But even as Ford debuts the 2019 Ranger, some auto industry experts ask if the company is joining the dance just as the band is about to pack up and leave.
The smaller pickups make up a neglected category that nearly died off following the last recession as automakers pulled back. Ford stopped selling the Ranger in the U.S. eight years ago. At one point, only Toyota and Nissan offered trucks in the segment. But sales of midsize pickups have doubled since 2013 as manufacturers moved back in with fresh offerings.
General Motors launched the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon in late 2014 and quickly captured 32 percent of the market. Honda relaunched its Ridgeline in 2016 and grabbed another 8 percent.
Altogether, automakers sold 452,335 midsize pickups last year, a 1 percent increase compared with 2016. Toyota leads, with sales of almost 200,000 Tacomas last year. Chevrolet is the only other brand that sells more than 100,000 midsize pickups annually.
Don’t expect dramatic growth in the market, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Markit. It will grow by only low single-digit percentages to sales of 475,000 to 485,000 trucks through 2023.
“As the Ranger comes on board, and a little later a Jeep pickup comes out, there will be more players fighting for just a little bit of growth,” Brinley said. “They will wind up taking sales from each other.”
To fight this battle Ford is bringing a version of a midsize pickup already sold overseas, but modified to meet U.S. safety requirements and to target homeland consumer preferences.
Ford believes the Ranger buyer will be very different than the typical F-150 customer.
Ranger customers will be more urban, said Todd Eckert, Ford’s truck group marketing manager. They are not going to be in construction trades or ranchers who use trucks as work tools. Ranger customers will be looking for a daily driver that still allows them to pursue lifestyle activities on the weekends.
“This isn’t just about carrying their adventure gear,” Eckert said. “Ranger, we believe, will become a part of their adventure gear.”
That will help safeguard Ford’s dominance in selling full-size trucks, he said. Americans purchased nearly 900,000 F-Series trucks last year. It has outsold every other truck annually for 41 consecutive years.
Ford is packing the new Ranger with technologies that will help serve that dual role as a commuter and adventure vehicle.
It will come equipped with a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged EcoBoost engine mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission, the only one in the midsize truck segment. Ford has not provided horsepower, torque or fuel economy ratings. The same engine is already used in the Focus RS and Ford Mustang, but will have different ratings because it will be tailored for a truck that will tow and go off-road.
As a daily driver, the Ranger will offer the advanced safety technologies now commonly found on passenger sedans and crossovers. Forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking is standard.
Other safety features are standard on the higher-priced XLT and Lariat trims. These include lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning, a parking aid that detects objects behind the truck and helps with parallel and slant parking as well as a blind-spot alert system that looks back far enough for trailer coverage. Other optional driver-assist technologies include a system that scans ahead for pedestrians, providing alerts and braking to mitigate crashes and adaptive cruise control.
Inside, the Ranger will have optional Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and the Ford+Alexa personal assistant function. Buyers can also upgrade to a truck that can double as a 4G Wi-Fi hot spot for up to 10 devices.
For those who have occasional backseat passengers, the vehicle will come in extended and the larger crew cab configurations
To make sure the truck is competitive with the Tacoma and Colorado — both popular with off-road enthusiasts — Ford is offering its FX4 Off-Road package. That gives the truck off-road-tuned shocks, all-terrain tires, a frame-mounted heavy-gauge steel front bash plate, frame-mounted skid plates and FX4 badging.
“Let’s say you have a fishing spot out in the woods, it might have a rock garden or logs you have to get over,” said Brandon Cameron, a Ford engineer.
Once Trail Control is set, it will latch onto a low speed and control acceleration and braking through the rocks and other obstacles. The driver just has to concentrate on steering.
“You may not be a very good off roader. But you turn on Trail Control, it will give you that confidence that you need to get through the terrain,” Cameron said.
The Ranger marks a departure from Ford’s truck architecture in the U.S.
When Ford introduced the current generation of F-Series trucks in 2014 it started to build the vehicle’s body and bed from aluminum. The move allowed the basic F-150 to shed about 700 pounds and improve fuel economy. Ford touted the material as “military-grade aluminum” and made that the centerpiece of a massive marketing campaign.
But the new Ranger, which is based on a global vehicle, is mostly steel.
“There is a bit of confusing message because this vehicle is not aluminum like the F-Series,” said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm.
Ford said it treats each vehicle on a case-by-case basis, using the best materials for the efficiency, and capability it is targeting.
The automaker will begin building the truck at its Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., later this year. Sales start early next year. Ford will announce pricing closer to when sales start.
After seeing the vehicle at a Ford briefing, Brinley said Ford will have to work hard to get traction in the midsize pickup truck market.
“My initial take is that the Ranger is confident and has the right capacity and capability, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the space,” Brinley said. “It’s a basic midsize truck in a field that already has enough midsize trucks.”
But others warn against underestimating an automaker that has built its brand around trucks.
“They will be successful just by the nature of Ford being an aggressive marketer and having such a strong presence already in pickup trucks,” said Ed Sanchez, an automotive industry analyst at Strategy Analytics.