The fact that the British pick-up market is flat on its back and gasping for life has not deterred Ford from launching a revised version of its Ranger. The Thai-built load-lugger has received a modest external makeover, with big headlamps that wrap around each corner and a redesigned, horizontal three-bar, grille with the Ranger name prominently embossed on it.
Perhaps the most significant change has taken place under the metal, however. Noted for its tail-happy behaviour, the 3.0-litre diesel automatic has been quietly dropped. The automatic ’box is instead offered solely in conjunction with the 2.5-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel.
The 156hp 3.0-litre Duratorq TDCi engine is still available with five-speed manual transmission, however, as is of course the 143hp 2.5-litre.
On offer as either a 4x2 or a 4x4 — the latter looks set to account for 93 per cent of sales — Ranger is up for grabs with four different specification levels; XL, XLT, Thunder and the top-of-the-range Wildtrak. The five-speed auto ’box is fitted solely to the Thunder Double Cab 4x4 and adds £1,200 to the price.
As well as in four-door Double Cab guise, Ranger can be ordered with either a two-door Regular Cab or an extended Super Cab with two forward-hinged and two small rear-hinged doors. It can additionally be purchased as a chassis cab with or without a Ford One-Stop tipper body.
Gross payloads range from 1,069kg to 1,235kg, with gross weights ranging from 2,800kg to 3,010kg.
Good to see that the 4x4 can tow a braked trailer grossing at 3.0 tonnes. That’s just the sort of capacity that many pick-up owners need; but don’t forget that you’ll almost certainly need to have a digital tachograph fitted and use it if you’re hauling that much weight.
We took to the damp roads of southern Scotland in a Thunder Double Cab auto to find out. The good news is that the 2.5-litre auto’s tail stays exactly where it should be, even in slippery conditions; right behind you rather than trying to swing round to meet you. Even if you drive aggressively in the wet, you’ll have to work very hard to persuade it to step out.
If it shows any sign of doing so, then the rear limited slip diff — standard on all Rangers — digs in hard and stops it in its tracks.
OK, the 150kg load placed directly over our test vehicle’s back axle probably went some way towards dissuading the back end from jumping all over the place, but it’s not the sole reason for its calmer behaviour. The fundamental reason we suspect is that the engine and transmission are better-matched than they were on the 3.0-litre.
Thus reassured, we were able to explore Ranger’s other characteristics. For the most part, we were impressed. For a relatively big vehicle it handles remarkably well, tackling the twisting rural roads of The Kingdom of Fife with aplomb and offering ample feedback through the steering. Nor is there any lack of performance.
Gearchanges are smooth, jerk-free and occur at just the right place. There isn’t the constant changing up and down as there was with the 3.0-litre and you can disengage the overdrive if you wish by pressing a button on the gearshift.
Engine noise could stand to be better-suppressed, especially at low speeds, and we’re disappointed that Ford has seen fit to hang on to that horrible under-the-dashboard umbrella-type handbrake lever. Ranger’s plus-points outweigh its minuses, however, and that’s especially the case when it comes to off-road behaviour.
To sample its ability in the rough we took a manual 4x4 example around an off-road course at the Knockhill Racing Circuit. It happily tackled steep ascents and descents — muddy or boulder-strewn, it made no difference — with the suspension’s ample articulation allowing it to crawl over obstacles. The anti-stall system came in handy on a couple of occasions.
Streams held no terrors for it and it sloshed along them as well as across them without complaint.
Like its automatic stablemate, the manual Ranger is competent on metalled roads as well. For some reason, however, our manual demonstrator didn’t ride quite as well as the auto, despite the fact that it had the same size test load positioned in the same place.
What it also had was a smooth, user-friendly gearchange, a characteristic it shared with the Wildtrak Double Cab 4x4 — powered solely by the 3.0-litre engine and the only model to feature it — that we sampled next.
It’s got ample performance, no question about it, and the looks, image, and equipment to go with it. But is it really worth the extra money in today’s grim economic climate? Regretfully, we’d have to say no. Instead, our pick would be the Thunder Double Cab in either manual or auto guise. It’s got most of what most customers are likely to want, including air conditioning as standard.
The pick-up market shrank by a staggering 34 per cent in the UK last year — the first drop in a decade — as the recession began to bite. Registrations have fallen heavily this year too.
High-specification luxury double-cabs have been hit especially hard says Steve Kimber, commercial vehicle director at Ford of Britain, and that’s going to have an impact on the make up of Ranger sales.
The top-of-the-range Wildtrak looks set to account for a mere seven per cent of registrations of the new model, he says. “That’s down from 15 per cent previously,” he remarks. “We’re starting to treat lifestyle models like Wildtrak almost as niche market products.”
That’s not to say that customers are completely abandoning their taste for well-equipped vehicles, with Thunder, one rung down from Wildtrak, likely to be responsible for a respectable 45 per cent of sales. The entry-level XL is destined to take 31 per cent while the middle-market XLT should rack up 17 per cent.
Will the luxury end of the pick-up market ever enjoy a revival? “I can’t see it coming back to the sort of levels it once reached,” Kimber replies.
Partly that’s fashion; some of the people who opted for a well-equipped double cab rather than a company car have now moved on to something else. The same customers may also be concerned about CO2 emissions and here the figures recorded by pick-ups — comparatively large vehicles fundamentally designed as workhorses — aren’t especially impressive. Ranger’s figures, for example, run from 233g/km to 277g/km. Fuel usage on the combined cycle extends from 27.2mpg to 33.2mpg.
Kimber believes that changes to the personal taxation benefit-in-kind rules are having an impact too. While people who run double cabs as company cars are still taxed at the commercial rate on their private usage, the tax break they receive isn’t as generous as it once was.
None of this is to say that the pick-up market is dead. The workhorse end of the sector will revive once the building trade shows clear signs of coming back to life, farmers still love their pick-ups and there are still quite a few self-employed people around who want double cabs dripping with goodies.
It will be a long time, however, before it booms again; if indeed that day ever dawns.
Ranger prices range from £13,400 to £21,850, excluding VAT, and the vehicle is protected by a three-year/60,000-mile warranty. Service intervals are set at 12,500 miles.
An impressive package that gets most things right and is unlikely to disappoint.