Editor's Note: What follows is a unique discussion of big versus small and full-size versus compact, as they relate specifically to the new Ford FX4 Off-road 4x4 option packages. Although only one manufacturer is represented here, we think the main points can be generalized to other makers. Our hope is that this will help decide what options you need as well as what truck.
One of the most popular ways to catch the buyer's eye in this age of adventure is an off-road package, replete with oversize decals, implying anyone can walk into a dealership to play Bigfoot, Camel Trophy, or Baja winner.
The advantages of factory off-road packages are numerous. First, most people short of a mechanically advanced parts guru couldn't add the same parts to a truck for the same money. Second, the systems are tuned to the trucks by the truck designers, so there are no universal parts that don't fit, and the speedometer--and everything it signals, such as ABS and cruise control--is calibrated for the tires and gears. Third, since everything comes with the truck, it's included in purchase financing and warranty (except tires). Last, in most cases the off-road package makes the best-riding truck and, apart from tires biased more toward dirt, the best handling as well.
The F-150 FX4 group is available on XLT and Lariat models and includes 265/70-17 Wrangler ATs on five-spoke alloy wheels, three skidplates, 3.55:1 gears, and Rancho shock absorbers. Cosmetic upgrades include custom-color accents, decals, and different wheel lip, bumper, and valance trim. The window sticker for our F-150 lists the tires ($300) and FX4 group ($620) separately.
The Ranger FX4 is more involved and has a separate order code instead of an option package. It costs roughly $2700 more than a plain SuperCab XLT 4WD 4.0L, but it comes with plenty of good stuff: power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise, tilt wheel, dual-media CD player, foglamps, Alcoa forged-aluminum wheels, and BFGoodrich T/AKO tires (only four of each), 4.10:1 gears, skid-plates, Bilstein shocks, Torsen limited-slip, model-specific seats and trim, and thick rubber floormats.
(Note these packages don't include driver training, and while testing we observed a brand-new ['02 model with no license plate] "Off-Road" pickup that had been rolled in the mud.) So when you mark the FX4 box on a Ford order form, does it make the truck work better? In both cases we have to reply positively, though each has strengths and weaknesses for how an off-road package may be used.