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.

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."

2012 Global-Market Ford Ranger
POWERTRAIN
Drivetrain layout Front engine, RWD/4WD
Engine type I-4, alum block/head
Bore x stroke 3.50 x 3.94 in
Displacement 152 ci/2.5L
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
SAE horsepower 164 hp @ 6000 rpm
SAE torque 167 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Optional engine I-4 turbodiesel, iron block/head
Bore x stroke 3.39 x 3.72 in
Displacement 134 ci/2.2L
Compression ratio 15.7:1
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
SAE horsepower 148 hp @ 3700 rpm
SAE torque 277 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
Optional engine I-5 turbodiesel, iron block/head
Bore x stroke 3.54 x 3.97 i
Displacement 195 ci/3.2L
Compression ratio 15.7:1
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
SAE horsepower 197 hp @ 3000 rpm
SAE torque 347 lb-ft @ 1500-2750 rpm
Transmission type 5-speed manual
1st 4.20:1
2nd 2.24:1
3rd 1.37:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.76:1
Reverse 3.84:1
Opt transmission 6-speed manual
1st 5.44:1
2nd 2.84:1
3rd 1.72:1
4th 1.22:1
5th 1.00:1
6th 0.79:1
Reverse 4.94:1
Opt transmission 6-speed automatic
1st 4.17:1
2nd 2.34:1
3rd 1.52:1
4th 1.14:1
5th 0.87:1
6th 0.69:1
Reverse 3.40:1
Axle ratios 3.55:1, 3.73:1, 4.70:1
Final drive ratios 2.63:1, 2.82:1, 2.58:1, 3.59:1
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Wheelbase 126.8 in
Length x width x height 201.2-211.0 x 72.8 x 71.0-72.8 in
Track, f/r 61.4/61.4 in
Turning circle 41.7 ft
Approach/departure angle 28.0-29.0/20.0-28.0 deg
Ground clearance 9.1-9.3 in
Curb weight 4450-4850 lb
Payload capacity 2200-2600 lb
GVWR 7055 lb
GCWR 13,117 lb
Towing capacity 4850-7385 lb
Seating capacity 3-5
Headroom, f/r 40.2-40.3/36.9-38.8 in
Legroom, f/r 41.7/31.3-35.5 in
Shoulder room, f/r 56.7/55.1-56.3 in
Bed LxWxH 61.0-91.2 x 61.4 x 20.1 in
Width bet wheelhousings 44.8 in
CHASSIS
Construction Ladder frame
Suspension, f/r Independent, control arm, coil over shock/solid axle, leaf spring
Steering type Rack-and-pinion
Turns, lock to lock 3.5
Brakes, f/r Vented disc/drum, ABS
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $19,300 (est)
Price as tested $51,600 (est)
Airbags Front, front side, side curtain
Fuel capacity 21.1 gal
Australian fuel economy, combined 25-31 mpg
Recommended fuel Regular unleaded, ULSD
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