Does the Ford Ranger deserve to be number one? We test the new FX4
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2020 Ford Ranger FX4 4X4
• Rugged looks
• Versatile powertrain
• Still the best drive
• A bit pricy
• Silly sports bar
• Black gets dirty easily
The plan seemed so simple. Grab a Ford Ranger and put it through fun, fantabulous torture. Aim it at sandy dunes, some pools of mud, a steep incline or two.
It's amazing that something as insignificant as a global, deadly, highly contagious virus could wreak such havoc on best-laid plans.
Sadly, the arrival of DRIVEN's latest long-termer — Ford's Ranger FX4 4WD — hasn't quite featured the adventures we'd anticipated. But as the country crosses back towards normality, hopefully fun in the rough stuff isn't far away.
This is the second Ranger FX4 to come through the turnstiles, following on from the 2WD variant that we had during lockdown. Our long-termer adopts all the same changes as the 2WD (including that 157kW/500Nm 2.0-litre biturbo diesel from the Raptor), except it doubles the number of powered wheels.
Along with loads of neon red FX4 insignia inside and out, you get a sinister set of 18-inch wheels, darkened bi-LED headlights, a big ol' sports bar, and a hungrier-looking grille borrowed from the American-spec Ranger.
A few kilometres of red stitching and an impressive set of leather seats will have you thinking you're in a more expensive Wildtrak when you hop inside. But a knowing squint at the digital cluster and joint steering wheel and centre-console functions highlights a few key differences.
Adaptive cruise control, seats that are powered and heated, and ambient lighting are among the Wildtrak standard features which miss the FX4 boat.
But plenty of handy kit remains, like autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, and trusty sign recognition — making awkward speeding tickets from the worksite foreman all the easier to avoid.
At $67,890, the FX4 4WD sits neatly between the $64,490 XLT and $71,990 3.2-litre Wildtrak. I note that the 2.0-litre Wildtrak is another grand on top of the 3.2-litre's price, and the 2WD FX4 is on sale for the balance of this month for $46,990.
What stands out most with the Ranger is how it bucks a glaring industry trend.
The best selling hatchbacks and SUVs tend to be based around sharp, value-packed pricing. Yet, the Ranger — one of the most expensive contenders in class — outsells not just every other ute in the country, but also every other vehicle. Period.
Along with getting our Ranger dirty, the other mission of this escapade was to try and nail down exactly why this ute was the one to dethrone the formerly untouchable Toyota Hilux as New Zealand's most popular vehicle.
A cynic might conclude it's because of huge discounts on the showroom floor. The Ranger's arguably the best looking ute on the market … maybe that's got something to do with it?
An early theory of mine was that the Ranger successfully captured shipwrecked Ford Falcon fans, more than happy to buy Ford's utility offering in the wake of the death of their much loved sports sedan. Perhaps the way Ford folded the Falcon name ensured a more palatable switch than what went on over the fence at Holden a few years later.
It's not until you actually hop into a Ranger that you realise the platform's success isn't just down to theories. Not entirely, anyway.
There's a certain attention to detail in a Ranger that plenty of other utes lack.
It's the air-tight thud when you shut the doors, it's the generous network of seals and noise-retardants lining the underside of the bonnet. A big panel of squishy soft-touch goodness sits atop the dashboard. Together with all the way things look and feel to use, it all adds up to an unsurprisingly pleasant drive.
It's worth noting too that Ford's SYNC 3 touchscreen interface has also had a mild update for 2020; replacing its dated menus (one of my few former complaints about the system) for a far more current look.
Once you get things going, the Ranger's underpinnings respond nicely. Along with being direct enough in its steering to navigate tricky roads at an impressive pace, its damping offers excellent rebound management. Speed bumps can be relinquished with minimal jiggle and jive, and without any compromises to ride quality.
Here's me hoping last week's Hilux update reveal cures the Ranger rival's rigid ride.
But how much you like the Ranger FX4 hinges entirely on not the way it handles or the sound of the doors slamming shut or the big sports bar (well maybe the sports bar, it's a bit agricultural), but on your opinion the engine.
Ford's biturbo 2.0-litre is an engine that we journalists love to love and that Facebook commentators love to hate. Even after two years on the market, a vocal minority still bring down the comparatively high-tech lump.
Apart from the standard 'only milk comes in two litres' disdain, the biturbo is also the victim of its forefather's success. The 3.2-litre five cylinder remains very popular, to the point where any wildly different replacement would've likely attracted distrust.
And yes, the two do feel quite different.
The five-pot still has certain strengths. To me it feels more capable when it comes to making concise passes on the motorway. There's less pent-up energy, but more grunt at the top end.
The 2.0-litre by contrast is full of immediate pep — complemented perfectly by the predictable and neatly calibrated engine-exclusive 10-speed automatic.
Peak torque starts at 1750rpm for both engines, but the addition of a turbo in the 2.0-litre gives it more distinct low-down punch from behind the steering wheel.
Where the smaller, more tightly wound engine breaks away from the 3.2 is in its flexibility. It idles quieter on start-up and hums along more peacefully on the motorway, but also produces a warbling engine-note just as characterful as its contemporary.
Where it's yet to be tested is in its towing abilities. Hmmm. We'll have to do something about that then won't we.