The Blue Oval's midsize pickup truck is pleasant enough, even if it doesn't excel in any one particular area.
I want to love the Ford Ranger, I really do. But I just can't. This isn't to say Dearborn's midsize pickup is bad. In some ways, this truck just feels a little underdone. It's by no means an EcoSport-level rush job, but an extra year or so of product development work could have transformed what is a good vehicle into a truly great one.
Fortunately for Ford, the Ranger is a midpack offering in a segment of rather unexceptional (though popular) products. The Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon twins are nice, but they're aging and far from amazing. At this point in its life, the ancient-though-soon-to-be-redesigned Nissan Frontier is basically a covered wagon that happens to have a spiffy new powertrain; and the Toyota Tacoma, while durable and massively popular, has never endeared itself to me, feeling both uncomfortable and crude. With the exception of Honda's convention-defying Ridgeline and maybe the Jeep Gladiator (which can be shockingly expensive), I'm not a huge fan of any midsize truck offered today.
Somewhere in the middle of this mediocrity maelstrom is this Ranger. Given Ford's long history of pickup excellence, you'd expect this product to be a smash hit, yet it somehow falls short.
This truck is offered with either an extended-cab body and a 6-foot bed, or in a larger crew-cab configuration with a 5-foot cargo box. Three trim levels are available: base XL, midrange XLT and range-topping Lariat. Rear- or four-wheel drive can be had with any body-and-trim combination.
My tester is an XLT crew-cab model with four-wheel-drive and the FX4 package. This rough-and-tumble $1,295 option group gets you monotube shocks, off-road tires and a locking rear differential, as well as some additional skid plates. Finished in a $395 Rapid Red Metallic paint job, it's a handsome, if somewhat generic-looking truck.
When properly equipped, the Ranger's max tow rating is 7,500 pounds across the board, while its payload capacity tops out at 1,860 pounds. These scores are better than what most rivals offer: The Jeep Gladiator and diesel-powered versions of the Colorado and Canyon can tow a little more, up to 7,700 pounds in the case of those GM twins, but none of Ford's major rivals can out-haul it.
Capability is one of the Ranger's strong suits, but this is undermined by some unusual choices. For instance, push-button start is only offered on Lariat models. Other trims come with an old-fashioned key you stick in the ignition and twist. The available SecuriCode keypad, a Blue Oval staple for decades, looks like a complete afterthought, tacked onto the driver's side door. Even basic things like regular old cruise control and power-adjustable side-view mirrors are optional on the XL model.
Inside, this truck's cabin is serviceable, constructed of decent-quality hard plastics. Interior storage space is, however, somewhat limited. There's a small bin underneath the center armrest, another cranny ahead of the shifter plus a tray atop the dashboard. A mechanical handbrake gobbles up space on the center console that could have been used for something else; ditto for a row of buttons controlling things like tow/haul mode and traction control. A rotary dial operating the four-wheel-drive system and an unusually lanky gear selector take up even more precious real estate in this area.
My truck's front bucket seats are covered in a robust-feeling cloth and are supportive in all the right places with just a hint of plushness for long-haul comfort. The crew-cab body has a decently sized back seat, with a good if not outstanding amount of legroom. Improving versatility, that lower cushion also flips up, revealing a couple of storage cubbies and opening the backseat up to hold bulkier cargo if necessary
Paired with an 8-inch touchscreen, Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system is standard on XLT and Lariat models. It responds swiftly to inputs and is very easy to use. This and FCA's Uconnect system are two of my favorite multimedia offerings available today thanks to their simplicity and speed.
Naturally, Sync 3 includes things like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Navigation can also be had as part of a $995 technology package that bundles other features like adaptive cruise control and a forward-sensing system, which is handy for parking because it lets you know how close you are to obstacles in front of the truck. Fortunately, this infotainment offering also includes redundant onscreen climate controls -- far easier to use than this truck's physical climate control switches, which are too low, flat and uniformly colored to be operated without causing distraction.
Keeping everyone's mobile devices fully juiced, my XLT-trim Ranger has two USB ports up front and another pair serving rear-seat passengers. Wireless charging is, unfortunately, not available.
Ford CoPilot-360 is also standard on XLT and Lariat trims, but it is offered as an option on the entry-level model as a $625 upcharge in addition to the $1,135 101A package. This suite of driver aids includes lane-keeping assist, automatic high beams and even blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert that covers both the truck and any trailer you might be towing.
Most of that technology works well, as does the Ranger's available adaptive cruise control. It's smooth to accelerate and decelerate, maintaining a safe following distance from the vehicle ahead.
The Ranger's 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is smoother than rival trucks' V6s and much more responsive. With the exception of its big, mechanically driven cooling fan, which makes quite a ruckus at startup, it's pretty quiet, too. The fuel-saving stop/start system is seamless, restarting the engine without any shaking or judders, often before your foot is all the way off the brake pedal. It works so well I have no desire to disable it.
One thing I love is this powerplant's torque curve, which is exactly like most Americans: thick in the middle. Ford's force-fed four-pot is strongest from 2,500 rpm to around five grand, exactly where you want loads of grunt in a truck. Potent seat-of-the-pants performance is backed up by the numbers. This engine delivers 270 horsepower, which is, in some cases, a good bit less than V6-powered competitors brandish -- for instance, the Frontier has 40 more ponies -- but the Ranger offers significantly more torque, 310 pound-feet in total. Really, only diesel-powered versions of the Colorado and Canyon are endowed with more twist.
The other half of the Ranger's powertrain is a 10-speed automatic transmission. Unfortunately, in this application it can be very moody. Sometimes gear changes are perfectly smooth, other times they're lumpier than a bag of potatoes. In fact, for about the first 40 miles I drove this truck, the transmission's shift quality was terrible. It juddered, surged and was incredibly inconsistent from one moment to the next. After that distance, things calmed down considerably and the transmission's performance became livable, if not quite perfect. I wonder if someone disconnected the battery or if the truck had a software update and it was relearning its adaptive-shift strategy, where the gearbox adjusts its performance after learning how a particular person drives.
In mixed driving and without much effort, I average 21.9 miles per gallon in my test Ranger, a figure that's all over this truck's combined fuel-economy rating of 22 mpg like sprinkles on an ice cream sundae. In city driving it's rated at 20 mpg and on the highway you should expect 24 mpg.
The Ranger's powertrain is definitely a mixed bag, but the rest of its road manners are not. At least with FX4 upgrades, this truck is a driving disappointment. Somehow, the ride is both too soft and harsh at the same time. Expansion joints and small road imperfections feel sharp, transmitted in high fidelity, yet, paradoxically, larger inputs cause the body to bob around in an almost nautical manner.
Thies brake pedal is laughably soft, with what feels like 6 inches of travel before pads start clamping down on rotors. It's kind of like stepping on a wet sponge. Obviously, this is not confidence-inspiring, especially if you are towing near or at the limit.
As for the steering, it's reasonably quick and has a good bit of heft to it, but in some situations the larger F-150 drives like a smaller vehicle. You could argue Ford's full-size truck is the Ranger's strongest competitor.
The F-150 is a larger, more comfortable and capable rig that can be similarly efficient and not necessarily a lot more expensive. My Ranger review unit checks out for around $42,805, a sum that includes just shy of $7,000 in options and $1,195 in destination charges. You can get a crew-cab, four-wheel-drive F-150 with an optional EcoBoost V6 for about that much, which makes the Ranger a tough sell. As it stands, this is a good midsize truck, but, unfortunately, it falls short of greatness.