After a seven-year hiatus, the Ford Ranger is back in the U.S. market and ready for buyers shifting from sedans to trucks and SUVs.
The new does not take the challenge lightly. It offers class-leading torque, towing capacity, payload capacity and fuel economy compared with gas-powered competitors.
The combination of performance and efficiency, matched with a smooth ride and available off-road chops, will present a strong case to buyers – even in a segment that includes stalwarts like the Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado and Nissan Frontier.
“The capability’s all there,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit.
Ford originally offered the Ranger in 1982 for the 1983 model year. Production continued for 29 years before the automaker pulled the plug in 2011.
In recent years Ford watched from the sidelines as midsize truck sales grew rapidly. Through the first 11 months of 2018 sales increased 16.2 percent to 478,000 compared with the same period in 2017. Only the slow-selling Honda Ridgeline has seen its figures dip.
When Ford decided to re-enter the segment, it had a few advantages up its sleeve.
First, it had a platform. After the Ranger was discontinued in the U.S. in 2011, Ford continued selling the truck globally. In regions such as Europe and Asia – with few full-size or heavy-duty trucks – the Ranger proved popular for heavy commercial work.
Second, it had a powertrain, the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that’s used in the Mustang and Explorer. For the new truck, Ford paired the engine with its popular 10-speed automatic transmission.
Third, it had truck-savvy engineers. They improved the ride quality and safety technology for U.S. buyers. They strengthened the frame and added steel front bumpers instead of plastic like competitors have. They fortified components in the engine to boost its torque, including a higher-pressure fuel system and an electronic waste gate on the turbocharger.
“We’ve got a lot of history with trucks and a lot of crazy smart engineers,” said Brian Bell, marketing manager for Ford trucks. “The Ranger is going to live up to our other vehicles.”
On the road, the 2019 Ranger does not feel like a borrowed platform or off-the-shelf powertrain. The ride is comfortable and smooth even with an empty bed. It hauls equipment in the back and handles off-road courses without trouble. The chassis is even capable of ducking and diving along windy roads at a brisk pace.
The four-cylinder engine is a strong point. It makes 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, delivered with impressive force and responsiveness. Rather than punching power to the truck in spurts, the turbocharger seamlessly feeds the engine linear boost that makes acceleration seem relentless at any speed.
Most midsize trucks offer two engine choices: an efficient four-cylinder and a powerful V6. Only the Ridgeline also offers a single engine. However, the Ridgeline matches neither the torque nor the fuel economy of the Ranger, which achieves Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 21 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway and 23 mpg combined in rear-wheel-drive versions.
Four-wheel drive models are rated 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined.
Fuel efficiency does not come at the cost of capability. The Ranger has a maximum towing capacity of 7,500 pounds, which is best in class for a gasoline engine. (The diesel-powered Chevrolet Colorado can tow 7,700 pounds.)
The Ranger has a maximum payload capacity of 1,860 pounds, which also tops the category. On a short and winding trip through mountain roads, a 4×2 Ranger hauled two dirt bikes strapped into the bed with virtually no change to its acceleration, power and handling.
Ford wanted the Ranger to offer all-around performance to lifestyle buyers, who use the vehicle for daily commuting but are also interested in outdoor activities and adventure, Bell said. Lifestyle buyers are on the rise in the U.S. and contribute to growing midsize truck sales.
“They want something that will take them and their gear where they go to recharge their batteries,” he said. “We think it’s a perfect opportunity to come into the segment.”
Ford will have an advantage because of its strong truck brand, Brinley said. However, she noted that IHS Markit projects slowing growth for the midsize truck segment.
The firm predicts about 525,000 midsize pickup sales in 2018. Accounting for the arrival of the Ranger, the all-new Jeep Gladiator and a possible Volkswagen entry, the segment is slated to hit 600,000 units in coming years, she said.
“The big jumps have already happened,” she said.
Analysts forecast fewer vehicle sales overall in 2019. And while Ford will draw some brand loyalists back into the segment, it also will attempt to conquer owners of the Tacoma and Colorado.
A few negatives
The Ranger does have a few drawbacks. The steering is numb and slightly drifty despite its capable chassis. The electronic steering, throttle and brake pedal are responsive but offer a less direct driving experience. The interior appears held over from the aging global platform – especially on sparse lower trims that are heavy on hard plastics.
To the adventure buyer there are more benefits. Every model comes with tow hooks and the steel bumper. The Ranger offers an FX4 off-road package that includes upgraded shocks, an electronic-locking rear axle, a front bash plate and skid plates protecting the transmission and transfer case.
Its approach, departure and breakover angles are better than those on the comparative Chevrolet Colorado Z71. The same goes for ground clearance. The Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road is its closest match, besting the Ranger FX4 in approach angle and ground clearance.
Also available is Trail Control, which debuted on the 2019 F-150 Raptor and will pull the truck uphill or downhill on rugged terrain without acceleration or braking from the driver. The system is much quieter than Crawl Control in the Tacoma TRD Off-Road. The Colorado Z71 does not offer a similar feature.
Pricing for the 2019 Ford Ranger starts at $25,395 including a destination charge. There are three available trim levels: XL, XLT and Lariat. Four-wheel drive costs about $4,000.
Ford has positioned the 2019 Ranger to appeal to a wide array of customers, Brinley said. The automaker offers a quality product in an important segment.
“It can tow some pretty expensive toys, and that’s a good customer for Ford to want to get ahold of,” she said. “Whether you tow once a week or once a month the capability has to be there. And they’ve done that.”
Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, Trucks.com attended an event where Ford hosted lodging.