This is in part due to the all-new 3.2-liter inline five-cylinder turbodiesel (no V-8s or V-6s). With 197 horsepower and 347 lb-ft of torque, backed by either a six-speed manual or six-speed auto, the Ranger makes light work of a heavy load. Smaller engines -- a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine also found in the Escape and Fusion and a 2.2-liter turbodiesel in the European Transit van -- will come on line at the end of 2011, but were not available to sample at launch.
Although the vehicles were unladen during most of the test drive on and off the beaten track, we did a road loop in a 3.2-powered Ranger with a 1650-pound load in the bed. Understandably, you could feel the weight of the cargo as it blunted acceleration. But the overall dynamics of the vehicle remained intact. Indeed, that is probably an area where the Ranger excels most: its on-road manners.
Compact pickups have been quite crude. On a recent launch for the face-lifted Toyota Hilux, for example, the company put a 450-pound load in the back of every vehicle to make them drive better and bounce less -- but the Ranger is a game-changer. It would be too generous to say it is carlike to drive, but it's certainly less truck-like than before.
Well-sorted stability control ensures the Ranger stays shiny side up, no matter the surface. Perhaps the most impressive aspect was how well the stability control worked on loose gravel roads, typical terrain in many countries where these vehicles will be driven.
In the middle of the Australian outback, while driving on a gravel road covered in a thin layer of dirt as fine as sawdust, I repeatedly tried to trigger the crew cab 4WD XLT Ranger into a skid by swerving abruptly. But the system worked so quickly and so efficiently that it gathered things up, time after time, without raising a sweat, and long before we were in any danger. It's a credit to the team who did the calibration. The speed and effectiveness of the stability control is as good as any road car I've driven. Interestingly, the stability control works well despite having disc brakes up front (the biggest in the compact pickup class, says Ford) and drum brakes on the rear (typical in this class around the world, including on the VW Amarok and Toyota Hilux).
Ford has also adapted hill descent control, which inches the vehicle carefully down steep slopes without the driver having to touch the brake pedal. The rate of descent is adjustable using the cruise control switch on the steering wheel.
If things really go wrong, six airbags are ready to deploy. It may seem odd to point out the inclusion of front, side, and curtain airbags, but until a few years ago side-protection airbags were absent from compact pickups, because they were designed for developing countries that lacked safety mandates.
Fittingly, the interior is more car-like than before. All models come with iPod integration, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and steering wheel-mounted controls, and a rearview camera is available. Mounted neatly behind the Ford badge on the tailgate, it tilts out to reveal a tiny lens when reverse is engaged. The switchgear and steering wheel are borrowed from the Fiesta and Focus. The seat fabrics, however, have been battle tested for workhorse duties. Sharp, modern design -- and liberal use of chrome on the XLT -- means the Ranger won't look out of place in a driveway in an upmarket neighborhood or a flashy hotel.
Indeed, the new-generation Ranger shows just how capable Ford is when it pools its global resources. It's a shame that North America won't get to share in the spoils.
The Ford Ranger for North America campaign starts here!
If you see a new Ranger on American roads, it might be driven by one of Ford's top engineers, Jim Baumbick. He likes Ford's new-generation compact truck so much he wants to bring one home with him as a private import.
Baumbick joined Ford just four days out of Michigan State University and has worked for the company during the past 19 years. As engineering director for Asia-Pacific and Africa, he oversaw the Ranger project -- known as T6 internally -- from start to finish. The 40-year-old and his young family spent a little over three years in Australia, but after his work with Ranger was done he was promoted to director of global product development in Dearborn.
Baumbick says the Ranger has been built to comply with the toughest safety and government standards -- including those in North America. There is no reason it couldn't be sold in North America, other than Ford's unwillingness to do so.
Although Ford has made impressive improvements to the fuel economy of the F-150, the Ranger gives Ford an ace up its sleeve if fuel prices go through the roof. The Ranger's average Australian combined cycle fuel consumption is rated between 26 and 28 mpg (depending on transmission) in 3.2-liter turbodiesel guise.
Baumbick wouldn't comment on the likelihood of the Ranger making it to the USA. This is the most we could get out of him: "We're always thinking globally on every product we're working on. But fundamentally in North America we've invested a lot of time and engineering into broadening the F-150's stretch. We're confident in Ranger's global competitiveness, but we feel equally confident in F-Series competitiveness."