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.