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.

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