Australian correspondent James Stanford has always written about the trucks we don't get to drive in the U.S., like the Ford and Holden Utes and Volkswagen Amarok. This time, he gets behind the wheel of the global 2012 Ford Ranger.
If you live in the United States and like compact pickups, it might be best to hit the back button on your browser.
Why? I’ve driven the all-new 2012 Ford Ranger, which will be sold in 180 countries but not the U.S. It’s a great ute — or, as you guys like to say, truck.
Developed by a global Ford team headquartered in Australia, the new workhorse started as a clean sheet of paper, giving the team the freedom to build exactly what it wanted.
After a run through the South Australian outback, some road driving outside Adelaide and some load hauling, I believe the new Ranger could very well be the best hauler of its kind, possibly even beating the recently released Volkswagen Amarok, though a direct comparison would be needed for a solid conclusion.
We’ll get to the reasons this small pickup is so good in a bit, but an explanation of the truck is probably in order.
The 2012 Ranger, which was code named T6, was cranked up in 2005. Ford led the project, and Mazda was involved. As it has in the past, Mazda will sell its own version based on the same basic vehicle, called the BT-50.
Engineers set out to knock off the king of the class, the Toyota Hilux, with a pickup that would suit the needs of most markets on the planet, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia.
They came up with a rugged separate chassis ute that will be offered in 20 different variants, with Single Cab, Super Cab (with a second row of short-trip seats) and a spacious five-seat Double Cab.
You can have a regular steel bed or a cab chassis with a tiny aluminum flat tray on the back. There are low-riding two-wheel-drive versions and a more popular high-riding two-wheel-drive model.
Ford raided the global cupboard for engines and will offer a choice of a gas unit and two turbo-diesels.
Ford took the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine from the Fusion and Escape and mounted the alternator higher to aid with water crossing. This one has a variable intake camshaft and a standard exhaust cam. It manages 137 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 167 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. The entry-level turbo-diesel is a Ford Europe-sourced 2.2-liter four-cylinder with common rail injection. It used to serve in the Mondeo and now earns its keep in the Transit cargo van. Peak power is 148 hp at 3,700 rpm, while the torque is a handy 277 pounds-feet between 1,500 and 2500 rpm.
Spending some extra coin gets you the current range-topping engine, a 3.2-liter five-cylinder turbo-diesel, also from Europe’s Transit. This one makes 197 hp at 3,000 rpm and a more impressive 347 pounds-feet of torque between 1,500 and 2,750 rpm.
The gas engine makes do with a five-speed manual, while the two diesels come with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic.
We tested the 3.2-liter diesel, and it is a good match for the truck. It didn’t have to work hard on steep trails, and it didn’t seem to notice anything when we loaded 1,500 pounds of cement bags in back.
This is a fraction of what the Ranger can haul. Depending on the model, you can lug 3,368 pounds in back. The maximum tow rating comes in at a respectable 7,385 pounds.
Ford says the Ranger’s frame is twice as stiff as the previous model and 10 percent stiffer than the Hilux’s frame. It uses leaf springs at the rear and a double A-arm setup at the front with upper and lower joints.
The cab is isolated from much of what is going on with the help of fluid-filled rubber chassis mounts that are more compact than those found on F-Series trucks.
All this helps contribute to an impressively smooth ride. The typical chassis jiggling over bumpy surfaces in these kinds of trucks is reduced to very low levels, and it feels more like the car-based utes in Australia rather than something with a ladder frame.
The handling is also eye-opening. The four-wheel-drive models we tested have 9.3 inches of ground clearance, so they‘re not sports cars, but they certainly punt along twisty roads better than other pickups of this size.
The Ranger’s steering is another highlight. It’s now rack and pinion rather than recirculating ball, and it feels more precise and predictable. The only downside is that there is very little feedback, and it can vibrate (with rack rattle) on some particularly rugged off-road trails.
We tackled some steep, rock-strewn tracks, and the Ranger handled them easily, thanks to its ample torque, low-range gears and the rear locking differential. With 31.5 inches of wading depth, it should be able to cross some reasonable waterways.
The new Ranger Double Cab is 218 inches long and 72.8 inches wide, and its bed is 70 inches long and 61.4 inches wide. The single cab’s bed is the same width, but is 91.2 inches long.
Ford has loaded the Ranger full of safety gear, including electronic stability control with roll-mitigation sensors, antilock brakes and six airbags on all models except the base, which gets two. Engineers told us they are confident that crash tests will show it is even safer than the current safety king, the Amarok.
The interior of the Double Cab is impressively spacious. A 6-foot-2 bloke sat comfortably in back while the driver put his seatback as far as it could go. There were no tears or threats because the seatback didn’t even touch his knees.
The interior design was influenced by power tools and chunky watches, but the engineers didn’t get too carried away, as everything is where it should be and is easily controlled.
You can operate some of the features using the voice-control system on premium models, an indicator of just how quiet the Ranger is. Extra sound-deadening materials were used liberally through the cabin and roof to make passenger conversations much easier.
Drivers can also use the Bluetooth system for phone operation via steering-wheel-mounted controls. You can also use Bluetooth to stream audio from music players.
The designers also factored in heaps of really useful storage areas, including a glove box big enough to stow a laptop, storage below the rear seats and a center bin that can be cooled to store beverages.
It will take a bit longer to see how the new Ranger holds up at worksites and in the outback, but our first impression is that it is a world-class ute that will likely give the Hilux a real scare.
We Australians do feel a bit sorry that Americans won’t be able to buy the new Ranger, but giventhat we miss out on the F-Series, Ram and Chevy trucks because they aren’t made in right-hand drive, there is a limit to our sympathy.