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The Ford Ranger XLT has long been our top pick in Australia’s booming 4x4 ute market, thanks to its unrivalled blend of safety equipment, car-like driving abilities and tough looks.
The general public seems to agree, given the Ranger has overtaken the mighty Toyota HiLux as Australia's top-selling 4x4 light commercial in 2016, with 28,009 sales to the end of November (up a whopping 32.6 per cent).
Reinforcing its status as the ‘truck’ to beat, the Australian-designed and engineered Ford recently picked up a range of updates including the Sync 3 infotainment system and a much-needed reversing camera.
But with the Volkswagen Amarok V6 and a revised Series II Nissan Navara ST-X on the loose, and the redesigned and re-engineered Holden Colorado finally delivering the goods, the lone Ranger now has a surfeit of company among the market's best 'lifestyle' utes.
What does lifestyle mean in this context? Well, at $57,615 plus on-road costs as tested, the Ranger is no simple workhorse. It's a statement car for weekend warriors, bought with the heart as much as the brain. Ford says an amazing 62 per cent of Rangers sold are the XLT or the even more primo Wildtrak.
Under the bonnet it's a familiar story, a 3.2-litre turbo-diesel five-cylinder with 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm between 1750 and 2500rpm that's at the pointy end of the class, but which has less pulling power than the Colorado and Amarok V6. Claimed fuel use of 9.0L/100km is ambitious, with our drive yielding 10 per cent over. The tank is 80L.
On a side note, small updates for the MY17 Ranger now mean the engine meets Euro 5 emissions requirements.
It's a very strong engine, with a relaxed nature thanks to the extra cylinder over most rivals and relatively good refinement for the class that matches the surprising Triton, matched to a six-speed automatic gearbox (as tested) with manual override that is generally intuitive, holding higher ratios to minimise fuel use but kicking down swiftly when the engine's load increases.
We've read the odd story on forums about the Ranger in the current T6 generation having auto gearbox problems, though I can say that my mother's Mazda BT-50 with an identical powertrain (shared platforms) has racked up nearly 100,000km trouble-free country kilometres, much of which has involved towing horse floats.
At first not everyone will be down with the throttle calibration, which delivers little below 20 per cent application and a barrel-full beyond, but like anything, you swiftly adjust. What we do know is the 11.1 second 0-110km/h time we managed is good for the class, though VW claims a time of 7.9s for the Amarok on overboost, which is bonkers.
The Ranger's towing capacity is an equal class-leading 3500kg braked trailer, matching the HiLux, Colorado, BT-50 and Isuzu D-Max, though the Ranger XLT will more often than not carry a boat or car trailer (maybe with something such as Wardy's Lada Niva).
If we were buying a ute purely to lug, we'd look hard at the budget Isuzu, with its unrefined but super-relaxed truck-based engine. Though, as you can read in our extensive megatest, the Ranger's ability to tow is excellent.
From a carrying perspective, the Ranger's gross vehicle mass (GVM) is an excellent 6000kg, though its hefty 2247kg kerb weight means its payload of 995kg is less of a class outlier. The tray is a decent 1549mm long and 511mm deep, though it's a narrow 1139mm between the arches.
Unlike the Navara with its fancy coils, the Ranger has a leaf rear suspension setup, though Ford's Australian engineering team has done an outstanding job calibrating the car so its body control is more like an SUV, even unladen, and even over appalling back-country gravel roads.
This SUV-like driving quality is enhanced by the dominant driving position and the light electric-assisted steering power steering, which is much less tiresome than any rival to operate in the city. Only the lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment causes grievance.
This light steering is also good off-road, despite what traditionalists may say. Minute inputs and full lock both come easily. The Ranger 4x4 comes with shift-on-the-fly 4H, and 4L (low-range) gearing, though unlike the Triton there's no road-oriented 4WD mode.
There's also a locking rear diff and hill-descent control for when engine braking won't cut it. Wading depth without a snorkel is an impressive 800mm.
In terms of driving dynamics, the Ranger remains a star. It floats over, and dispatches, sharp hits easily thanks to its soft suspension and high-side 265/65 R17 tyres, while its body control is excellent over undulations or throughout mid-corner lateral inputs. The nose turns in eagerly as well, though less so than the stiffer and less comfortable BT-50 platform-mate.
Truly impressive about the Ranger XLT is the level of safety equipment you can get if you pay extra for the $800 Tech Pack, which goes beyond the now-expected front and rear airbags and five-star ANCAP rating.
You get luxury car features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam (great for country buyers), a driver impairment monitor, a lane-departure warning system and in-built lane-keeping aid. Tick the box, though we'd love for Ford to standardise this kit to help justify the price premium.
The Ranger's cabin is also better than ever thanks to the Sync 3 software on the 8.0-inch touchscreen, which includes a reversing camera, sat-nav and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto phone mirroring. The Bluetooth phone call sound quality is good, and the layout is much more user-friendly than the old Sync 2 'quadrant' layout.
Other features unique to the XLT above lower grades include DAB+ digital radio, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, a 12V socket in the bed liner, a chilled centre control, privacy glass, dual-colour 4.2-inch digital instruments, front and rear parking sensors and side steps.
The cabin looks contemporary, and the hard-wearing cloth seats are comfortable, while the rear seats have child-seat anchors and are comfortable enough to sit three blokes across. On the downside, the plastics feel cheap in parts compared to a HiLux or Navara, and the fit-and-finish falls short of the Argentinian Amarok.
From an ownership perspective, the Ranger comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty, which isn't as good as the Triton's or D-Max's, though the 12-month/15,000km service intervals are well-spaced compared to many rivals.
The maximum price at current rates for the first four visits are $390, $520, $475 and $390, which is competitive. Ford will also give you full roadside assist cover from your State's auto club, and a service loan car.
There's little doubt that the Series II Ranger XLT remains one of the very best utes in the class. Its cabin tech beats the HiLux or BT-50, its safety story and towing capacity outdoes the more premium and rapid Amarok V6, its car-like floating ride and handling is at or near the top of the tree, and its rugged design appeals to more tastes than most.
The Ford has never been a car sold on value like the bargain Triton or D-Max, though like all utes you'll pick one up a little cheaper either through campaign pricing or good old fashioned haggling, but there are plenty of reasons why the Ranger might remain the best ute on the market for those with a lavish $60k to spend.