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2019 Ford Ranger First Drive: Tackling the Tacoma for less

You hear about it all the time, especially in the Vancouver, BC area, where I’m from: “Oh I love my Tacoma”. “The Tacoma is the perfect vehicle for my lifestyle.” “Just bought a Tacoma. Best vehicle I’ve ever owned.” I know mountain bikers, family men, lawyers and everything in between who own one of these.

And frankly, I’m kind of tired of hearing about it.

Of course by “Tacoma”, I’m talking about the Toyota small pickup that has managed to capture the hearts and minds of a generation, mainly because a) it’s a very good piece of engineering and b) when it came time for that generation – call it Gen Y, or even millennial – to start buying vehicles, the Tacoma was the only horse in town in Canada, really; the Nissan Frontier was/is old -- and better known as a work truck anyway -- and the GM Canyon/Colorado twins just haven’t had the bite in Canada; actually, even in the U.S. the Tacoma is outselling those.

Now, though, there’s a new kid in town. It’s called the Ford Ranger, and needless to say that after years of hearing about Tacos, I was very much looking forward to its arrival.

Photo: D.Heyman

New, but not new, but new
Of course, “new” comes with a bit of an asterisk, here; technically, the 2019 Ranger’s ancestry dates back to 1983, when Ford first realized it was time to move on from the car-based Ranchero (and the Mazda Courier that briefly replaced that model) and provide a proper small pickup. It soldiered on from then until 2011, at which point the small truck market was weak and larger trucks – such as Ford’s own F-150 – were getting smaller and more-efficient turbocharged engines that offered the same capabilities as their old V8-powered counterparts.

The Ranger has lived on in other markets since then, however. That said, Ford insists that aside from the basic platform, very little is shared between what we’ll be getting and what other world markets already have. Sadly, that also means that there are no plans at this juncture for a North American version of the Ranger Raptor that surfaced in Thailand recently.

At any rate: it appears the pendulum is swinging the other way, and the small/midsize truck is back on the radar - just not necessarily in the same capacity as previous.

Photo: D.Heyman

A crossover pickup
“(Buyers) all want a vehicle that’s practical, maneuverable and has the capability of a full-frame vehicle,” said Brian Ball, Marketing Manager for the Ford Ranger and F-150. “Some will use it as a sport utility, and you’ll see a bit of a crossing over between the two.”

They’ve definitely styled it as such, with a front end that lands much closer to the Edge crossover (more or less; depends on which of the three available grille treatments you choose) than to an F-150, a colour swatch ranging from a surprisingly luxurious metallic gray to bright red and blue, two-tone wheel choices ranging in size from 16-19 inches and a modern interior.

Indeed, stepping into the Ranger feels very much like stepping into a Ford crossover; the lack of a column shifter or a bench seat and the inclusion of a digital gauge cluster and available SYNC3 infotainment and B&O Play audio all contribute to the effect. The truck doesn’t get the dial shifter found on the Edge, however, making do with a traditional console-mounted shift lever.

Photo: D.Heyman

One engine, one transmission
It should come as no surprise that it gets a turbo – a 2.3L EcoBoost four with 270 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, same as the Mustang – but more surprising is the fact that it’s your only engine choice. Along with four trims (XL SuperCab: $30,969, XLT SuperCab: $35,539, XLT SuperCrew: $37,339 and Lariat SuperCrew: $42,289) a single 10-speed auto transmission choice, standard 4x4 (the U.S. gets a RWD 4x2) and SuperCab (six-foot box) or four-door SuperCrew cabs (five foot box), the goal was to make purchasing a Ranger as easy as possible.

While the Ranger is not entirely a conquest vehicle, Ford believes that there will be folks that leave their crossovers for it, or elect to go with it instead of the crossover they may have been considering as a departure from their compact sedan or hatch.

It maybe a little four-banger, but it sure sounds like a truck on start-up. Apparently, that’s what truck people want so they’ve actually enhanced the engine’s report and non-truck people can like it or lump it. Personally, I like it because as much as the styling is modern and CUV-like, I want there to be a little drama, a little muscle being displayed. Thing is, loud as it may be on start-up, how quiet it was during high-speed highway driving and so forth – whether in the back or front seats – was very good. Normal levels of conversation weren’t a problem, and that B&O audio was just that much better for it.

Photo: D.Heyman

The little truck engine that could
Of course, noise is one thing but you want to make sure you have the forward progress to go with it and with that turbo, 10-speed and 4WD, acceleration is right on and should keep all those lifestylists plenty happy. Even while towing a 1,500-lb load of jet skis and trailer (far below the 7,500-lb limit, which is the same no matter which body style you choose), I always had the confidence that your average everyday manoeuvre would be carried out without a, ahem, hitch. You can lock out the higher gears to stop it from shuffling around too much during towing, and it’s nice that the optional BLIS system can cover your trailer. I was a little dismayed, though, to find that the excellent Pro Trailer Backup Assist found on the F-150, Super Duty pickups and Expedition isn’t an option on the Ranger.

My only other real complaint about the drive is that while the ride is excellent – seriously excellent – I found the steering to be a little less responsive than I would have expected. Turn-in felt a little slow, forcing me to make corrections and add a little more brake pedal than I was prepared for. That also leads to a little more body roll due to weight transfer, somewhat affecting the otherwise good ride. The frustrating part is that the 4x2 I sampled – and that we won’t be getting – was noticeably more agile.

Photo: D.Heyman

That’s really only an issue on bendy, paved roads, though. When it comes to scenarios in which the Ranger is supposed to excel – off the beaten track, for example – it does.

We had the chance to take the Ranger on an off-road course that included steeply banked turns, climbs and mud moguls. All 4x4 Rangers get four-mode Terrain Select – San, Mud/Rut, Snow and Normal. There’s also hill-descent and -ascent control, an electronic locking rear differential as well as an FX4 package tuned for off-road use.

We kept it in Normal for most of our test, though we were instructed to try Sand/Gravel at one point as this locks the Ranger into RWD. It worked well but the real eye-opener for me was when I forgot to re-engage the front axle before climbing a steep, muddy hill but made it up without a problem. Thank the Hankook Dynapro AT tires for that, but also the transmission and rear axle.

Photo: D.Heyman

Look Ma, no feet
The off-road course also gave us a chance to sample the hill descent/ascent system. Activated by a press of a button mounted ahead of the shift lever and working in conjunction with cruise control, it allows you to crawl forward with no feet on the pedals all the way up to 32 km/h, so all you have to worry about is steering. It works well and un-invasively; the similar system in the Tacoma goes about the business of automatically modulating the brakes through the ABS system – as the Ranger’s does – much more loudly, sounding more like a construction site or WWII Ack-Ack fire than an ABS system. It also doesn’t allow you to set a specific speed, but asks you to choose from five predetermined speeds instead.

It was during my testing of this feature that the Ranger’s ethos came in to focus. Ford has managed to turn the trick of delivering a truck suitable for off-road and hauling use, but one that I can readily see as an alternative to the crossover. It’s also a slice of genuine competition for the Tacoma, which, by the way, starts at more than does the Ranger and with RWD, to boot.

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