful place to test the limits of the Ranger. As well as it's popularity in this small country, another poignant reason we're here is because the station is run by the Wallace brothers who use Rangers as their farm vehicles.
It’s an adventure destination too, with heli skiing, guided fishing and hunting expeditions, an Alpine Lodge tucked away high in the mountainous terrain, as well as more run of the mill action activities, like kayaking and mountain biking.
After flying to Queenstown and taking a bus to Wanaka, we were transported to the property by helicopter while the cars were ferried across on the barge.
There are no specially-built courses and roads here, purpose built to show off the Ranger – this trip is all about living with the car and doing the things that these guys do here every day.
First up, a bit of basic 4WD training in a paddock. Coming to a stop and putting the car into neutral, we switch to low-range via a dial at the base of the centre stack and head into the first obstacle, a ditch that flexes the suspension and even ensured one wheel lifted off the ground.
The Ranger has a 28-degree approach angle and a 25-degre departure angle and handled the articulation without batting an eyelid. Just for fun we drove along the side of a steep hill, my co-driver was a jovial journalist from Malaysia and when gravity forced him flat to the passenger door, with me hanging over him in the drivers seat, he was laughing hysterically.
Stepping it up a notch, it was then time to tackle a muddy mess of a track, thanks to the water running down from the top of the mountains as the snow melts. The key with driving in mud is to keep the speed steady and don't stop. Our instructors reminded us that a bit of wheel spin is a good thing because it helps fling the mud from the tyre tread to assist in gaining traction. 4x4 Ranger models also have a locking rear differential to help improve traction when conditions get a bit rough.
The adventure didn't stop there - I was nominated to tow a large trailer laden with kayaks down the mountain to Lake Wanaka for a bit of a break from driving.
The reverse-view camera has a guideline to help line up the tow bar, which I was incredibly grateful for. It helped me save face, and nail it first go in front of a big group of my peers. The Ranger has a braked towing capacity of 3500kg (750kg unbraked) and though plastic kayaks are light, the trailer was long and awkward at times to manoeuvre through narrow paddock gates and around tight corners.
Trailer sway control, dynamic stability control with ABS, hill launch assist, load adaptive control, emergency brake assist, roll over mitigation, emergency brake light activation, traction control and hill descent control are standard across the 4x4 Ranger range.
The kayak around the lake was relaxing and gave us an opportunity to see the scenery from a different perspective, the water is crystal clear, the grass a vibrant green and the snow-covered peaks were almost blinding in the sunlight. Though I chose the kayak adventure, others took the opportunity to explore the property on a mountain bike, and some went fly-fishing.
At the end of the first day we enjoyed the freshly caught fish, cooked over a campfire, before heading back to base.
Travelling in convoy, it hits you just how magical and tough this corner of the world is. The property covers 20,000 hectares, most of it steep and well above sea level. Yet the sheep, cattle, horses and deer thrive in these harsh conditions.
Though we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re well accommodated for the night. It may be warm during the day, but temperatures are well down into single figures at night. Glamping is the perfect way to survive a chilly night in the wilderness.
The next day I’m headed deep in to the high country. Tracks were cut into the side of the mountain years ago, but there’s steep drop offs to crawl along and plenty of ditches to test approach and departure angles. It's a little bit daunting, with rocks just centimetres from the side-mirror on one side, and a sheer cliff on the other.
We tackle a water crossing early in the journey, making sure the water-level is below the 800mm wading capability of the car. Slowly but surely we crawl our way higher and higher up the slopes.
The Ranger has 230mm of ground clearance, and even with the aforementioned approach and departure angles, I still manage to touch the tow bar down every now and again. In places where the track isn't too narrow, the tip is to approach at an angle (and hold your breath and cross your fingers) while you crawl the Ranger through the worst of the rut one wheel at a time.
When we finally made it safely to the top, the view was absolutely spectacular and worth all of the concentration, calculations and finger-crossing it took to get there.
You can appreciate exactly why the south island of New Zealand was chosen as the backdrop for the epic Lord of the Rings movies, it's simply breathtaking. Before long though, it's time to tackle the drive back down the slope. It's every bit as engaging as the ascent but my confidence has grown because the Ranger makes it look so easy.
This experience may not have pushed the Ranger to the extremities of it's limits, but it certainly proved that it’s more than capable of hauling the family around town, and holding its own off-road in some pretty unforgiving territory.