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Brute Force OFF-ROAD TEST: FORD RANGER 3.2 XLT AT

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VIEWS

Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.

Br’UTE Force
 The double-cab sector has shaken up the recreational vehicle category. Bakkies are no longer just a compromise between load and people carriers – thanks to bigger cabins and more thoughtful ergonomics they’re now serious competitors to large family sedans.  e new Ford Ranger is one of the latest double-cabs to debut a wide-bodied cabin, and although it was late to the game, this entrant’s a potential game changer

 

So the new Ford Ranger is finally here. We’re a little behind the pack with this road test and by now much of the hype surrounding this bakkie has died down, but I’m still as amped as ever. You see, the outgoing model held a special place in my heart. We previously had a long-term Ranger 3.0 TDCi of which I was very fond, particularly for its brawny engine which I rated as being the best in the business at that time.
Of course, the downside to that model was its narrow proportions and slightly cramped cabin, especially when compared to its bigger counterparts, the Hilux and Navara, and more recently, the Amarok. What’s more, the outgoing Ranger was a little disappointing when it came to fit and finish, and materials used.
Well, the new Ranger changes everything. It’s brand new so it shares no similarities with its predecessor, not even the chassis.

INTERIOR
Space. There’s heaps of it. Above your head, in front of your knees, next to your shoulders. Even down by your feet. This is a big cabin. Not quite as large as the Amarok’s, but bigger than the Hilux’s. To put it another way, there’s enough shoulder room for two adults and a young teen to sit side by side in relative comfort on the second row of seats. You’ll find lots of storage space in the Ranger’s cabin to stash your cups, bottles, sunglasses, keys and wallet. Plus, there are a few lockable / hidden compartments scattered about: the glove box is huge and lockable, the centre console is air-conditioned and can hold several cooldrink cans and there are two lockable compartments hidden under the rear seat. Comfort-wise, the seats are firm and the driving position’s great. Unfortunately, the steering wheel only adjusts up and down, not forward and aft. The audio system’s average, but relatively easy to use. Cleverly, the radio’s digital display is deeply recessed in the dash so it’s always shaded and thus easy to read, even in bright sunlight conditions.

Late last year we took the Ranger on a trip to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (see our January ’12 issue) where temperatures exceeded 50° C. The Ranger’s aircon works exceptionally well; we kept the fan on its lowest speed setting and that did the job. So it’s difficult to fault this bakkie’s interior – just about everything is thoughtfully laid out, but for one item: the diff-lock button. It’s positioned on the passenger side of the centre console rather than close at hand to the driver.

That may not seem like a big deal but on long-haul journeys the front-seat passenger may cross his / her leg and accidentally engage the diff -lock button with a boot or foot. Th is may sound like an unlikely scenario but it actually happened to us on several occasions and it took me a while to fi gure out why and how the diff -lock light kept coming on.

EXTERIOR
I can’t tell you how happy I am that Ford have found its styling mojo again. In my opinion, the face-lift ed version of the outgoing model was a disaster – Ford ditched every butch line and turned the poor bakkie into a eunuch.
In contrast I love everything about new Ranger’s style; with its macho charisma and unassuming composure, it’s the George Foreman of the bakkie world. Th e Ranger has an interesting balance of lines. Although it appears to be curvy and rounded there’s absolutely nothing soft about its styling. I think this has something to do with the Ranger’s bold features; take a step back and you’ll notice there’s almost no subtle styling on the Ranger. The bonnet’s wide and level, there’s a huge power bulge stretching from one end to the other, the headlights are large and uncomplicated and the front grille boasts three chunky slats that are chrome-plated and very distinctive. Seen from the side, the fender flares curve along a high arch line, the mirrors are big, the doors are big and there’s a deep groove moulded into the Ranger’s flanks. Everything about the Ranger is big, bold and in-your-face, and yet somehow it also manages to be simple and understated.
Make no mistake, this is a big bakkie. At 5 274 mm, the Ranger’s the longest double-cab we can think of. It’s 14 mm longer than the Hilux, 20 mm longer than the Amarok and 54 mm longer than the Navara. In fact, you may find this hard to believe, but the Ranger is longer than the Defender 130 double-cab, by some 130 mm… In terms of width, the new Ranger’s on par with the Navara at 1 850 mm. That’s noticeably broader than the Hilux’s measurement of 1 835mm but nowhere near the Amarok’s super-sized 1 954 mm. It does need to be said that there is a limit as to how wide a vehicle can be before it starts to become impractical, particularly in underground parking areas. Personally, I think the Amarok pushs the limits on this score – sometimes it’s difficult to open doors on both sides when you’re parked. The Ranger and Navara offer a good balance between interior space and external manoeuvrability, anything wider seems superfl uous.

OFF-ROAD
Th e Ranger isn’t a hardcore off -roader, and its clearance angles (approach, departure and break-over of 25.5, 21.8 and 18.5° respectively) are obvious clues. What’s more, the Ranger’s RTI score was less than stellar, registering 350 RTI 20°. Fortunately, what the Ranger lacks in extreme 4×4 ability it makes up for as an overlander, featuring a class-leading wading depth of 800 mm, great ground clearance of 237 mm and an excellent payload capacity of 1 049 kg. The Ranger also makes for a terrific tow vehicle featuring a manufacturer’s braked towing capacity of 3 350 kg. Of course, SA legislation limits the Ranger’s towing load to the vehicle’s tare weight (2 117 kg), but the point still stands that the Ranger can haul a helluva lot if given the chance.

But I’m misleading you; I’m not saying the Ranger can’t handle tough terrain, it’s just that it’s more at home in real-life 4×4 scenarios, things like Van Zyl’s Pass, Moremi and the CKGR’s sandy cut lines, all of which it can tackle with ease. If you want to drive grade 4 / 5 trails you’re bound to lose some Tupperware. But then again, the same could be said about any standard bakkie. Another impressive feature – which again highlights the Ranger’s overland potential – is its fuel economy.

During our Botswana trip we recorded an offroad average of 10 l/100 km. That’s impressive considering the terrain we were driving: a combination of dirt, mud, water and deep, soft sand so hot you couldn’t walk on it. Combine the Ranger’s fuel consumption average with its 80-litre fuel tank and you’ll enjoy a useful range of 800 or more kilometres from a single tank. Add another two jerrycans to the mix and that figure climbs to 1 200 kilometres, exclusively off-road! While on the subject of jerrycans, we were pleased to find that a standard height jerrycan fits snugly under the lip of the load bin. Plus, if you stand two jerrycans side by side they slot perfectly between two rear lashing points. Throw a ratchet strap around them and you’ve got a very secure, very tight spot to mount your extra fuel (see pic on page 79). Best of all, you can do this on both sides of the bak, allowing you four jerrycans. The Ranger sports an assortment of off-road driver aids, one of which is traction control, or TCS as Ford calls it. This system works in conjunction with the vehicle’s ESP and according to Ford it’s very effective against wheel spin. Personally, I wouldn’t bother – the TCS system is about as helpful as a Home Affairs official, particularly in severe cross-axle situations. If the terrain does get gnarly, engage the Ranger’s rear diff-lock, that’ll do the trick. And if you’ve left it too late, don’t fret, unlike many other OE-fitted rear diff-locks that require you to drive a few metres before the locker engages, the Ranger’s unit is quite responsive, engaging as soon as you push the button.

A first for me was playing with the Ranger’s hill descent control; it’s a fully adjustable system that’s tied in with the vehicle’s cruise control. Basically, you can adjust the rate of descent by altering the cruise control settings on the vehicle’s steering wheel. And this isn’t just a gimmicky feature – it actually works and does a great job of getting the vehicle down slippery slopes.

ON-ROAD
The boring stuff first. Ordinarily, the issue of safety isn’t something we off-roader’s are too concerned about given that we commonly do things like overload our 4x4s, fit oversized tyres, install automatic lockers and mount non-airbag-compatible bumpers. However, it’s still an important subject, and in the Ranger’s case you will draw a lot of comfort from the fact that this is the first pick-up to achieve a 5-star Euro NCAP safety rating. This achievement is a vast improvement over the previous model’s 2-star rating and involves a number of upgrades in a variety of categories, one of which includes the Ranger’s pedestrian-friendly bumper. Th e Ranger also boasts other safety features like Hill Launch Assist, Trailer Sway Control, Adaptive Load Control, Roll-Over Mitigation, Emergency Brake Assist and several key-positioned airbags. But onto the really interesting stuff , Ford’s all-new 3.2-litre 5-cylinder diesel engine. Th is motor replaces the previous generation’s 3.0 TDCi which was a fantastic engine itself. Ford have replaced this motor with two derivatives, the 3.2 TDCi and the 2.2 TDCi – there are no 4×4 petrol models as yet.
Ordinarily, I don’t believe you should fix what ain’t broke, but after spending considerable time driving the 3.2 TDCi, I have to concede that it’s a worthy replacement. This is particularly true in the fuel economy department; if you really nurse this motor the fuel index drops right down to 9 l/100 km. Even at fast highway speeds this bakkie doesn’t burn anything more than 11 l/100 km. How about performance? You get a whopping 470 Nm at a mere 1 500 rpm and 147 kW @ 3 000 rpm. Th e 2.2-litre TDCi is also quite impressive, whipping up 375 Nm @ 1 500 rpm and 110 kW @ 3 700 rpm. Interestingly, this small capacity diesel delivers very similar stats to the previous model’s 3.0-litre which was good for 380 Nm @ 1 800 rpm and 115 kW @ 3 200 rpm.

But numbers only tell half the story. You have to drive these two models to feel the differences between them. For example, the 2.2 TDCI produces far less power and torque than the 3.2 TDCi but in a real-life test the 2.2-litre ain’t much slower than the bigger motor.
However, they’re not the same in day-to-day situations. Sure, the 2.2’s almost as quick when you rev the guts out of it, but at slower speeds the 3.2 TDCi is far more refined, it has less turbo lag, more low-down torque and is generally much nicer to drive. In other words, the 3.2 is a workhorse that favours low engine speeds. By comparison, the 2.2 is a nippy engine that tops out at a lofty 3 700 rpm. How often do you want to drive like that? What’s more, the smaller engine offers a minimal fuel consumption benefit, an improvement of maybe 0.2 l/100 km. Plus, load the 2.2TDCi with a ton of something and I wouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly became less efficient than the 3.2 TDCi. On the transmission front, you have the option of a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic; I have to say I didn’t fall in love with either. There’s nothing wrong with the manual’s function, but I didn’t like the gear shift which felt sticky and vague.
For the most part the 6-speed auto is well mated to the 3.2-litre engine but I didn’t like the gearbox’s ability to ‘learn’ my driving style. This is part of the Ranger’s Driver Recognition software which made the Ford’s gear changes a bit erratic. Especially when you’ve just driven the Ranger off-road; as the gearshifts are so uniquely different in low-range and over harsh terrain, the bakkie feels out of sorts when driven back on tar. The gearbox eventually returns to normal, but for a short while after it feels like there’s a learner driver behind the wheel.

CONCLUSION
I suppose the big question here is: is it better than a Hilux? Well, yes and no. The answer to this question is kinda like the new shoe dilemma: do you buy the same pair of Adidas you had before, knowing you’re gonna enjoy comfort and longevity? Or do you get the latest pair of Nikes with their new inner sole technology? What I’m trying to say is that the new Ranger’s not a sure thing. And I’m not talking about reliability or longevity, but rather the issue of resale. Few vehicles can compare with the Hilux when it comes to demand and retaining value.

Th at aside, in my opinion, the Ranger’s a better bakkie on every count: it’s new, fresh, the technology’s state of the art, the engine’s amazing, it’s comfortable, ergonomic, capable, and from what I can tell, the build quality’s reasonably good too… but perhaps not quite as good as the Hilux.
Th en there’s the Amarok, a well rounded, feature fi lled bakkie that’s technologically up-to-date, spacious, comfortable, economical, and as far as the brand goes, pretty darn good at holding value. Th e Amarok is also very competitively priced, some R6 600 cheaper than the Hilux and R28 650 less than the Ranger. But despite all that, I can’t get excited about this bakkie. Th e Amarok’s tyres are too small, its ground clearance is too low, the gearshift is horrendously notchy and the clutch action’s fi ckle and endless tiring. I’m just not sold on it.
For me, it’s not a question of Ranger versus everything else; rather, it’s a matter of whether I’d spend R447 800 on the 3.2 XLT 6MT or save R70k and buy the 2.2 XLS 6MT model. It’s not an easy question to answer and I’d probably base my decision on a thumb suck, thinking that the 3.2 would be an easier sell in the second-hand market, and therefore perhaps better at holding its value. But that’s just my thumb talking.