Ford really started something when it introduced the Wildtrak variant as part of the Ranger line-up, adding tough pick-up truck style cues to its workhorse 4x4 ute and creating a flagship for Aussie buyers to take pride in.
The move was so successful that Ford struggled to meet Wildtrak demand, while rivals like Toyota and Holden were caught off-guard, having only recently countered with models like the Colorado Z71 and HiLux Rogue, Rugged, and Rugged X.
What makes the Ranger so successful? In a country where hard work is its own reward, the Wildtrak's combination of bold contrasting body bits (bumper inserts, rear sport bar, big wheels, etc) and relatively upmarket interior really pushes the flagship Ford ahead of more utilitarian dual-cab utes.
Australia isn’t the only place where big-dollar utes do well, though, and the world has taken notice, with Volkswagen adding high-spec Amaroks and Mercedes-Benz having just landed its first ever dual-cab with the Navara-derived X-Class. Potential pressure from those models, and a quest for market dominance will also see an updated Ranger arrive in Australia from September
Take a look inside and you'll be greeted by orange seat fabric, with complementary stitching on the dash and doors, leather-look highlights, a powered driver's seat, dual-zone climate control, and an overall design that feels more like a chunky SUV with some sporting flair, rather than a typical hay-hauler.
Wind the clock back a decade and the idea of an imported ute anywhere near as flash right out of the factory was practically unheard of, though Toyota tried with its short-lived locally TRD-tweaked HiLux.
It's no surprise then that a vehicle that can play the role of luxed-up family car and work truck in one hit, with a fairly imposing look-at-me style to boot, has become such a success.
That's not to say the Ranger is on its own, but against competitors like the Holden Colorado Z71 (which is cheaper at $57,190) or the Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate (more expensive at $68,490), the Wildtrak is the only one to include standard safety and convenience features like lane departure warning with steering assist, and adaptive cruise control.
The one missing item that really ought to be included is a pair of face-level air vents for the rear seat, but for anyone who draws the short straw and gets relegated to the back, there's enough head and leg room to accomplish long drives with minimal discomfort.
Buyers that don't require the practicality of a full four-door cabin are out of luck, though, with no Super Cab option (Ford's term for an extra-cab body style) offered in Wildtrak trim in Australia, meaning a step down to more mild-looking XLT spec – a missed opportunity if ever there were one.
As a way of emphasising its tech credentials, the Ranger also packs in Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system that incorporates an 8.0-inch touchscreen DAB+ digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – plus an instrument cluster with dual 4.2-inch configurable screens to display everything from sat-nav instructions to safety system statuses.
Compare that to your average passenger car and it may not seem like much, but in the dual-cab ute realm the Ranger is actually a small leap ahead of competitors when it comes to in-built tech.
There's also a fairly grunty 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel engine under the bonnet to handle the heavy lifting. Good for 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm from 1750 to 2500rpm, Ford's engineers have managed to dial out some of the traditional gruff notes (and vibrations) that you'd usually expect in a vehicle with commercial origins.
The elephant in the room is that Ford hasn’t boosted outputs from the engine since the current-generation car launched back in 2012, and with the Raptor promising to boost outputs by a slim 10kW and 30Nm from a smaller 2.0-litre twin-turbo engine, there’s little chance the Wildtrak will step up any time soon.
Paired with a six-speed automatic, the Ranger becomes no more of a chore to drive than a large SUV. It's less nimble than more road-biased wagons, sure, but it also has the ability to carry a 907kg payload or tow up to 3500kg, so it's understandable that there might be some handling shortcomings.
The Ranger Wildtrak is also the only ute sold in Australia with a standard lockable roller cover over the tub, offering the relative security of a hard cover, but without the usual in-the-way compromise of a hard lid, which can limit the ability to carry tall items.
It pays to be mindful, though, that neither the tailgate nor roller cover lock with the Ranger’s central locking, with each required to be locked individually. Inquisitive minds helped themselves to the rear of this particular ute twice in its time with us when publicly parked – well worth keeping in mind if you plan on storing anything in the tray.
Thanks to a global engineering development program that was led by Ford Australia, the Ranger feels right at home on Aussie roads, absolutely at its best with some weight over the rear axle, but even unladen the Ranger does a better job of dealing with small bumps than most similar utes.
As so many of these will be relegated to suburban life, it's not hard to see how the handling set-up was designed to operate with stop-start commuting in mind, but out of town, on bumpy rural roads the Ranger maintains its composure.
The Ranger follows the light-commercial ute blueprint with a rigid rear axle and leaf springs, ideal for four-wheel driving and load carrying, but harder to get decent ride quality from, making Ford’s tuning work commendable.
Head further afield and a real low-range 4x4 system (easy to engage via a rotary dial on the centre console) means plenty of mud-slinging and rock-hopping grunt when required. There's decent underbody clearance and wheel articulation, too, if you do head for the rough stuff often.
The Ranger’s electric power steering system makes for light and effortless steering in such a big heavy vehicle, though off-road purists might find a lack of feedback when picking through more precarious terrain.
As cultured and carlike as it may be, though, keeping the Ranger on the road comes at a cost with scheduled maintenance higher than many passenger cars. Service intervals fall every 12 months or 15,000km, with the first service priced at $400, the second at $560, the third at $500, with additional costs and schedules for items like brake fluid and coolant replacement.
Not only is servicing expensive, but at $61,790 (plus on-road costs) the Ranger Wildtrak crosses the path of a number of premium passenger cars. Not a consideration if you regularly go off-road or need a ute for work, but family buyers more interested in a lifestyle vehicle could snare a luxed-up SUV with even more features (and seven seats) for a similar spend.
For ute buyers, though, there is no substitute for the size, flexibility, and outright grunt of a 4x4 dual-cab, and as Australia’s suburban sprawl continues to expand, expect to see no shortage of utes like these hitting the roads.
Better still, value hunters will find dealers willing to strike a deal the current generation with an updated version scheduled to arrive later this year. The changes include new equipment like autonomous emergency braking, tailgate central locking, and self-parking assist with the option of the Raptor's new 2.0-litre engine and 10-speed auto – but nothing that makes the current model appear instantly dated
While the Ranger Wildtrak is a perfectly fitting flagship for the time being, a tug-of-war for top-end dominance looks set to erupt in the dual-cab market with brands like Mercedes-Benz and HSV ready to weigh in, not to mention the pumped-up Ranger Raptor coming soon.
Is any of that likely to diminish the appeal of the Wildtrak? It seems unlikely, with Ford already leading the pack in terms of comfort, technology and user-friendliness, but the Blue Oval will need to stay ahead of the pack as things begin to heat up. (There's that updated MY19 model, too.)