Meet the pickup you might want, but can't have. It's the new Ford Ranger, and it's going to be sold in 180 countries -- more countries than any other vehicle to wear the Blue Oval. But tragically, it's not coming to North America, even though it's been built "Detroit Tough."
Four years ago, a trio of Ford heavy-hitters was sent from Michigan to Australia, the designated homeroom for this new-generation global vehicle, even though it is built in Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa. Before being redeployed Down Under, designer Craig Metros had just finished work on the latest F-Series, vehicle line director Gary Boes had overseen the development of the Mustang and Flex, and engineering director Jim Baumbick had been responsible for more than 20 new nameplates for Ford in North America. In the end, though, the Ranger utilized expertise from all points of the globe. It was tested in the Australian outback, in the jungles of Thailand, and on the ice roads of Sweden, and it spent a lot of time in North America doing altitude, durability, and tow testing.
The compact pickup market may have fallen off locally (more than a decade ago, it represented 8 percent of North American auto sales, but last year accounted for just 2 percent; annual Ranger sales dropped from 350,000 to 55,000 over the same period), but it's booming elsewhere. In Australia, where such vehicles are used as workhorses during the week and as family transportation on weekends, compact pickups are the second-biggest market segment behind small cars. The Ranger will likely become Ford's top seller in Australia in 2012.
In developing parts of Asia, South America, and South Africa, compact pickups represent up to half of all new vehicles sold. And the market is still growing. It's the reason German giant Volkswagen expedited development of the Amarok as part of its goal to be the global auto sales leader by 2018.
So compact pickups are now big business. And they've come a long way from their crude and humble beginnings. Because these vehicles were primarily designed for developing countries, they were typically built to a low cost and had only the bare essentials. Some even lacked driver airbags and anti-lock brakes. Their model cycles typically stretched more than a decade, and their crash-test performances lagged well behind the standards set for passenger cars. But as the market changed and vehicle use became more mainstream, makers began developing them to modern safety standards -- and made them a lot better to drive.
In the case of the Ranger, Ford started with a clean-sheet design, putting everything it learned from more than three decades of F-truck dominance into what would
become the F-Series' kid brother. Ford's team of experts traveled the globe and examined the primary compact pickup competitors, namely the Toyota Hilux (a rebodied version of the Tacoma), Nissan Navara, and Mitsubishi Triton -- three popular workhorses in sold in Asia, Europe, and South Africa -- and had them on hand during the Ranger's design and development.
The team learned that the Hilux had the roomiest cabin and the best over-shoulder visibility because of its large window area, but the Navara had a wider rear-door opening, and the Triton's rear seat had the most carlike back angle. These are just some of the aspects Ford used for inspiration when defining key elements of the Ranger.
The Volkswagen Amarok went on sale after Ford locked in the Ranger's final design, but Ford says it's happy with how the pickup (offered as regular, extended, and crew cab) compares. In the end, Ford's global resources effectively created a scaled-down F-truck that can handle trying conditions anywhere on the planet.
Ford says the Ranger is within 10 percent of an F-150's dimensions and capabilities, likely another reason Ford is reluctant to bring the Ranger here. It wants to protect its homegrown hero, given that the F-Series' sales rate is roughly 50 percent of what it was half a decade ago.
The other issue is price. The Ranger will be sold at a premium in most overseas markets, not as a bargain basement model as it had been in North America. Although the new range starts from $AUD20,000 (about $19,300) for a 2WD cab-chassis, the XLT crew cab pictured here starts at $AUD53,390 (about $51,600). That's not a misprint.
Keep in mind, though, that vehicles are typically more expensive in Australia than in the United States. A Wrangler Rubicon, for example, starts at just over $30,000 in the U.S. In Australia, that same vehicle starts at more than $47,000 American dollars. If the Ranger were ever to be sold in the U.S., market forces would bring the price down. However, even that wouldn't overcome the value of the more capable F-150.
Compared with a four-door F-150 with a regular 5.5-foot box, the four-door Ranger (expected to be the most popular body type) is smaller in every dimension, but still generously proportioned for a compact pickup. According to the tape measure, overall length (231.9 versus 210.6 inches), wheelbase (144.5 versus 126.8), track (67 versus 61), and height (76.2 versus 71.7) all fall in the F-truck's favor. The Ranger's box size is slightly smaller in bed length (67.0 versus 61.4 inches), and in the distance between wheelhouses (50.0 versus 44.8).
Crucially, the relatively narrow distance between wheelhouses means the Ranger tray falls just short of fitting a forklift pallet -- something Volkswagen (and others) have made sure their compact pickups could handle. (The Volkswagen Amarok can handle two pallets, with the second resting on the open tailgate -- the VW's tailgate alone can handle a 550-pound load compared with the Ranger's 500-pound maximum.)
Ford says a wider box is unlikely in this generation Ranger's lifetime as the wheelhouse placement is dictated by the vehicle's architecture. In terms of workhorse capability, however, that is really the only blot on an otherwise impressive report card.
Payload capacity is at or near top of the class for a compact pickup, although it is still shy of the F-150's. The Ranger's towing capacity is class-leading (a maximum of
7385 pounds for the pickup, compared with the F-150's maximum rating of 11,300). As impressive as it is, Ford reckons there's still some scope to increase the Ranger's towing capacity on future models.