First Drive – 2019 Ford Ranger
Pretender to the Throne
The last brand-new Ford Ranger was sold in the U.S. was a 2012 model, the last in a line of trucks whose bones dated back nearly 20 years. When it was discontinued, the compact Ranger was thoroughly outclassed by its midsize competitors, some of whom had seen two or three redesigns since the Ranger’s most recent. But its simplicity and long production run ensured the Ranger would retain a robust enthusiast following even after it was cancelled.
In the ensuing years, the cheap and cheerful Ranger abdicated the small truck sales crown it had dominated for decades, allowing the Toyota Tacoma to take the throne. Since 2012 the truck market has changed significantly—while fullsize pickups will probably always reign supreme, the success of the new-for-2015 Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon and the evergreen popularity of the Toyota Tacoma seem to have convinced Ford that there’s a market for people who are willing to sacrifice size and outright capability for a cheaper, more maneuverable package. Enter the 2019 Ranger.
When it was revealed at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, rumors ran wild about the new Ranger: Would it offer one of the F-150’s EcoBoost V-6s or its 3.3L naturally aspirated mill as options? Would a manual transmission be available? How much would it be able to tow? Our imaginations ran wild, let down somewhat when Ford later announced the Ranger would come with one engine and transmission combo: a 2.3L EcoBoost I-4 descended from the base Mustang engine, mated to Ford’s fine 10R80 10-speed automatic gearbox. In a market segment where most retail pickups are sold with six-pot motors, would Ford’s single engine option, a four-cylinder no less, be good enough to run with its competitors?
In one word: Yes.
In more than one word, the Ford Ranger’s 2.3L EcoBoost I-4 is arguably its greatest trump card over even its competitors’ V-6s. Offering 270 hp, the Ranger is slightly less powerful than the Tacoma’s optional 3.5L V-6 (278 hp) and quite a bit less powerful than the Colorado’s optional 3.6L V-6 (308 hp), but what it lacks in outright power it makes up in torque. At 310 lb-ft, the Ranger is the torquiest midsize gas-powered pickup, and what’s more, it makes all that twist at just 3,000 rpm. You’d have to rev a Colorado to 4,000 rpm to get peak torque, which is still 35 down from the Ranger. The Tacoma’s story is even worse: 265 lb-ft at 4,600 rpm. The long-in-the-tooth Nissan Frontier’s gutsy V-6 gets a bit closer to the Ranger, but it still only produces 281 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm, while the comfortable and carlike Honda Ridgeline suffers the most in this little comparo, with 262 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. Class-leading fuel economy is just icing on the Ranger's cake.
On the road, the Ranger drives with all the verve that its spec chart would indicate. Ford’s nicely executed 10-speed auto (codeveloped with GM) keeps the compact, turbocharged I-4 on boil, with smooth shifts that help keep the engine in its powerband when needed. There’s a small degree of turbo lag when stepping off from a standstill, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the Ranger’s torque curve flattened out smartly at anything above, say, 1,800 rpm. It never feels gutless or flat-footed, even when hauling up significant freeway grades with three large adult men onboard. The story is the same for both the Ranger 4x2 and the slightly heavier Ranger 4x4.
Those mundane errands will be made a bit more pleasant by the Ranger’s impressive body control and quiet ride. At speed, the truck feels very planted, a product of the Ranger’s stiff, fully boxed frame. An impressive amount of sound deadening is used, hushing tire roar and wind noise to mere whispers. Indeed, front and rear passengers can converse easily, even on rough surfaces and at freeway speeds.
That robust frame and impressive engine combine to give the Ranger some serious employee-of-the-month potential, with each powertrain and cab variant of the pickup capable of lugging 7,500 pounds’ worth of trailer down the road. Furthermore, the most capable version of the Ranger, a SuperCab 4x2, is able to haul a payload of 1,860 pounds. Even at the other end, a SuperCrew 4x4 is capable of hauling up to 1,560 pounds, a number that still outstrips some of its competitors’ max payloads. The next-best Honda Ridgeline can haul up to 1,586 pounds, while the Colorado can handle a 1,465-pound load.
Sidebar: But Can It Tow?
By Jason Gonderman
With a tow rating of 7,500 pounds across the lineup (when optioned with the company’s available tow package) I was anxious to see just how well the Ranger could actually perform when saddled with the task. To test this Ford hitched an extended cab XLT to a Moomba wakeboarding boat (cleverly powered by a marine version of the Ford SVT Raptor's 6.2L V-8) that tipped the scales at just north of 6,500 pounds.
During my short towing experience I had the opportunity to climb a slight grade, merge into highway traffic, and tackle congested city roads. While we weren’t about to win any races, the Ranger was perfectly suited to the towing duty at hand. With gobs of torque very low in the power band acceleration is a non-issue, both from a stop and while passing. The Ranger’s 10-speed transmission quickly adapted to the job and appeared to always be in the proper gear for the situation, frequently skipping cogs both up and down.
The one area of lacking is in braking. The ’19 Ranger does not come with a factory option for an electric trailer brake controller, however one can be added at the dealer or through the aftermarket. Without the brake controller, and even with surge brakes on the trailer, the large boat had a tendency to push the relatively light pickup around under moderate to hard braking. This wasn’t to the point of being at all unnerving, however it was noticeable. Directional stability was also adequate, but I could definitely feel the added sway induced by the relatively large trailer.
While the truck is rated to tow 7,500 pounds, we’d be a bit apprehensive at that level and would need to judge towing the load more on size than weight when it comes to towing at the maximum allowed. Overall, the Ranger towed admirably for a midsize and I wouldn’t hesitate taking the boat to the dock or camper to the woods.
With its on-road comfort and load-lugging capability justified, it was time to turn our attentions to one last activity, long a paragon of compact-pickup owners. We needed to get the Ranger dirty. Fortunately, Ford set up a challenging off-road course that was a decent approximation of the types of roads one might encounter on the way to a secluded hiking trail or fishing hole. Since the truck and the road were both Ford-designed, we’re taking some of these findings with a grain of salt—Ford wouldn’t submit the Ranger to a test it couldn’t pass—but overall, we came away impressed with the midsize truck’s skills in the dirt.
The Ranger 4x4’s available FX4 package comes with Ford’s Terrain Management System, which optimizes throttle response, stability control intervention, and other parameters for a few different road surfaces: Mud and Ruts; Grass, Gravel, and Snow; Sand; and Normal. We must admit, on the relatively simple off-road course provided, we couldn’t ever discern much of a difference between the modes. But perhaps we’d appreciate the settings at Pismo Beach, the Cleghorn Trail, or the Silver Lake Sand Dunes.
One difference that was palpable was the Ranger FX4’s Trail Control, a low-speed cruise control that puts the Ranger in charge of throttle and brake modulation over obstacles. Compared to the Toyota Tacoma’s Crawl Control, which we were able to sample on this test, Ford’s Trail Control is much more composed and smoother, with none of the jittery, ABS-sounding brake intervention of the Tacoma. Furthermore, Ford’s system operates at up to 10 mph in 4-Lo or about 19 mph in 4-Hi, and it’s operable in two-wheel drive as well. Toyota’s Crawl Control only works in 4-Lo at speeds of around 5 mph max. Still, the lumberjack in us prefers to just do the work ourselves and leave Trail Control permanently disengaged.
Otherwise, the Ranger lent itself well to the off-road course, with reasonable suspension articulation and plenty of traction from its Hankook Dynapro ATM all-terrain tires. All Rangers come standard with monotube shocks (the FX4’s are of a package-specific design for even higher performance). So while the hardcore off-roader would probably prefer more ground clearance than the 8.4 inches of a 4x2 or the 8.9 inches of a 4x4, the Ranger will still acquit itself easily when tasked with bringing the family to the favorite camping spot.
Cheap and Cheerful
While the 2019 Ranger is a wholesale improvement over that old 2012, one region in which they share a good deal is interior quality (or lack thereof). Said most charitably, the 2019 Ranger’s interior is class-competitive, offering lots of hard plastics throughout the cabin. One particular material-choice curiosity is the door-mounted armrests, which are upholstered in soft-ish vinyl that gives way to textured plastic right where one’s elbow might hit. Plastic-to-plastic seams appeared and felt worse than expected, particularly given Ford thinks a number of new Ranger buyers will come from family crossovers. Won’t they be a bit put off to see compact-car quality in a truck that starts at more than $25,000?
To be fair, the Toyota Tacoma’s more stylish interior is rendered in even worse plastic than the Ranger, and Ford’s midsize pickup offers just about exactly as much materials comfort as its competitors from Chevrolet and GMC. And the Frontier? Fuhgedaboudit, its interior might as well have been designed by Playskool. So while the Ranger’s somewhat boring interior design and construction can’t match the Ford F-150 for comfort, it’s still just as nice a place to spend time as any of its competition.
On the positive side of the interior ledger is the Ranger’s excellent infotainment system lineup. The base radio features hard buttons, a smallish LCD display, and SYNC connectivity, easy enough for your grandfather to learn when he trades his 1996 Ranger XLT in on its 2019 equivalent. This simple system is standard on the XL and XLT. The latter trim is also available with SYNC 3 and a touchscreen audio display, which can also be optioned with embedded navigation bundled with adaptive cruise control. The Lariat comes standard with SYNC 3 and the larger touchscreen display, with the adaptive cruise/navigation package optional.
Return of the King?
With class-leading torque and capability ratings, totally reasonable off-road driving dynamics, and a planted and secure highway ride that’s second to none in its class, the 2019 Ford Ranger has all the makings of a comeback—the former small-truck bestseller returning to claim its crown.
But in reality, we see one or two obstacles to such a coup, primarily centered on the Ranger’s price. With no “base” engine, the stripped Ranger XL still starts at $25,395, a price that might be too steep for the fleet buyers that can often propel a vehicle to bestseller status. After all, for many small businessmen, the sub-$20k Nissan Frontier offers all the space and carrying capacity they need, so why would they choose to move up $5,000 for a truck that’s overkill? And at the top of the scale, a totally loaded Ranger Lariat could cost $46,000 or more, depending on which factory-installed accessories were selected. That’s a lot of coin for a truck that likely won’t be able to keep up off-road with the similarly priced Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison.
But then again, many of Ford’s intended conquest customers will be coming from family crossovers, of which there are many that cost in excess of $35,000. For these relatively well-heeled customers, a nicely equipped Ranger could be just the ticket. Whether Ford’s Ranger recaptures the sales crown remains to be seen, but its stellar ride and handling, excellent towing and powertrain performance, and fun off-road personality give it a darn good shot.