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Can the Ford Ranger, the brand's new global pick-up, satisfy a more refined palate?

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The Ford Ranger’s global history is a tale of not one truck but two. First, in 1982, came the US-market Ranger, a smaller sibling to the F-series and leviathan-like Super Duty. Exports began to South America in 1995.

The ‘other’ Ford Ranger pick-up was, until now, actually a version of the Japanese-built Mazda B-series, rebadged for markets outside of the Americas and known as the Courier until 1998. It’s this version of the Ranger, and not the US version, that British buyers have come to know.

The Ranger is a very safe pick-up, according to Euro NCAP crash testing

The work of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs department may not be universally admired, but for the owners of pick-up trucks, it could be.

Previously, before paying less tax than the next man become a major sociopathic gaffe, the benefit-in-kind rules on light commercial vehicles made pick-ups an attractive buy.

You could run a leather-upholstered, highly equipped, five-seat double-cab flatbed as a fleet car and pay a fraction of the company car tax that the owner of even a plug-in hybrid would.

In 2007, the government addressed the LCV loophole, increasing benefit-in-kind liability from £500 to a flat £3000, irrespective of CO2. But even having done that, the owner of this 5.4m-long, all-wheel-drive pick-up could pay several hundreds a month less in company car tax than he would for a Land Rover Freelander, depending on model.

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If you’ve ever wondered why you see so many pick-ups on UK roads, wonder no longer. Our stage is set, then, for a vehicle mixing the quality, refinement and handling of a passenger car with the toughness and capability of an old-school pick-up.

But is the Ford Ranger really that car?

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Ranger headlight

The Blue Oval’s ‘One Ford’ global manufacturing plan has put paid to separate American and international versions of the Ranger. Ford has replaced them with one car that was designed and developed mostly in Australia, will be assembled in Thailand, Argentina and South Africa, and will be sold in 180 global markets. Oddly, the US isn’t among them.

It’s a vehicle with a unitary steel body on a ladder frame, suspended by leaf springs and a live axle at the rear. By passenger car standards that sounds primitive, but for a pick-up expected to carry heavy loads on a flat load bay floor down severely rutted tracks, tow several tonnes and have the wheel articulation for proper off-roading, it’s accepted convention and the best technological solution available.

There’s now sound insulation in the doors, underbody and roof, and double door seals for better wind insulation

Regular Cab, Double Cab and Super Cab versions of the Ranger are available, the last being more of a two-plus-two set-up than the Double Cab. A Regular Cab Ranger has the most outright carrying capacity, with a 2.3m-long load bay that can accommodate more than 1800 litres of covered cargo weighing just over 1.3 tonnes if needs be. Our test car, however, is the range-topping Double Cab Wildtrak.

Underneath, the Ranger’s frame is longer and wider than before. It’s twice as stiff, too, and is mounted to the body via hydraulic fluid-filled rubber bushes for the best possible rolling refinement. Front suspension switches from torsion springs to coil-overs and wishbones, again for better ride tuning. There’s now sound insulation in the doors, underbody and roof, and double door seals for better wind insulation.

The Ranger was also the first pick-up to score a five-star EuroNCAP crash test rating. All this is intended to make it more agreeable to passenger car tax exiles.

Power comes from a choice of 2.2-litre four-cylinder and 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel engines, developed from those found in the Ford Transit range. They drive through the rear wheels unless you switch to four-wheel drive, which you can do at up to 70mph.

There’s a low-range transfer case too, with reduction gearing of 2.48:1 but no locking rear differential. Ford claims its latest traction control system is good enough to do the job of an old-fashioned lockable diff.

INTERIOR

Ford Ranger dashboard

The act of stepping up into the cabin leaves little room for doubt about the vastness of the Ford Ranger. You sit higher than in most SUVs, but even from up there, the extremities of the front and rear seem an awfully long way away.

The cabin itself is a familiar and quite pleasant place. Its design strikes a more than acceptable balance between durability, functionality and both aesthetic and tactile appeal.

The Ranger displayed a redneck bias to ‘shuffling’ tracks on my iPod. At one point it played Johnny Cash, Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen, one after the other

The material mix isn’t quite the match of a high-end Ford Focus, but it’s rich enough to avoid any commercial impression and outclass the pick-up standard. Fixtures and fittings are solid and sensibly sized, in order to allow operation while wearing thick gloves.

Passenger space is fine and as generous in both rows as a medium-sized family car. There are lots practical storage solutions, too. The centre cubby is big enough for a pack of drinks cans and the glovebox is sized for a 16in laptop. The rear seat cushions also lift to reveal a large storage box.

Between that storage box and the 1.5m-long load bay, there’s little that you could carry in a large estate car or SUV that you couldn’t in the Ranger.

There’s no load-through facility, but longer items could be lashed to the roof rack of a car so equipped. There’s also a tailgate rated to carry 200kg, so you need have no qualms about climbing on to it to reach a bag or box.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Ranger side profile

The Ranger is offered with a choice of a 2.2-litre diesel in two power outputs, or a range-topping 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel.

Ford's 3.2-litre ‘Puma’ five-pot is still obviously a Ford commercial unit, but it’s quiet at idle and at fairly low revs, and its vibrations are kept well under control.

Ford used a Ranger to haul a 160-tonne railway engine out of its shed when it launched. Remember the 747 VW towed with a Touareg years ago? The loco was five tonnes heavier

It pulls with grumble-free force from just above 1000rpm, but even when it begins to emit a few multi-cylinder harmonics higher up its vocal range, you know that it’ll be gasping for breath before 4000rpm comes and goes.

Not that it matters. Easy pulling power is what this powertrain is specified to deliver, and that it achieves very well. Torque peaks at 347lb ft, but 300lb ft is on offer between 1300rpm and 3300rpm.

Which means, once you’ve got the Ranger rolling and up into fifth and sixth, it’s a surprisingly effortless drive. Rarely will you need to change down – be that to climb, overtake or just accelerate on the motorway.

Don’t confuse this for a fast car, but it’s not desperately slow, either. A sub-11sec 0-60mph time would have been competitive with a big four-cylinder, mass-market 4x4 not so long ago. The most telling statistic is that cracking 30-70mph in fourth takes 11.7sec – just a second slower than it will take if you trawl through the gears instead.

Should running costs take priority over performance, the smaller 2.2-litre diesel is worth considering. It is available with either 123 or 148bhp. We found the latter to be a strong performer owing to its 277lb ft of torque which, whilst some way off the 3.2's headline figure, is still enough to make decent progress.

Whichever engine you choose, it’s better to think of the six-speed gearbox as a five-speeder with a dog-leg first. The real first gear is so short that it’s only really useful off road and for towing.

The shift quality is poor, though. It’s elastic, heavy and vague, and at times can feel more like you’re forcing a dislocated limb back into its socket than trying to select another gear.

But that’s one entirely tolerable shortcoming in a car that, in most other respects, performs like a slightly heavier-duty family 4x4.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Ranger cornering

Any judgement here depends entirely on your frame of reference. Compared to the on-road dynamic standards of most pick-up trucks, the Ford Ranger deserves a glowing recommendation, but those aren’t the standards that we’re used to applying in this here parish.

And given that Ford’s ambition for this car is to lure 4x4 drivers into the pick-up fold, neither are they the ones we should apply now.

The body is unsettled in fast direction changes, but it doesn’t feel overly precarious

Which is why ‘competent’ is about as generously as we can describe the way the Ranger conducts itself on UK roads. It handles very well, considering that it’s a 5.4m-long 2.2-tonner with an unusually high centre of roll, hybrid off-road tyres and a large lump of iron for a rear axle. It’s better, in fact, than one or two passenger cars we could mention, the Land Rover Defender being one.

But in the ride department particularly, the Ranger is no match for a well sorted 4x4 like a Santa Fe or Freelander. While bumps are dealt with adequately enough, every one is felt and then bodily amplified. It reminds you that, unless you’ve got a dirt bike in the back and you’re careering down a broken forest path, you’re just not using this car properly.

People who like pick-ups, and who use them as the maker intended, probably quite like that about them. But if you like Honda CR-Vs and don’t need the added utility, you probably won’t.

Considering the high-profile multi-purpose tyres it’s on, the Ranger’s handling is quite tidy. Its steering is weighty and direct enough, allowing you to carve fairly quick and precise lines through corners, where body roll is reasonably well contained.

Lateral grip levels are modest on asphalt, but sufficient to allow this giant to feel almost as secure and composed as most big family cars at legal speeds. But again, ‘competent’ is the defining term.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Ranger

If you run your own business and need large, servile transportation, you dismiss the Ford Ranger at your cost. The Light Commercial Vehicle classification and low benefit-in-kind company car tax means that even a 40 percent tax payer could run one of these on fleet for less than many conventional cars.

Better still, because it’s a commercial vehicle, business owners can claim the VAT back. Before you rush to the phone, though, there’s fuel economy to consider – and the Ranger’s is pretty mediocre.

Depreciation of the Ford Ranger and Mitsubishi L200 are evenly matched

Our testing suggests that the 3.2-litre diesel would typically return 28mpg, which is low enough to test your mental arithmetic. Here is where the more economical 2.2-litre diesel Rangers could be a wise option, if you can forego the performance of the larger engine.

The bottom line? If you’re comparing it with anything smaller or cheaper than, say, a Honda CR-V, the numbers probably won’t add up, and the higher your annual mileage, the less ‘probable’ that situation becomes. Assuming you pay for your own fuel, of course.

A private buyer would definitely need a use for the Ranger’s huge towing and carrying capacity in order to make a case to own one – but plenty will. 

Ford expects to shift 5000 of these in the UK every year, once the supply chain problems that have affected early cars are solved. That makes the Ranger more popular than the Focus ST on these shores.

VERDICT

3.5 star Ford Ranger

Credit where it’s due: in the new Ranger, Ford has created a class-leading vehicle that not only betters its rivals on pick-up considerations such as carrying, towing and wading.

It could also present a dilemma to many who run a big family car on their employer’s fleet.

Pick of the pick-ups and great value, but still a committed buy

The Ranger isn’t well mannered or well appointed enough to quite measure up to big passenger car standards, but it gets amazingly close.

A lot closer than any other flatbed on the market, and close enough to make you think long and hard about whether that Freelander, Santa Fe or BMW X3 really is worth the extra.

Most are likely to conclude that the size, economy and slightly trying refinement represent a bridge too far.

But for practical people who could put its ruggedness and utility to good use, and who care more about value and dependability than aspirational allure, it’s a genuine contender.

If you're in the market and looking at the likes of the Volkswagen Amarok, Nissan Navara or Toyota Hilux, the Ford Ranger should certainly be on your list.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ford Ranger 2011-2015 First drives