Tuesday, December 13, 2011

First Drive: 2012 Ford Ranger

Photos by Ulysses Ang
Remember that memorable diner scene in When Harry Met Sally--the one where Meg Ryan had a fully-clothed orgasm? I had the very same experience with the all-new Ford Ranger as we traversed through the roads of Northern Thailand; and while Ryan's character faked her's, mine was all real. The moment I stepped into the Ranger's cabin, I just couldn't stop grinning ear-to-ear and that smile stuck on like the Joker's all the way throughout the drive. Mind you, I'm not the sort of guy that likes pick-ups, but this one truly blows me away. It's that good.

I've always liked the Ranger for all its focus on drivetrain technologies. While its rivals constantly went for the bells and whistles, Ford delved right into the engine and transmission to give the Ranger a truly robust and athletic heart. From the very first one to the current model, the Ranger stood its ground offering competitive engines, transmissions and even four-wheel drive systems. Of course, the 2012 is a completely different animal. Where typical model to model changes would result in minor to modest changes, the all-new Ranger is completely new; so new in fact that it impressed a car guy such as myself.

Ford's group of engineers was clear with the Ranger's DNA and they've managed to nail pretty much all their criteria. From the get go, the Ranger was designed to have the following attributes: great to drive, exceptionally quiet, exemplary fuel economy and exceptional value. Designed since 2006, the new Ranger rides on an entirely new frame which is twice as stiff as the current model. Though still shared with upcoming Mazda BT-50, the Ranger does have it's unique front/rear track as well as suspension bits.

The stiffer frame is immediately apparent when i took it out onto the open road. The Ranger has none of the flex, none of the jarring you've come to expect in pick-ups. In addition, there's minimal, and I mean minimal road noise. It's so quiet; it puts my sedan to shame. This despite the fact the Ranger wears all-terrain Bridgestones measuring 18 inches on the range-topping Wildtrak model (lesser versions carry 16- or 17-inch wheels). In addition, using a unique track means Ford engineers can actually make the stock wheels flush with the wheel well. This gives the Ranger a butch appearance, but above all, it reduces aerodynamic drag.


Sitting on top of the rigid frame is a body that's equal parts sexy, equal parts functional. With over 60 years experience with pick-ups, Ford wants to play the heritage card with the Ranger's design. First, it carries the large, horizontal three-bar grille upfront. This design cue, all-too familiar with Ford truck and SUV owners, is finished in chrome emblazoned with the words, "Ranger". If you're not a big fan of chrome, the sportier Wildtrak substitutes the chrome for a high-gloss black finish that works even better. Flanking the attention-grabbing grille are squared-off headlamps. Though they seem simple, they're angled to improve the Ranger's aerodynamic profile while adding a shade of Explorer to the Ranger's front end. Ford engineers also added more Explorer design cues such as the clamshell hood opening and even the squared-off side mirrors.

Ford designers are clearly proud of the Ranger's side profile, a common weakness with pick-up design. Immediately, you'll notice the "boomerang"-shaped crease over the doors as well as the strong, chiseled character line that runs across the entire length of the Ranger from hood to bed. It's a testament to the Ranger's unmatched fit and finish, which is almost to the level of upscale SUVs and passenger cars. Also immediately noticeable is how the B-Pillar is pushed forward, giving the Ranger ability to sit two six-footers behind each other. And then you go into the details like the stamped wheel arches, the G-Shock inspired bed trim and tail lamps. Then to improve the Ranger's quietness as well as looks, the greenhouse is smaller. With more metal to the doors, the Ranger is quiet with no noticeable wind noise even at speeds beyond 140 km/h. Aside from reducing the wind noise, the increased metal on the doors allowed Ford to integrate a deeper pick-up bed, perfect for load-luggers who demand nothing but the largest and deepest cargo carrying capacity. And for the recreational users, Ford has even equipped the pick-up bed with a power outlet and integrated drink holders--impressive attention to detail if you ask me. And all off these design features weren't just placed there to look good: they all contribute to a class-leading co-efficient of drag at 0.399.

Inside, aside from the spacious interior, the Ranger has been designed to be as smart and sexy as possible. The feature-quotient on this model has gone up with features such as powered driver's seats, dual climate control, voice-command and even cruise control all as available options. But even on the mid-range models, the Ranger impresses with its use of European-level plastics that wouldn't look out of place in a Fiesta or Focus. As classy as these plastics are, Ford engineers have also assured me that they're long lasting and durable as well.

The Focus levels of fit and finish is supplemented by the same level of driving comfort as Ford's sporty compact. The driving position is spot on with supportive seats and a grippy three-spoke steering wheel, despite a steering column not adjustable for reach. The view is equally good and despite the 5.3-meter length, the Ranger is easily maneuverable. Rear visibility deserves special mention as the Ranger is easily chuckable into parking spaces with a bed that's fully visible. And if you still have doubts with your parking ability, some Rangers even come with a smart parking assist complete with rear view camera to help you.

As I set off on the 150 kilometer drive, the smile turned into a grin thanks to the Ranger's excellent road manners. Despite the traditional ladder-on-frame construction and leaf spring rear suspension, the Ranger is very stable. The steering may still be a touch vague, but it's quick-witted and responsive. As mentioned earlier, the Ranger is very quiet with minimal obtrusion from the wind and the road; and despite being pumped with 35 psi on the tires, rarely felt jolting. Refined is something you don't really use to describe pick-ups, but this one is.

The Ford Ranger is powered by a new family of DuraTorq engines. Though comparisons with past Ford projects including the Mondeo and Volvo D5 engines are unavoidable, Ford assures me that the Ranger uses a unique design and configuration. The top of the line models use a 3.2-liter inline-5 that's good for an even 200 horsepower and 470 Nm of torque. Those who want a smaller engine can opt for the 2.2-liter inline-4 that's still good for 150 ponies and 350 Nm of torque. All Ranger DuraTorq engines also carry variable-geometry turbo and direct injection. And unlike the Ranger's rivals, it carries 6 gears whether you'd like to swap cogs yourself or have a computer do all the work. Thanks to the extra forward ratio and a 80-liter tank, the Ranger promises up to 1,000 kilometers of cruising range between fill-ups.

The monstrous horsepower and torque figures will make you think that the Ranger's close to undrivable. It's not. The power delivery is highly linear and smooth. It's smooth to the point that if you're wishing to be shoved into your seat each time you floor the throttle, you'll be disappointed. Still, the engine's creamy smooth and the gearbox free from shock. Triple digit speeds are no sweat for the Ranger and you can carry a normal conversation doing so. And even if you find yourself puttering in traffic, the gearbox keeps it's revs down conserving fuel and reducing engine noise. For those interested, the Ranger even comes with a manual +/- shift override. Though I didn't find use for this feature on the drive, the fact that it's there simply adds to the cool factor. Shifting (pardon the pun) to the 6-speed manual, I found swapping gears a drama-free affair. The clutch is easily modulated and the throws short and precise. Not once did I suffer from a missed gear change even when I'm not accustomed to shifting with my left hand.

As roads started to turn into trails, the Ford Ranger showed its highly capable chassis. It simply rode through any obstacle thrown at it. More than once, I found myself deliberately trying to offset the Ranger by climbing over larger pieces of rocks, but this pick-up remained unfazed. Even as the test drive units clocked more than 3,800 kilometers, they were free from any sort of rattle. The solidity is a testament to Ford's grueling test program which equates to 10 years of extensive abuse (including heavy payloads, jackrabbit starts and such).

Serious off-roaders lament the lack of a locking rear differential, but its four-wheel drive system is good and it comes with limited slip differential as well as traction control (with trailer sway control) to get you out of sticky situations. The four-wheel drive even features a shift-on-the-fly system which allows the front wheels to decouple even at speeds up to 80 km/h. And when you encounter dangerous situations and need to grind to a halt, you can rely on the responsive and well-modulated brakes. The models I drove even had anti-lock brakes and corner brake control.

At the end of drive, I was even made to cross a river. Again, no sweat for the Ranger thanks to its 800-mm water wading depth. The secret here is putting all sensitive electronics and engine parts way up the hood to avoid getting water logged. Plus, the air intake features a one-way valve designed to keep water out. In case you need one of them snorkels, Ford's got you covered too. Simply pop out one of the faux side vents, and it becomes a place to fit your raised intake. No drilling, no punching--it's all plug and play.

Ford simply designed the all-new Ranger around its heritage, but in the end it came out with a pick-up that's a world-beater in every sense of the word. It shouldn't be surprising as no other company comes close to the Blue Oval's extensive experience in designing and engineering the world's best pick ups. The all-new Ford Ranger truly is a rock star, and I for one turned into a groupie. Ford has made me a believer in pick-ups and that you can an orgasm even with your clothes on.

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