2019 Ford Ranger first drive review: Bad mudder trucker

Everyone's been waiting for the return of the Ford Ranger. The fervor surrounding Ford's midsize pickup redux is the sort you'd normally expect for a sports car like the GT, or the iconic Mustang. Truck fans have genuinely missed the Ranger.

The midsize pickup truck segment is experiencing a nice resurgence. General Motors launched new versions of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins a few years ago, Toyota redesigned its Tacoma and Honda introduced its own take on the midsize truck, in the form of the unibody-but-still-pretty-capable Ridgeline. The old-but-trusty Nissan Frontier keeps on truckin', too. The timing couldn't be better for Ford to launch its reborn Ranger. And spoiler alert: It's really good.

Two cabs, one engine

At launch, the 2019 Ford Ranger will be available in three trims: XL, XLT and Lariat. You can spec your Ranger in two-door SuperCab guise with a six-foot bet, or opt for the four-door SuperCrew style and get a five-foot bed. Rear- or four-wheel drive are offered, and there are four different appearance packages.

Every US-spec Ranger is powered by a 2.3-liter EcoBoost I4 engine, putting out 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. The Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado (and its GMC Canyon twin) have more horsepower with their V6 engines, but the Ranger's turbo engine offers healthier torque output, which is better for low-end grunt and fuel efficiency. If you want more torque in a midsize truck, you have to shell out for the diesel engine in the General Motors pickups.

A 10-speed automatic transmission gets that power to the pavement. No manual gearbox is available. This modern transmission is borrowed from the larger F-150 and the result is superior fuel economy. Two-wheel-drive Rangers are rated at 21 miles per gallon in the city, 26 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined, while adding four-wheel drive knocks those numbers down to 20, 24 and 22, respectively. Compare that 22-mpg 4WD combined rating to 20 mpg for a similarly equipped Tacoma, 19 mpg for a Colorado or 17 mpg for the old-as-dirt Nissan Frontier. The Ranger's fuel economy is even slightly better than the unibody Honda Ridgeline, which can't match the Ford's off-road or towing capabilities.

The Ranger has a maximum payload of 1,860 pounds in four-door, two-wheel-drive spec -- that's 200 pounds more than the Tacoma. Heck, even the four-wheel-drive Ranger with the least amount of payload capacity (1,560 pounds) is only 14 pounds below the maximum hauling ability of the Chevy Colorado.

When it comes time to hook up a trailer, the Ranger will tow 7,500 pounds, regardless of drivetrain or cab configuration. Of course, that's if you spec the optional tow package with brake controller -- a $495 upgrade I'd happily include.

Drives like a truck

This test drive takes place in and around the greater San Diego area, starting with a long stretch of on-road driving before heading to some off-road proving grounds. The Ranger gets up to speed quickly and has more than enough mid-range punch to pass slower drivers on the highway. The solid axle in the rear means the Ranger isn't the smoothest thing on four wheels -- folks who like a "trucky" ride likely won't mind. Aside from the unibody Ridgeline, though, the Ranger has a ride quality not unlike every other midsize pickup.

2019 Ford Ranger

The 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine delivers solid power, and the 10-speed automatic transmission is great.

Ford

Once I hit some twisty backroads, the 10-speed automatic shows its refinement. You might think this thing would constantly be hunting for the right gear, but no, the Ranger's transmission tuning is excellent, downshifting smoothly to eke out more power from the engine, upshifting to top gear when appropriate for maximum efficiency. The 10-speed will occasionally execute a harsh downshift under braking, but it's a small weak spot in an otherwise flawless gearbox.

On these winding roads, the Ranger handles the various bends like you'd expect from a pickup. The body rolls a bit, and the softer suspension setup of my FX4 tester makes it a bit bouncy over pockmarked pavement. The steering has nice weight to its action, even if there isn't a whole lot of communication through the wheel. Really, the Ranger feels as nice to drive -- if not a little bit more mature -- than its Chevy and Toyota competitors.

Off-roads like a pro

While most of the Ranger's appearance packages are merely cosmetic upgrades, the FX4 off-road pack has some actual performance gains. Most importantly -- especially for folks like me who tend to say "Watch this!" and go scrambling over some rocks -- the FX4 offers full skid plate protection front and rear. An electronic rear differential locker is on the docket, as well. A terrain management system is included on FX4 models, with Normal, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts and Sand drive settings. Finally, a trail control system is on hand to help with throttle control on tricky, slow-speed paths.

2019 Ford Ranger

Opt for the FX4 package and you'll get some legit off-road upgrades.

Ford

On the Ford-designed off-road course, the Ranger FX4 gets the job done with ease. First I'm scrambling around an off-camber turn, then I'm heading up a steep climb, the latter showing the full pulling power of the turbo engine's 310 pound-feet of torque. The suspension easily soaks up the bumps through a rutted wash, and the Ranger maneuvers through a banked S-turn like a pro. Over staggered ruts, the Ranger flexes like a champ and keeps on going without pause.

The FX4 pack adds tires with beefier tread, but they're only a tiny bit bigger than the standard tire -- 31 inches, compared to 30.6. A larger tire would help off-road geometry considerably. As it stands, the Ranger has approach, breakover and departure angles of 28.7, 25.4 and 21.5 degrees, respectively, with 8.9 inches of ground clearance. That's not bad, but the Tacoma TRD Pro's 35.0-degree approach and 23.9-degree departure angles are much better.

Still, the Ranger handled this (again, Ford-designed) off-road course with aplomb. I'd love to take it out to the dunes to see how it negotiates soft sand, but my first impression is that the FX4 pack is great for folks who will do light to moderate off-roading. If you're looking to the Ranger for dirty stuff, you're probably better off buying a base model and upfitting it with aftermarket goodies. Or, you know, buy an F-150 Raptor. Ford makes a Ranger Raptor, but currently has no plans to bring it Stateside (despite my pleading).

2019 Ford Ranger

Ford's Sync 3 infotainment rocks, but the rest of the Ranger's interior is average at best.

Ford

Bland interior, but lots of onboard tech

Inside, you'll find a great suite of tech, starting with the Sync 3 infotainment system from other new Fords, housed in an eight-inch touchscreen on higher trim levels, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. The Ranger has a number of driver's aids, too, with blind-spot monitoring that can see the length of the truck and a trailer, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and lane-keeping assist. Adaptive cruise control is also available, but it disengages below 12 miles per hour, making it useless in stop-and-go traffic (where, incidentally, I want to use it most).

Overall, the Ranger's cabin uses materials that are pretty average, at best. The overall design is pretty simple and straightforward, but some of the switchgear makes this truck feel like something from Ford's past, not present. The front seats are super comfy, with optional heat, even with cloth upholstery. The Ranger trumps the Tacoma with rear legroom, boasting an extra two inches of get-comfy space, but back-seat passengers still might find themselves a bit cramped.

2019 Ford Ranger

The Ranger has a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds, regardless of drivetrain or cab configuration.

Ford

An incredibly well-rounded pickup

2019 Ford Ranger pricing starts at $25,395, including $1,095 destination, for a 4x2 SuperCab XL. My tester, meanwhile -- a SuperCrew 4x4 Lariat -- comes in at $39,480. And that's before you opt for the $1,295 FX4 pack.

The new Ford Ranger isn't a perfect midsize pickup. The interior isn't the best, the tailgate slams down when you open it, and there's only one engine option. But even so, the Ranger excels with its great power, best-in-class towing and payload and stellar fuel economy to boot. Taken as a whole, the Ranger really feels like the most well-rounded midsize truck available today.

For those who've been waiting, you won't be disappointed.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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