The lifestyle ute. It’s a concept that was, up until recently, all but a concept.
Softer, more luxurious versions of their working siblings, these work-life-balance pick-ups are fast becoming a hugely popular choice for many Australian buyers.
The current pinup in this weekend warrior segment is the 2016 Ford Ranger Wildtrak. More than just an up-spec version of a basic Ranger utility, the Wildtrak brings its own unique look (and spelling – there is no ‘c’ in Wildtrak) and some pretty solid capability to the table. It’s clearly aimed at adventure buyers more than straight-up tradies though.
Priced from $57,890 (plus options and on-road costs) for a manual, or $60,090 for the auto, the Wildtrak is a solid $3500 more than the top-specification ‘normal’ Ranger, the XLT.
For your extra spend, you get a specific look – inside and out – and a range of standard equipment that would make many European saloons feel embarrassed.
From heated seats and mirrors, to 18-inch wheels, parking sensors (front and rear with camera), powered driver’s seat and of course floor mats, the Wildtrak wants for nothing in terms of kit.
Plus it ticks the safety boxes too, with six airbags, including side curtains for the rear passengers, and a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
It’s designed to fill that gap in your family where a reliable station wagon or SUV once stood. A brochure chock full of objection handling answers that say that a shiny, ‘Pride Orange’ (exclusive to the Wildtrak and a $500 option – there are five colours available), 4x4 pickup is all the vehicle you need to handle everything life can throw at you.
And while that might be laced with a sprinkle of sarcasm, it’s actually not that far off the mark.
From the standard towbar forward, the range-toppping Ranger has just the right mix of form and function to satisfy in most environments – except inner city carparks, but more on that later.
The tray is typical of the segment and offers an approximate 1.55m ‘square’ load area. Payload capacity is down slightly (about 50kg) on the XLT and other ‘working’ models to 907kg (which includes people on board) due to the addition of extra goodies without any adjustments made to the suspension.
One such goodie is the roll-top tonneau cover. It’s like a garage door on top of the tub, and provides excellent security for what is stored beneath. The problem is the roll-housing takes up a decent amount of space near the cab, and two of the load-bay tie-down points are located under it, making access very tricky.
Fine if all you have in the back is some light gear or bags, but not awesome if you want to use the Wildtrak to carry a load. Like say, some tall cactus plants – see photos…
In the rear of the cab, there is decent head and shoulder room, but it will never be as spacious for your legs, or as comfortable for your bum as in the back of an SUV wagon.
Sure there are twin ISOFIX points, a center arm-rest with bottle holders and neatly scalloped outside seats, but the bench is a little firm and squeezing three-up in the back is not advised for a long trip.
The front seats though are very comfortable. The combination of leather and sports-like fabric in the trademark orange (regardless of your exterior colour choice) do work in a lairy ‘I bought a giant Tonka Truck’ kind of way, and the cabin layout is, for the most part, very good.
There’s storage galore, multiple USB and 12-volt points, cup holders, cubbies and the very handy 220-volt outlet behind the centre console. Paul Maric ruined our location shoot fun suggesting it was not designed to run the Nespresso coffee machine, but it runs a camera or laptop charger just fine.
A real callout is the dark headliner. I’ve said it before, but this simple change from light (in most cars) to dark does an awful lot to make the cabin of a car feel just a little bit special and premium. I’m sure there is a university psychology study purely devoted to things like this, but on base terms, the Wildtrak is a really nice place to spend time.
Power comes courtesy of the 147kW / 470Nm 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel found in the Ford Everest and most of the other Ranger line-up. It can sound and feel a bit ‘trucky’ at low temps and low revs, often vibrating in a way that makes you wish you’d had a second coffee, but once ticking along it provides solid pulling power and when combined with the six-speed automatic, a smooth driving experience.
Peak torque is available from 1750 to 2500 rpm so the Ranger is very drivable around town, giving a surety of response when you need it.
You can tip the shifter into a manual mode, but gear selection from the automatic is really good when it is left to its own devices. In fact, it is so well suited to the motor that you forget that it is working away in the background as you drive about.
New to the latest Ranger is an electronically assisted steering rack that lightens up around town to help make the big orange lug substantially more docile in city confines.
It’s still an awful lot of real estate to chug around in though, and at 5.5-meters long (with the tow bar), finding a spot on the street or in a carpark can be tricky – worth keeping in mind if you fancy one of these but live close to town.
Ride in the city is good too. Even with no load in the back, the Wildtrak doesn’t exhibit any of the traditional jittering and floating you feel with some utes. Yes it is still firm, but it feels more like an SUV than a ute – if that makes sense.
This ‘SUV-ness’ extends onto the highway too, an environment where the Wildtrak really shines. Here the concept of a ‘lifestyle ute’ is very much a reality, as the the Ranger eats up the miles with supreme ease and comfort.
That electronic steering weights up nicely and the car settles well, feeling very confident and relaxed at touring speeds.
Sure it’s no whisper-quiet Range Rover, but it’s no booming tin box either. We measured ambient cabin volume of 70dB at 80km/h, which is about the same as a ‘noisy’ SUV. The level increased as speed did though, and at 110km/h you will note some extra tyre and wind noise that you wouldn’t expect in a similar SUV.
Our test car is fitted with the optional tech pack ($600) which, at basically one percent of the purchase price should just be made standard equipment. It’s a well featured system, offering a lane departure warning and steering assistance function, a pre-collision warning system (no autonomous braking though), and adaptive cruise control.
The information is represented clearly on the 4.2-inch LCD screens that flank the central speedometer in the instrument cluster and you can easily cycle through details with the buttons on the steering wheel.
Pretty cool stuff for a ute in anyone’s language though, and a huge sales and marketing point for Ford who (rightly) position the Ranger as the safest vehicle in its class.
While talking about technology, the eight-inch SYNC2 infotainment system is another strong point of the Ranger.
Featuring DAB-digital radio, satellite navigation, telephony and support for the climate control functions, the SYNC2 screen is a one-stop shop for managing many of the vehicle functions.
In the most part it works well, but some of the button placements on the screen are small and hard to get to while on the move, plus the much-touted voice-control system is sketchy at best.
At launch, Matt noted his test car had some issues with the navigation being confused. We saw similar glitches with our Wildtrak where the map didn’t update from a right-turn detail screen for a good 10km.
Being software driven, we hope that Ford puts some effort into ironing out some of these bugs to be installed at service intervals.
Part of the update to the powertrain included some tweaks to fuel economy. Moving the steering from a hydraulic to electric system helped too, and Ford claim a mixed cycle consumption of 9L/100km. We saw exactly that on a combination of urban and highway running, which isn’t bad for a 2300kg vehicle.
It’s not as good as the Isuzu D-MAX though, where we saw consumption dip into the 5s on sustained highway runs with our long-term Space Cab. That said, if quibbling over single digit fuel consumption figures is your barrier to entry, you should probably step away from the 60-thousand-dollar orange rectangle tout-suite.
Being a rough and tumble 4X4 too, you would expect the Ranger to devour gravel and dirt surfaces with ease. And you would be right.
Here too there is a host of driver assistance technology, from a locking rear differential to hill-descent control functionality. There’s even tyre-pressure monitoring and an 800mm wading depth – should you feel brave. You can change from high-range 2WD to 4WD on the fly, which should see you negotiate the majority of surfaces.
For rougher stuff, the low-range gearing works well and the Wildtrak’s height and articulation capabilities see it dispatch more extreme terrain without breaking sweat. As with most cars like this, the technology presents a vehicle with more talent and ability than the driver will ever need.
Make no bones about it, the 2016 Ford Ranger Wildtrak is a terrific package. No it isn’t cheap for what is still fundamentally a working ute, but it has blurred the line between pickup and SUV more than anything before it.
For buyers looking to move from a wagon to a ute, we suggest having a good look at space and usage requirements, as well as noting the compromises made on noise and ride quality. Right now an SUV is still, in a sense, the ‘smarter’ family option, but if you know what you are getting into and like the idea of a big, chunky, comfy truck… then the Wildtrak is the perfect blend of life and style that may very well fit yours.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.