FORD RANGER TEST
We revisit New Zealand’s biggest-selling new vehicle and try to discover what makes it so successful..
IT’S THE DARLING OF THE NEW ZEALAND new vehicle market, not just the best-selling ute but the best-selling vehicle – period.
And demand for Ford’s Ranger shows no signs of slackening. In fact, since it edged ahead of the Toyota Hilux to become NZ’S best-selling ute in 2014, Ranger sales have simply expanded.
For instance, in June last year, the Blue Oval sold close to 1200 of them in one month. June is Fieldays month when ute sales go crazy, but the Ranger’s performance caused many a jaw to drop.
Its appeal to buyers seems unending, and Ford has followed a policy of continuous improvement, like making engine refinements that lowered noise vibration and harshness (NVH) levels.
It has also retuned the suspension to make the truck more dual-purpose and city and family-friendly without compromising off-road ability.
And it added electrically-boosted power steering to improve sharpness and precision and reduced noise and vibration.
It has endowed the ute with cutting edge connectivity features formerly seen only in passenger cars, including the latest version of Ford’s SYNC system.
Looks-wise, the Australian-designed ute has had one mid-life freshen: the current trapezoidal grille replaced the horizontalbarred original unit.
Visually, it’s probably due for another revamp, and that may come in the wake of the Ranger’s move into the mid-sized ute section of the American market (see story in the news section of this magazine).
Any new look is likely to coincide with the arrival of the high-performance Raptor model later this year.
So what is it that gives this undeniably handsome-looking pick-up truck its enduring appeal? We re-tested it in January to try to get a handle on what it is that makes the Ranger so special.
After all, rivals are coming close – like the revitalised Holden Colorado that we made LCV Magazine’s 2017 Ute of the Year.
The changes Holden made to the Colorado in 2016 so transformed the ute that it was almost a no-brainer as the logical choice for our award.
But even in making the award we noted that the Holden still wasn’t quite on a par with the Ford.
The test Ranger was the top-of-the-line
Wildtrak Double Cab 4x4, finished in grey metallic, with two-toned orange fabric and black leather interior trim and seat upholstery. It’s a classylooking interior.
After a few days with the Ranger, including a long country drive that included our regular test loop, we think we’ve identified two things that are major keys to the Ford’s market appeal.
The first is all-round refinement. Refinement is a Ranger strong point and extends from in-cabin quietness to the ride quality and the way the truck steers.
Noise levels are well-muted. The engine is generally very quiet until you floor the throttle and big five-cylinder bellows like a Wagnerian heldentenor .
The 3.2-litre Duratorq sounds much less like a diesel than the rival Holden Colorado’s 2.8-litre four-cylinder or the VW Amarok’s.
The motor has a lovely evocative note – as unique in its way as the Subaru boxer four’s V8-like beat used to be before the Japanese make sanitised it – and it roars gutturally when you pound the pedal. It’s a very different sound, and a pleasing one.
Cabin noise is moderate even on the harshest of chip-sealed tarmac surfaces and there’s little detectable wind noise.
In short, the cabin is a nice, quiet and restful place to be.
We feel that another important key to the Ranger’s success is that during the vehicle’s development, Ford’s design team obviously thought long and hard about what the endusers – passengers as well as driver – would want of the truck.
Consider the nicely minimal dashboard layout and its user-friendly controls. There’s everything that needs to be there, nothing that doesn’t. This less is more approach adds a feeling of class.
A big touch-screen puts you in command of a myriad of functions and sits in centre-dash, easy to read, easy to reach, and simple to use.
The instrumentation is dominated by a large-diameter speedometer directly ahead of the driver, and a blue indicator needle makes it easy to see where your speed is on the analogue dial.
At the top of the dial is the marking for
100km/h which makes it easy to keep tabs on the speed limit, an important factor in these days of zero tolerance enforcement.
The tachometer is to the right, a small instrument that you can consult if you need to. But how many people ever consult the rev counter – even in a high-performance sports car?
For other than race drivers, the tacho is something to stare at as you blip the throttle and watch the needle hurtle around the dial.
It’s become a toy-for-a-boy rather than a genuine driver aid in a day when you have less need to be concerned about over-revving engines because they’re usually slightly overengineered and are electronically-controlled anyway.
Ford’s tacho in the Ranger is about the size of the dial on a Longines watch; the key instrument in this day of strict speed-policing is the speedo and Ford has recognised that.
My only quibble about the controls was a certain awkwardness in finding the slot for the ignition key on the steering column; I always seemed to have it at the wrong angle, the blade vertical when it should have been horizontal.
The seating is excellent, and there’s good legroom in the rear cabin. The only criticism came from the front seat passenger who said her legs felt cramped and she could have done with more room.
Performance is very good and the engine’s 147kw of maximum power and 470Nm of peak torque ensure good acceleration and the ability to tow a 3.5-tonne braked trailer.
The Ranger accelerates willingly and always feels like it has plenty in reserve, never feeling as if it could do with more oomph.
Generally, handling is excellent. The steering – controlled by a nicely-chunky-rimmed leather wrapped steering wheel – is sharp but retains plenty of feel and the Ranger can be placed extremely precisely.
Point it into a 90km/h-plus sweeping corner and it turns-in eagerly, with a nice rear-wheel drive feel (after all, on-road it runs in rearwheel drive) as the weight transfers to the outside rear wheel.
Ride is generally very good. It’s firmish but very comfortable around town and the Ranger sailed serenely over the bumpy section of suburban road we use to assess low-speed ride.
It’s an innocuous-looking section of tarmac but there are hidden, high-frequency bumps that quickly point up any shortcomings in ride quality.
But on our regular test loop, and running at 100km/h, the Wildtrak felt a little unsettled over bumps and undulations on a section of road built on peatland.
It wasn’t quite as marked as it was on the LDV T60 which – we understand – used the Ranger as a benchmark in its development, but it wasn’t what we had been expecting.
The Ranger also discovered an unsettling bump on a moderately-difficult left-hand corner off a bridge a kilometre or so further along the route.
It’s a bend where the actual corner is a few metres further down the road than you’re anticipating as you drive off a narrow bridge.
It’s the kind of corner where rally navigators would tell their drivers, “don’t cut” because if they did, they’d turn-in too soon and zip into a ditch.
We’ve pushed several different utes, SUVS and even vans into this corner and they’ve never been unsettled by what to most is a minor bump.
But the Ranger got really lively here, with a hunker down followed by a slight shuffle sideways – not a big shuffle but enough to get your attention.
Maybe it was travelling a tad quicker than others we’ve driven through this bend – for the Ranger has a very competent chassis and unshakable roadholding and will handle turns at higher speeds than many rivals.
Whatever the reason, the little shuffle sideways before the Ranger regained its composure came as a surprise.
Over our handling road where corner follows corner with a few straights, plenty of blind crests, and bends that demand precision, the Ranger was excellent.
The brakes (disc front, drum rear) were strong, the turn-in crisp with only moderate understeer – though surprisingly, a couple of times, I had to wind on more lock that I remembered having to do in rivals.
I’m inclined to think, though, that the Ford’s point-to-point time and cornering speeds were a little up on the other vehicles’.
The Ranger’s six-speed automatic gearbox is excellent, shifting smoothly and quickly, though we were a little disappointed by the hesitant and – ultimately slow – kickdown when you floored the throttle off a corner. The pause felt a nanosecond too great.
The Ranger is a hit with Kiwi ute buyers – you don’t sell them at the rate of 1200 a month as Ford NZ did last June if the product doesn’t meet buyers’ expectations – but is it the best ute on the market?
If we were to be asked, we’d say it’s a close call between the Ford Ranger and the Holden Colorado. The old Colorado wasn’t exactly a dog but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Ford.
But the improvements the General made
to the Colorado in 2016 took it into a new league; we figured at the time that it had gotten closer to the Ranger.
This test of the Ranger has confirmed that impression, and the Holden has possibly the best and most responsive steering in the ute genre.
Both handle, perform and ride well, both have high levels of refinement, though we’d give the nod to the Ford whose engine is quieter and generally feels the smoother of the two.
However, if it is to retain its market leadership, we think that the time has come for Ford to do a little more than make regular upgrades to the Ranger. It may be time to make a similar leap forward to the one that saw it topple the Toyota Hilux as NZ’S king of utes.
Right now, the Ranger is king but the challengers are gathering, and as the Ranger is the most important vehicle in Ford’s portfolio, the Blue Oval boys can’t afford to let it lose ground.
One of the lasting impressions from a week with the Ranger is that it is very much the sum of its parts, a vehicle that does everything well and some things outstandingly.
It scores heavily on refinement and intelligent design in which the end user has been considered from day one of the design process. It is well made, and it is enjoyable to drive in all environments.
It has the feel-good factor you get when driving prestige cars: when you’re driving them, those sort of vehicles make you feel good about them and about yourself.
At the end of the day they may be transport but they have an x-factor that sets them apart from their rivals.
The Ford Ranger Wildtrak is one of those vehicles. It’s easy to understand why so many Kiwis have bought them. If there’s an aspirational ute on the NZ market, it’s the Ford Ranger.
Main: The vehicle that has captured Kiwi ute buyers’ hearts. Handsome Ranger dominates the market and continues to set sales records.
Insert: Ranger still looks fresh; Ford designers have eschewed using chrome detailing, instead going for an elegant black.
Above left: The view of the Ranger that its rivals have seen in the ute sales race. Above right: Fender-mounted “vent” distinguishes Ranger. Wildtrak decal is discreet, alloy wheels elaborate without being over the top. Below: Neatly-styled sports bar blends with the rear of the cab, adds an extra touch of class.
Top: Dashboard design is extremely neat and logical. Instrumentation is dominated by large easy-to-read speedo, leather-wrapped steering wheel is a pleasure to use. Below left: There is good legroom for rear seat passengers. Below right: Sports-style front bucket seats get a two-tone finish and are comfortable and supportive.