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January 21, 2002

Review: 2002 Ford Ranger 4x4 XLT

The wind buffeted even more as the tire noise filled the cabin.  I knew for a fact that this vehicle was being driven at its very limit.  The odometer indicated a mere 3,525 kilometers—pretty young to undergo such a harsh treatment.  The stiff ride sent every single road imperfection straight to my spine and into my brain, registering with great tenacity like hot needles on cold, bare skin.  My pulse quickened as I gripped the gear lever trying to find another gear—I wanted to go faster—I needed another upshift.  To my surprise—that was it.  Only five gears?

For any normal vehicle, five forward gears would be more than enough, especially given the fact that Manila traffic only requires the first three.  However, it seems that this vehicle had its gearbox designed primarily for pulling power or torque instead of the usual speed-biased automobile.  What we have here, is the performance king of compact pick-ups. Ladies and gentlemen, let me present, the Ford Ranger XLT.

Introduced in 2000, the Ford Ranger XLT had all the right ingredients to topple the competition: the most powerful diesel engine in its class with 117 bhp at 3500 rpm; looks that echo its F150 bigger brother and a great extended engine warranty (four years if you use Shell oils).  In fact, it sold pretty well in Asia and in Europe, as the Ranger is the best seller in compact pick-ups in Thailand, which is the largest pick-up market outside the United States and it's the bestseller in Britain too.  However, here, it seems to be languishing in third or fourth place.

Why?  Simple.  Filipinos love good looks, scary but true (just ask Brad Pitt and the Corolla Altis).  Upon its launch, Ford had to redesign the Ranger to make it look more like the F150 through several means including: the front grille, headlight and signal light combination, the badge locations and even the rear area.  Alas, even after it conquered Mount Pinatubo, the Ranger had for its biggest market the utility companies who saw the great sales package but appreciated neither the looks nor the performance.

Fast forward a year later and Ford finally gets the right scent and decided to facelift the Ranger.  New to the 4x4 XLT are front bull bars, step bars, a streamlined bed design, upgraded wheels and a redesigned rear window.  Beyond the exterior, Ford also managed to tweak the interior bits by adding an upgraded stereo cassette system with single-CD, keyless entry and redesigning the dashboard with better plastic bits.  They also addressed the issue of safety by adding dual airbags (the only one in its class to have it) and limited slip differential.

So…will this redesigned Ford Ranger XLT sell?  Err…sorry to conclude so early, but if Filipino still cared about looks more than anything else, then no.  The Ranger’s perennial rivals, the Nissan Frontier, Mitsubishi L200 XT, Toyota HiLux and Isuzu Fuego also underwent through different metamorphoses, the most extreme of which is the Frontier, where Nissan even added leather seats, wood trim and a 6-disc CD changer as standard.  However, if performance could kill, then no one does it better than the Ford Ranger.

As mentioned earlier, the 2.5-liter turbodiesel engine produces a class leading 117 bhp at 3500 rpm and 280 Nm of torque at 2000 rpm.  Mated to a 5-speed manual, the Ranger produces quick, brisk acceleration numbers.  It can take on stoplight duels as well as trips to the North Diversion Road with relative ease.  However, don’t expect to carry a light conversation while driving, as the turbo diesel produces enough decibels to make your Aerosmith CD seem like it was your mobile phone ringing in discreet mode.  The engine is smooth and efficient, but very rowdy especially once the turbo kicks in at around 2,000-3,000 rpm.  Below that, the engine is quite dull and powerless.

Switching gears with the Ranger is quite a task at first because of two reasons: it’s a diesel and because of the rubbery transmission system.  First of all, for a person who’s very accustomed to driving a manual gasoline car everyday, the diesel responds very differently as more frequent upshifts are needed. (Think about it, you’ll need to shift as early as 2,500-3,000 rpm instead of the usual 4,000 rpm!)  Secondly, thanks to the rubbery feel of the manual transmission, it is very hard to gauge if the gear slot into place or you’ll end up crunching into fifth while driving at 100 kilometers per hour, just like what happened to me.

In terms of ride comfort, the Ranger doesn’t have any—forget about putting on make-up or driving your morning coffee in this truck, you’ll end up soiling your clothes and ruining your face before you get to the office.  The combination of the double wishbone at front and semi-elliptic leaf springs at the back make for very good hauling capabilities, but it makes the ride feel like that of a speedboat churning across choppy water.  On the positive note, thanks to the stiff suspension, straight line stability of the Ranger is quite superb with only its boxy stature and low-speed full off-road tires ruining the chance for a good high speed run.

Handling is quite adequate for a truck of this height.  In fact, it betters the Nissan Frontier when it comes to the small, twisty bits as the Nissan tends to sway more from side-to-side.  Steering feedback is quite numb, although it is very nimble and the overall maneuverability quite manageable (if it can fit through the Shangri-La Plaza parking lot easily, then it’s got to be very good).  Visibility is quite good especially at the sides and rear; the only weakness is the rather straight-edged hood that requires a bit of neck-stretching to judge right.

Brakes are the weakest point of this Ford as it lacks the bite even if the pedal is fully depressed.  With such a powerful engine, it should have been obvious that Ford increased the braking power as well, but alas, the vented disc / drum combination will have to do.  During our weekend with the Ranger, we had some scary moments because of the lack of braking power.

The question to practicality cannot be answered simply.  With the Ford Ranger, one has to ask for whom—the passengers or the load?  In terms of passenger comfort, the Ranger scores quite poorly especially for the people at the back not so much because of the space, but more of the overall seating position.  At front, the seating is quite alright especially with the driver.  However, because of the thinly padded seating material, your bottom end will get quite sore after a two-hour stop-and-go traffic situation.  Moreover, the plastic piping on the seats increase the cheesiness factor ten fold.  At the rear, the seats are too upright and the knee space too cramped.  This is no way to treat your friends out on a trip to Tagaytay.  Four is quite a squeeze already inside the Ranger, so there’s no way you could fit five for more than an hour around town.  On the other hand, thanks to the standard bedliner and easy to use tailgate, the Ford Ranger scores perfect in terms of luggage loading.  The bed may not be as large as the Chevrolet Silverado, but it can hold a full piece of plywood and a couple of chairs with ease.

Taking the Ranger from highway to off-road is like leading the ugly duckling to the swan pond. The stiff suspension, torquey engine and high ground clearance are fully realized when the Ranger goes off the beaten path.  In fact, in the lahar dunes of Central Luzon is where the Ranger really struts its stuff.  Taking this practically new facelifted Ranger XLT on some ‘light off roading’ courtesy of the Ford Outfitters program, this vehicle ended up having every conceivable bit tested—this isn’t the way Collin McRae or Richard Burns would do it—they wouldn’t have the guts.

When the people from the Subaru or Mitsubishi rally teams are content racing on muddy, snowing and gravel-type terrains, the Ford Ranger endured a more varied type of punishment.  There’s the usual dusty dry mud terrain, but there are some more interesting parts such as a river crossing, soft lahar (similar to wet , sticky sand), bushy fields and boulder-filled crossings.  All in all, the Ranger got out of all of these potentially sticky situations without a slightest glitch, scratch or mechanical imperfection.

Surely the turbocharged diesel engine helped a lot in the entire event.  Calling upon all the 280 Nm of torque—which is a class-leading figure, coupled with a low range 4x4 transfer case, made sure that the Ranger could take on any obstacle with ease.  The increased ride height, which dulled the Ford’s ability on the tarmac proved to be the only shield between the treacherous terrain and the sensitive undercarriage—soft roaders, eat your hearts out!

What’s more, the stiff chassis and the standard all-terrain tires made sure that the Ranger stays focused giving no sense of wallow or difficulty when steering in the soft terrain.  Although the ride is more jarring sending ten times more needles up our spine, the mere fact that this time we had smiles on our faces proved that this is where the Ranger really belongs.

After nearly two hours on single lane terrain, we approached a breathing space on a former river bed that was turned into a lahar-filled channel.  Since rain poured the night before, there were spots of wet sand, pockets of water and some things in between.  We thought—this is the perfect place to stretch the Ranger’s legs.  Turning the river bed into a makeshift rally cross, we gave our black weekend Ford Ranger all it had: at full acceleration, 4x4 high mode it carved through water, mud and sand quite easily like a hot knife through butter.  Handling is very predictable and very precise in these conditions, and the visibility was not the hindrance it was on-road.

In the course of the Ford Outfitters event, we were able to meet several Ranger owners as well (about half of those who joined had various types of Ranger 4x4 XLTs).  One guy, owning a stock Pinatubo Conquest I edition Ford Ranger said that this was the second time he joined the Outfitters customer’s program.  He mentioned that he is very fond of this Ford’s ability to get out of any situation and still provide some sort of entertainment.  He added that he uses his Ranger on everyday trips to logging yards on unpaved roads near the Quezon province.  “Wala kahit isang beses akong nasiraan o pumalpak ang kotse ko. Matibay ang Ranger na ito—kaya nga dinala ko ang mga anak ko sa Outfitters para makita nila.” (There wasn’t even one time that my car failed me.  This Ranger is very tough—that’s why I brought my children with me on the Outfitters program so that they may see).  A testament from a long-time Ford Ranger owner.

At the end of the day, we thought that this whole Outfitters things may have felt like a stroll in the daisies for the Ranger.  We expected to hear some rattling, squeaks or even an engine overheat after a high degree of punishment.  To our amazement, there was none.  The Ford felt as every bit solid as when we got it on day one a testament to the wonderful build quality.  Comparatively, our friend’s Nissan Frontier 4x4 3.2 M/T that did the same mileage already had its side plastic panels rattling.

Fuel conscious people may note that the Ford Ranger does 9.50 kilometers per liter during the combined on-road and off-road adventures that we had. A relatively good figure considering that diesel costs way less than your average unleaded gasoline.

For the practical minded, the Ranger is the best choice for a compact pick-up out there.  It has darn good abilities on and off-road thanks to its powerful engine, durable chassis and sturdy body.  It may not handle like a Ferrari or even a Civic, but for those in the market for a cheap, great value compact pick-up, no one does it better than the Ranger.  So what if it doesn’t have cow hides for seats?  With the Ford Ranger the cow can stay on the pick-up bed.  This isn’t your average compact pick-up—it’s the king of the hill.

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