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.

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.

The Torsen limited-slip and soft rear springs in the Ranger proved their worth, apparently delivering more rear drive than the F-150. However, the F-150 felt it had more travel in front, so ultimate traction was only slightly better in the Ranger. Some of that could be traced to tires, as the BFG T/As have sharper blocks, yet didn't make any more noise on the highway. The Ranger tires also have rim protectors to minimize sand and pebbles getting between the bead and the wheels (we popped the bead only on the F-150). Last, the small 15-in. wheels on the Ranger allow lots of sidewall for cushioning impact, wrapping around rocks, or slinging mud. Conversely, the F-150's extra torque has a much easier time with big tires, and the long wheelbase make climbing more stable.

Going down any surface at speed, the FX4 rode better than other Rangers we've driven, both two- or four-wheel drive. It soaks up bumps big and small with aplomb, and the Bilstein shocks showed no signs of fading. True, it doesn't ride like a car, but you could drive it daily along potholed northeastern highways with no pain and no bent wheels. The F-150 also rode better than a stock 4WD F-150, and most of the credit goes to the shocks. Weight helps, too, as does a larger tire diameter. We give the nod to the Ranger for ride and handling, feeling it received a bit more development time. We look forward to what the 2004 F-150 will have for an off-road package.

The Ranger's size is another plus for trail adventuring. It has better approach and departure angles than the F-150 and the 9-in.-width advantage could be 8 in. more than the difference between fitting through the rocks and trees or wedging bodywork. Our Ranger FX4 had an optional hard tonneau cover, as well, that does a good job securing camping gear and keeping it dry.

Once you climb inside, the F-150's size becomes its advantage. The Ranger has almost equal space in two front seats, but the F-150 would be viable three across, and the back bench is far more useable. You can pile nearly as much stuff behind the F-150 front seats as you could in half the Ranger's segmented bed.

This F-150 Lariat is equipped with captain's chairs and adjustable pedals (not part of an FX4 package). However, the Ranger FX4 gets special buckets with a heavy ribbed cloth that works to keep you in place and is easily brushed off. Since all Ranger FX4s are SuperCabs, and all extended cabs tend to inhale dust around the door seals, this simple "cleanability" is a plus. The Ranger also gets heavy rubber floormats with deep grooves to channel water and snow away from your feet, but don't interfere with movement. For center-console storage, handy map pockets, and amenities, the F-150 wins by cubic feet.

The F-150 also costs a chunk more (tested at $33,645). Take out the leather and some conveniences and add an automatic to the Ranger to bring them on par, and the F-150 will be about $5400 more. That could be another dirt bike or ATV in the back of the Ranger, or it could be the extra ton of trailer-towing capacity in the F-150.

If an off-road package appeals to you just because of the look, it doesn't matter which size truck you pick. The smaller ones appear more wheel and tire, but the full-size trucks are bigger and have that V-8 exhaust note. If you tow a trailer full of buggies or an RV for living with the toys in the bed, the full-size is the only way to go. If you need room for four or five on a regular basis, full-size wins again. If you need 38-in. tires to commute - full-size yet again. But if you use your truck off road right from the showroom floor, the smaller wins by a slight margin and costs considerably less to buy and maintain.

Off-Road Sport/Utes
Designated off-road packages aren't as popular for SUVs as they are for pickups, but for loading kayaks, tents, and bikes, the number is likely to increase. On many import SUVs, much of the contents of an off-road package, such as a limited-slip differential and skidplates, are standard on any 4WD, and a few come with a larger engine than 2WD versions. Specialty vehicles, like Land Rovers, Hummers, and the Mercedes-Benz G-class, are good trail vehicles to begin with, and though they don't offer off-road packages, any number of dealer-added items (winches, tires, tube accessories) may be added at purchase and warranted with the vehicle.

Chevrolet
The Chevy Blazer ZR2 package (4WD two-door only) comes with a different frame, so you can't bolt these parts on yourself. Almost 4 in. wider and a few in. taller, the ZR2 includes 31-in. BFG All-Terrains, Bilstein shocks, stronger axles and wheel bearings, larger rear differential and front anti-roll bar, specific spring rates, rear Panhard rod, and skidplates. A lot of stuff for $2000, but it requires $1200-$2300 in other options for a base Blazer.

In larger Chevys, the Suburban 2500 offers only skidplates and a limited-slip--$350 for the pair. The 1⁄2-ton Suburban and Tahoe Z71 package comes with good shocks and firmer spring rates, five 265/70-17s, trailer package, skidplates, fender flares, side steps, extra transmission cooler, limited-slip, OnStar, and color-coordinated trim. On the Tahoe, this is $3100, requires the $700 5.3L V-8, and you can't get a third seat with it.

Dodge
Dodge's Durango has no package, with skidplates and a limited-slip a bit over $400. Larger 265/70-16 tires are part of a sport package for about $1000.

Ford
Ford's Escape and Explorer, all-independent rear suspension, have no off-road package, and the SportTrac and Explorer Sport offer a (relatively expensive) limited-slip at $355 and a premium sport group that includes alloy wheels, 255/70-16s, side steps, tow hooks, and foglights for $700.

The new Expedition will also offer an FX4 4x4 package. The Excursion, the last leaf-sprung solid front-axle design, the SUV standard for years, has no off-road package, just a limited-slip for $250. Tires and shocks are easy to find and all it needs.

GMC
The GMC Envoy offers a Professional Towing and Off-Road package. On the SLE ($750) it includes skidplates (with steering-linkage protection), 245/65-17 all-season tires, AM/FM/ CD/cassette, 3.73 gears, and a limited-slip. On the SLT ($1550), it includes the SLE equipment, plus a 275-watt Bose DSP sound system, heated front seats, and an eight-way power front passenger seat--not the stuff we professionals think about for off-road work.

The GMC Yukon Z71 option is $620 for LT265/75R16C tires, good shocks, firmer springs, and skidplates, but requires $200 alloy wheels and $700 5.3L options.

Infiniti
The Infiniti QX4 has a good 4WD system, but a limited-slip is optional only when bundled with heated seats ($900) and a required package that includes 245/65-17s and driver-memory system for $600.

Jeep
Although Jeep is known for building off-road vehicles, only one current model comes with a standard off-road package: the top-line $37,000 Grand Cherokee Overland. Other Grand Cherokee models can get the Up-Country suspension group for $290, with 1-in.-higher springs, shocks, rear anti-roll bar, and 235/65-17s. However, you can't get Up-Country with a sunroof, trailer tow package, or a V-8 (except in the Overland).

The new Liberty offers an off-road group with skidplates, 235/70-16s, limited-slip, tow hooks, and HD cooling. It's $520 on Limiteds (plus $1100 for required tires and V-6) and $765 on Sports (plus $2500-$2800 in required options).

The best Wrangler off-road package is the 2003 Rubicon model, with locking differentials front and rear and a 4:1 low-range, but pricing is not available (figure a few grand for parts to make those changes yourself). The Canyon Tire and Wheel group, $360-$850, depending on trim and other options, adds 3.7:1 gears, 15x8 alloys, gas shocks, full-size spare, and 30x9.50-15 Goodyear Wrangler (of course) ATs. A limited-slip is $285, and some models could get a Dana 44 rear axle for $600.

Nissan
Nissan's Pathfinder offers just a limited-slip for $250, but the Xterra 4WD Enthusiast package brings a first-aid kit, extra tie-downs, tilt wheel, variable intermittent wipers, fog and map lights, tow hook, limited-slip, rubber floormats, and manual-locking hubs for $700. Xterra 2WD V-6s can get a sport package of foglights, tow hook, and limited-slip for $300 you'd be hard-pressed to duplicate yourself.

Toyota
The smallest Toyota, the RAV4, has the most expensive limited-slip we've found--$390. The Sequoia has no package, and neither does the Land Cruiser. The 4Runner has no off-road package, but it does have upgrade packages that include 265/70-16s, larger brakes, and 4.10 gears as part of the $700-$890 package.

Compact Pickups
Until the Colorado replacement debuts, expect GM to continue offering the S-10/Sonoma ZR2 pickup. These models are priced $7500 over a base S-10, but include roughly $5500 in upgrades, plus the ZR2's special axles, frame, wheels, tires, suspension, and for '02, decals! If you want factory strength with warranty, this is the way.

The Dodge Dakota offers a good on-road group (R/T) but no off-road package. Some benefits come from a limited-slip and skidplates for $400. Look into the sport group, which includes 265/70-16s on 8-in. alloys, a rear anti-roll bar, and fender flares for $465.

The Mazda truck (the Ranger's brother) offers an off-road package for $1305, with the same wheels, tires, seats, and so on as the Ranger FX4. The Mazda version also includes sidesteps, compass/outside temp, and requires tilt/cruise/etc. for $695, but comes in just one color: Platinum Frost.

The Nissan Frontier has no off-road package, though a PreRunner 2WD offers the impression it might. A limited-slip is standard on some versions.

The Toyota Tacoma TRD has an off-road package, though not on all models, with 30 percent of 4WDs and 37 percent of PreRunners so equipped. This includes progressive front coils, Bilstein shocks (Tokico on DoubleCab), alloy wheels with 265/70-16s, larger anti-roll bar, genuine locking rear differential, fender flares, and wallpaper--all for $1380 (it costs less on some PreRunners). The locking rear differential is a stand-alone option (NA four-cylinder automatics), and at $340 is $50 less than the limited-slip in a RAV4. In our testing, we've found that although it's available in a 2WD, the locker works on 4WDs only when in low-range.

Big Trucks = Big Bucks?
Most full-size pickups offer an off-road package, although these are generally limited to 1⁄2-ton models. The GM 1500HD and 2500/3500s, Ford SuperDutys, and likely the 2003 Ram HD have skidplates, limited-slips, and the occasional steering damper.

The Chevy Avalanche Z71 package (not on 2500s, standard on North Face edition) includes a limited-slip, 265/70-17s on alloy wheels, skidplates, high-capacity air filter, rubber floormats, and upgraded springs and shocks, for $835. A similar Z66 package, with traction control and self-leveling rear suspension, goes on 2WDs.

The Silverado/Sierra 1⁄2-tons both offer Z71 suspensions systems, often as part of an off-road package. To Z71 springs, shocks, and bump stops, add bigger tires, alloy wheels, aluminum skidplates, a larger air filter, and a removable air dam. At press time, these packages went for $275-$1050 because of special deals--at $275, we wouldn't think twice.

You can get a Tundra TRD Off-Road package for a 2WD or 4WD, and 30 percent of buyers choose it. It consists of 265/70-16 BFGoodrich tires on alloy wheels, Bilstein shocks, springs, foglights, mudguards, and fender flares (on 2WD) for $950. A limited-slip is $275, with no locker (as on Tacoma) available.

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