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January 29, 2007

Review: 2007 Ford Ranger Trekker and XLT

The Ford Ranger scored a major upset earlier this year when it successfully defended its Pickup of the Year title against a couple of larger rivals. That was the previous model. Now a super sized, super powered, and better-equipped Ranger steps into the ring.

The Ranger continues the no-nonsense look of its predecessor, with a billet-style front grille that will continue to propagate within the company’s light-truck lineup. Simple and straightforward seems to have been the design brief.

To see how the all-new pickup measures up, we sampled two versions, a 4x2 Trekker and the range-topping 4x4 XLT. Both trucks looked suitably brawny, with bulky fender cladding and massive wheels, and each of them seems to have been attuned for specific driving purposes.

For on-road duties, we climbed aboard the Ranger Trekker 4x2. The Trekker is not ridiculously tall so getting in and out is easy, even without a stepboard. But its eye height is still elevated, giving an excellent view of the road and allowing us to see over passenger cars.

The Ford Ranger feels right-sized for Philippine roads. Driving some of its rivals is like shopping for groceries using a forklift. The Ranger is actually longer than other compact pickups but its moderate width allows it to dart easily through traffic and gaps in highway processions. Making maneuvers easier still is the squared-off hood, easily visible from the driver’s chair. All of these contribute to a nimble, more compact feel.

The tall, upright cabin looks modern and decidedly more car-like than before. Secondary controls like audio system and airc onditioning have been raised high on the dashboard, opening up space for a large storage bin and cup holders below them. The audio system can read MP3 files and adjusts volume to compensate for vehicle speed, but an auxiliary input for your iPod is sadly missing. Plastics are hard but the center segment is finished in shiny silver. The only ancient bit here is the twist-and-pull handbrake. The gauges are the default three-circle configuration, backlit in bright green.

The 2.5 liter turbo diesel is state-of-the-art, incorporating common-rail direct injection and dohc 16-valve heads.  Power and torque are more than enough for city and highway driving. The engine produces 143 hp, and 330 Nm at just 1800 rpm. Of all the pickups in the Philippines, the Ranger has the smoothest and quietest engine lineup. Turbo lag is negligible, and in-gear acceleration is excellent. The engine is even capable of pulling away from standstill in top gear.

The five-speed manual is a willing accomplice, allowing for quick, solid shifts. Gears are well-spaced, with first gear genuinely useful in city driving. The lever has been raised, too, making it a convenient hand-drop away from the steering wheel.

The ride is within pickup normality: predictably jiggly, but not uncomfortably so, even after a 300 km drive. The Ranger hits a sweet spot at about 80 km/h to 100 km/h when the ride suddenly smoothens out. Road and wind noise are commendably low, even when running at about 150 km/h. Rear seat space is now adequate for moderately long journeys.

From our first encounter with the Ranger on the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo—through deep lahar, steep embankments, and river crossings—we’ve recognized that the Ranger can take you to the abyss and back with confidence. That go-anywhere attitude has always been a Ranger trademark, and the new model is set to continue the tradition. For this part of the test, we switched to the 4x4 variant.

Top Gear’s resident 4x4 expert Beeboy Bargas constructed a special off-road course to highlight the Ranger’s abilities. The track looked challenging to say the least, but the Ranger made easy work of it. The truck didn’t so much as survive the course as beat it into submission.

Rough gravel followed by a low climb started the sequence. Next was a side-sloping muddy trail. Despite the uneven traction, with its right wheels plowing through mud and its left wheels on firmer gravel, the pickup crawled through it confidently in four-wheel drive High. Then a path paved with wheel-sized boulders bounced the passengers around, with their seatbelts clicking on and off like castanets. The truck moved steadily forward without much fuss.

Next was an enormous 45-degree incline paved with slippery mud. For that, we engaged the low-range transfer case. Foot off the pedal, the Ranger climbed up the slope practically on engine idle. The descent was at a perpendicular angle, so we had to twist the Ranger around a very narrow plateau. Its maneuverability proved useful here; a wider-turning vehicle would have barrel-rolled down the slope.

The piece de resistance was comprised of three water obstacles, each one submerging the pickup in 600 mm of Batangas’ muddiest. Throughout, the Ranger seemed hewn out of a solid block of metal, none the worse for wear after repeated floggings at the course.

The Ranger 4x4 is propelled by a class-leading 3.0-liter engine. 156 hp and a massive 380 Nm available at just 1800 rpm allow it to power its way out of the stickiest terrain. The limited-slip rear differential, reportedly the tightest in the market, gave the truck superior traction. The manual gearbox was ideal for off-roading, but there’s an optional five-speed automatic. One indication of the Ranger 4x4’s dedication is the position of the transfer-case lever. It sits just at the driver’s right knee, ready to be engaged without the driver leaning forward or having to grope around for it.

This is the part that gave us some serious pause. We knew we weren’t at the Batangas Racing Circuit just to play among the cows, but we were still surprised when the pickup started hurtling down the track. Deep mud may be the Ranger’s natural habitat, but a high-speed race course? Formula 3 team owner and race driver Pepon Marave showed us the lines around BRC then let us have our turn thrashing the 4x2 Trekker.

This part of the morning was the greatest revelation. The truck’s handling was predictable and linear even through the track’s hairpins. It remained obedient even at the limit of adhesion. The recirculating-ball steering may have been optimized for off-road work, but it was sufficiently precise for the tarmac.      

The brakes, equipped with four-wheel ABS and EBD, were the most significant asset here, allowing braking deep into the corners. We never thought that we’d be confident drifting a pickup on a racetrack, but the Ranger pulled it off nicely.

As befits its character, the new Ranger doesn’t look like a spaceship or a suppository; it’s clearly designed as a tough, practical workhorse. The cabin is comfortable, but the load bed size has not been sacrificed for it. The best drivetrain in the market can pull and haul well above its class. New Ranger picks up properly from the original, offering attractive farmboy looks that disguise superhero performance.

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