Still at the head of a very good class.by Sue Mead
The Ford Ranger has been the best-selling compact pickup truck in America for the past nine years. In fact, it's sixth overall on the list of top-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 1995.
So, what's in store for '96? The good news is that you'll find the same features and attributes that have made Ranger the truck of choice for a broad range of light pickup owners, a range that includes increasing numbers of women buyers. And the even better news is that you'll find a few additions and upgrades well conceived to keep this vehicle in its current position on the sales charts.
The Ranger may have just one name, but it isn't one truck. It's actually 19 when you count up all the choices. There are Regular Cab and SuperCab versions; short bed (six-foot) and long bed (seven-foot) models; the choice of two-wheel drive or 4WD; base and up-level trim packages (XL, XLT and STX); and the sporty Flareside Splash, with its stepside bed fabricated from composites rather than sheet steel.
New this year is a Flareside pickup box option for both the Ranger XL and XLT Regular and SuperCab models, available only with 2WD four-cylinder models.
Depending on the model, Ranger pickups can accommodate anywhere from two to five passengers. It can also handle loads ranging from 1450 to 1650 pounds, and tow trailers weighing from 2000 to 6000 pounds, depending on the powertrain you choose.
But in addition to this wide array of style and capability choices, this small pickup has evolved from its early history as a rough and ready mini-hauler to a more versatile and comfortable all-purpose truck with many modern safety features. For instance, the Ranger is the first compact pickup truck to offer an optional passenger airbag to complement its standard driver-side airbag. And, like its F-150 big brother, it has an added safety feature. To accommodate a rear-facing child seat, the passenger airbag can be deactivated with a key-operated dashboard switch.
Civilization is steadily overtaking the compact pickup class, a trend that's reflected in the Ranger's list of standard and optional features. Standard equipment includes amenities like illuminated entry, tinted glass and a floor console with dual cupholders, while options can add fog lamps, power windows/doors/locks, keyless remote keyless entry and, of course, a variety of sound systems.
Obviously, Ford and other truck manufacturers are responding to all the folks who drive pickups primarily because they like the style. Driven primarily as image vehicles, they have to satisfy owners who expect passenger car features and comfort.
Redesigned three years ago, the Ranger's exterior styling -- with the exception of the Splash -- is subdued and a little more traditional than the rounded look of GM's GMC Sonoma and Chevy S-Series trucks. However, the redesign produced other benefits -- flush glass for reduced wind noise, for example, and limo-style doors that extend well into the roofline, to make entry and exit easier.
Although the Ranger looks a trifle dated next to its all-new big brother, the F-150 -- the best selling vehicle in this country -- there's something appealing about the straighter body lines and slightly snubbed front nose in a world of wind tunnel lookalikes.
Built on a typical ladder-type truck frame, the Ranger comes with a choice of three engines: a 2.3-liter four-cylinder, a 3.0-liter V-6 and a 4.0-liter V-6. Each engine is available with a five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. All specify 100,000-mile tuneup intervals, something that's new for the four-cylinder engine this year. Also new is a shield on the Ranger's 12-volt battery, to prevent battery overheating when underhood temperatures soar.
Our test vehicle was the Ranger SuperCab STX, with a snazzy metallic clearcoat paint job, a step bumper at the rear and a redesigned grille with integrated aero headlamps. This 4X4 model also has wheel flares and sporty aluminum alloy wheels. For '96, the P235/75R-15 tires have a new compound and new tread pattern to improve traction.
The SuperCab has a wheelbase that is nearly 20 inches longer than standard cab models with a standard cargo bed, and it's 15 inches longer overall. The cargo box is six feet long and can accommodate a 4' X 8' sheet of building material riding above the wheelwells with the tailgate down.
The Inside Story
The interior makeover of the Ranger has come about in two recent phases -- '93 and '95 -- and for '96 it remains a carryover with the exception of the optional passenger airbag. In '95, designers created a more user-friendly instrument panel along with new seat materials.
It's a relatively easy in and out of the Ranger SuperCab, although, as is the case with most 4WD trucks, vertically-challenged drivers looking for a driver-side grab handle have to settle for the steering wheel to hoist themselves up.
We found the gray cloth seats comfortable and appreciated the clear visibility that comes from the Ranger's tall seating postion, ample glass, narrow A and B pillars and unobstructed rear view.
The front seating positions have good head, leg, shoulder and hip room. Getting into the SuperCab's rear seats, however, involves some gymnastics, and there's not much room once you're there. This space is a much better place for things than people.
However, the pivoting quarter windows and sliding rear window are useful for dialing in just the right flow of fresh air when the weather permits.
GM's new third-door option on its extended cab Sonoma and S-Series trucks makes the space behind the front seats easier to use than the Ranger SuperCab, and we expect to see a similar option in the next Ranger redesign.
The Ranger's seats are newly fitted with automatic locking restraint/emergency locking restraint (ALR/ELR) belt systems that eliminate child seat clips and comply with new federal safety regulations. While there's a real globebox -- non-locking -- for some stowage, the door pockets are low and Lilliputian. A rear cargo net is handy for keeping small items from thrashing around in the back of the cab.
Ride & Drive
The Ranger is a straightforward, easy-to-drive truck. We particularly appreciated the dash-mounted electric transfer case which shifts from 2wd to 4WD High to 4WD Low with a simple flip of a switch -- no more wrestling with a separate shift lever to engage the 4WD system.
While the SuperCab's longer wheelbase smooths the highway ride on this truck, its longer dimensions make it a little less nimble off road. But only a little. All in all, this is definitely a good light-duty workhorse on and off the pavement.
We found the recirculating ball power steering to be precise and the Twin I-Beam front and rear leaf spring suspension gave a ride that felt solid and stable, considering the Ranger's somewhat tall and narrow body dimensions. However, the time-honored Twin I-Beam setup is something else that will probably be replaced in the next redesign, following the pattern set by the new F-150.
The 3.0-liter V-6 and automatic transmission in our test truck provided smooth acceleration and decent power, though some engine noise found its way into the cab.
Rear anti-lock brakes are standard with this engine, as well as the 2.3-liter four-cylinder Models equipped with the 4.0-liter V-6 get four-wheel ABS, a definite plus. The 4.0-liter, of course, also delivers more power, although it's still in third place compared to GM's 4.3-liter V-6 and the Dodge Dakota 5.2-liter V-8.
Brake-shift interlock is standard with the automatic transmission, and the STX comes with cruise control, as well as a tilt steering wheel.
The as-tested price of $20,035 for the Ranger 4X4 SuperCab STX might seem big for a small truck, but it's competitive with domestic makes and lower than comparably-equipped imports. We think it's worth it.
However, we should also note that the Ranger price scale starts well below this figure. So you should ask yourself some questions. Do you need 4WD? Do you need to accommodate five people, or haul lots of gear inside the cab?
Like other pickups, the Ranger line offers lots of choices, and it's a good idea to have a clear idea of how you'll be using your truck before you start sorting through the combinations.
Beyond that, of course, is the equally difficult choice of which truck. If you choose the Ranger, you'll be joining a large club of happy owners, one of whom summed up the whole experience for us.
"People buy 'em," he said, "because they work and they don't fall apart."
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.