The F-150 came with a 5.4L V-8, which we found worth its $800 tab, and that included the required automatic. We prefer to choose our own gears, but there's nothing wrong with the performance of this combination, save for relatively little compression braking in First-Low. For climbing, the automatic worked better due to the multiplication in the torque converter, and our resident cynic noted you could always put it in Reverse for steep descents.
Since the 5.4L is undersquare (3.55 bore x 4.16 stroke) by more than half an inch, torque is its forte. Despite being just 85 cu in. larger than the Ranger, it has 112 lb-ft more torque, down lower in the rev band around 2300 rpm. The Ranger is oversquare (3.95 x 3.32) and makes more hp for its size, pulling right off the no-redline-ends-at-6000-rpm tachometer, but the dearth of grunt makes it feel lifeless in the upper gears. The F-150 lopes along the highway, unlocking the converter or downshifting almost imperceptibly, showing about 2100 rpm at 80 mph. The Ranger turns 3000 at the same speed, but we'd prefer to have 4.56:1 gears in the working rev range more often. Shorter gears like 4.88:1 would further improve performance, but perhaps at the cost of reliability and strength due to the small pinion.
The Ranger FX4 comes with a five-speed manual and lever-operated transfer case, but a five-speed automatic/electric-shift is an option. The automatic increases towing capacity and may aid rock climbing, but the stick works equally well everywhere else and costs less. Transfer-case shifting was butter-smooth in the Ranger, and a rotary switch in the F-150, with both using a disconnect for front drive.
Study the acceleration numbers, and you'll find the win light going back and forth. The F-150 smoked one tire at the line (conventional limited-slips eventually wear out), but the Ranger barked, hooked, and bogged. Shift points determined intermediate times, with the Ranger winning 60, as it was still in second gear. Above 75-80, it's a wash as the F-150's cu in. are matched by the lower-drag Ranger. As an important final consideration, the Ranger routinely got 20 percent better mileage than the F-150.
Size doesn't matter as far as brakes are concerned, especially since the Ranger tested 60-0 in slightly less distance. But all 1⁄2-tons now come with disc brakes in back, while the Ranger, Dakota, and Tacoma use drums. The F-150's all-disc setup was more resistant to fade, shed water better, changed less when loaded, and, in a bit of a surprise, the parking brake held superior to the Ranger's. Both testers had standard four-wheel ABS, which performed admirably in everything except sand (where you avoid using brakes). Advantage: big truck.
There's no question the rack-and-pinion steering in the Ranger is better than the F-150's recirculating-ball setup. The F-150 isn't bad, but the faster steering in the Ranger made things point-and-shoot easy for hairpin turns and high-speed dry-wash desert blasts. Feedback was better than expected given the spongy tires, and we never beat either steering pump. To its credit, the F-150 needs only three feet more space than the Ranger to execute a curb-limited U-turn.