2021 Ford Ranger Tremor review: Prepper's delight
Ford's pumped-up midsize 4x4 is readier than ever for your overlanding expedition or riding out the end of days.
In recent years, not only have sales of pickup trucks increased, interest in overlanding -- the phenomenon of off-grid adventure travel to remote destinations in specially prepared vehicles -- has skyrocketed. This off-road pastime's dramatic rise in popularity predates COVID-19, but today's pandemic somehow makes the idea of zombie-apocalypse-ready 4x4 ownership suddenly seem like a sensible investment.
In any case, the Blue Oval's product planners didn't necessarily have Armageddon in mind when they came up with the 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor, but that doesn't mean this pickup wouldn't make for a good truck upon which to build out an end times overlanding rig. Even if you're not a prepper, as far as social-distancing machines go, Ford's go-farther 4x4 is better suited than most.
After a long hiatus, the Ranger reentered the North American market in 2019 and its popularity has been gaining steadily. Last year, despite the coronavirus hamstringing new-car sales, Ranger sales actually increased, with the model claiming the midsize pickup segment's second-place sales slot behind Toyota's Tacoma. There's still a lot of daylight between the Ranger and Tacoma on the sales charts, however, and Ford figures much of the hill it has to climb is with the type of buyers who gravitate toward the Taco's many TRD off-road models.
Now, the Tremor isn't a standalone model, it's actually a $4,290 package that can be added atop the truck's mid-grade XLT and range-topping Lariat trims. The Tremor starts by incorporating most of the performance and aesthetic hardware from today's existing FX4 off-road package and adding Ranger's Sport Appearance trimmings. Combined, those two option groups normally total about $2,000, so after spending a couple of weeks with this model both on and off-road, the nearly $2,300 cost premium for all of the Tremor's additional gear feels like a pretty solid value.
Like other Rangers, the Tremor uses the same 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbo I4 mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. Good for 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, this is still one of the torquiest and most modern drivetrains available in a midsize truck. The engine has more than enough oomph to tote this 4,571-pound pickup around and the stop/start tech is well behaved to boot.
Foxy suspension and a geometry lesson
The Tremor's main upgrades are centered around the Ranger's suspension, with the headliner being a set of expensive Fox 2.0 shocks, including more sophisticated remote-reservoir units on the rear axle which pair with Tremor-specific leaf springs. The front end gets new springs, too, along with different control arms and a thinner anti-roll bar for better off-road articulation. The steering system is tweaked, too, with unique knuckles to help accommodate the demands of the Tremor's larger 32-inch General Grabber off-road tires which wrap a set of Magnetic-painted 17-inch wheels.
All of this new hardware yields a modest 0.8 inches of additional ground clearance for a total of 9.7 -- slightly better than a Tacoma TRD Pro. Most of that increase is due to the larger tires, which also lend this truck a slightly more planted, 1-inch-wider stance. So equipped, the Tremor's approach angle is 30.9 degrees, departure is set at 27.1 degrees and breakover angle is 24.2. Those are improvements of 2.2 degrees, 1.7 degrees and 2.7 degrees, respectively.
On-road manners and visual tweaks
While these modifications are designed for off-road use, most of these trucks will still live on pavement for the vast majority of their days, so it's good to know that this isn't such an extreme setup that the Ranger's on-road demeanor has been ruined. The ride is a skosh softer, and there's a bit more body roll when attacking corners on dry pavement, but the difference is neither alarming nor offputting. If anything, the ride quality is actually more agreeable than the last Ranger I remember driving. Better still, the truck's all-terrain rubber doesn't drone on the freeway the way a lot of big-lug off-road tires can. The Tremor may be an off-road-focused package, but over the course of several weeks, I found it more than livable as a daily driver.
I even dig the subtle Tremor-specific visual tweaks. There's a unique grille with red-outlined nostrils and the blacked-out bumpers and wider wheel lips give a bit more stance and presence. Look a little closer, and you'll probably note the front steel skid plate, the pair of rear tow hooks and the running boards. The latter sit higher and tighter than the optional side steps you can get on other Rangers, but don't worry, you can still unbolt 'em for better off-road clearance. There's also a splashy, retro-look graphics package available, if that's your jam.
Dated cabin with a few extras
Inside, the Ranger's cabin is largely the same as ever, which is to say, not very impressive. Yes, there are modest Tremor-specific touches like the script logos and suede-like panels in the seatbacks, plus a useful set of rubber floor liners and black dashboard trim. I also appreciate the six-pack of auxiliary power switches designed to easily accommodate extra lights, an air compressor or myriad other useful accessories. But otherwise, the interior feels pretty dated. Believe it or not, this XLT actually still has a switchblade ignition key (fortunately, Lariat trims get pushbutton start).
Even though Ford invested a bunch of money in Ranger when it returned to the US in 2019, it wasn't a brand-new truck upon arrival, as the same basic generation had been selling overseas for years. Despite a bunch of upgrades meant to bring the truck in-line with the heightened refinement expectations of US consumers, the Ranger's interior is the easiest way to date this truck. Its plastics are almost universally hard, its infotainment lives on a small-ish touchscreen that isn't flush mounted and isn't running the latest version of Sync. Even the last-generation F-150 feels far, far more advanced and substantial, let alone the freshly redesigned 2021 blockbuster now wheeling out of dealers.
To be fair, the cabins of midsize pickups are all quite disappointing these days, whether you're talking Ford, Toyota or General Motors. Jeep's Gladiator is somewhat better in terms of tech, but it's very expensive. In fact, only the Honda Ridgeline really feels up to snuff all the way around, but because it's a unibody, many buyers won't even look at one. This Ranger's cabin remains in the hunt, but interior niceness is a prime reason for potential buyers to consider stretching to even a lower-end F-150.
Lackluster fuel economy
If you're thinking fuel efficiency is a good reason to go with this smaller truck, you're going to want to think again. Partly because of its larger tires and blockier profile, the Ranger Tremor only manages a straight 19 miles per gallon across the board (city, highway and combined) according to EPA estimates. That's a surprisingly stiff comedown from the standard Ranger 4x4 XLT's 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined.
Incidentally, that's also the same combined-cycle rating as a 5.0-liter V8-powered F-150 4x4, which gets 16 mpg city and 22 highway (let alone more efficient F-150 options like the 2.7-liter EcoBoost, diesel or PowerBoost hybrid). Again, these numbers are competitive within this segment, but not unlike the interior accommodations mentioned earlier, the Tremor's efficiency comes across as disappointingly yester-tech.
Off-road performance and towing/payload
I spent a wintry day at Holly Oaks, a newly opened quarry-turned-off-road playland in metro Detroit to test the Tremor's mettle. With a mix of hard-packed frozen ground and mud-and-snow slurry, this ORV park was a suitably tough test for this pickup. Better still, I enjoyed practically free run of the place, as it was closed to the public, enabling me to go back and try the same trails and obstacles in different drive modes while taking different lines to assess the truck's full capabilities.
Like the FX4, the Tremor features Ford's Terrain Management System, so you can poke a button and optimize the vehicle's various drive and brake systems for whatever surface you're about to roll over (it's kind of like the dial-a-nap controller on your vacuum). Ford says it recalibrated the Tremor's traction control for this model's larger, knobbier tires for better traction on gravel and I found the system worked equally well in the slushy stuff as it did on the hardpack.
One thing that's nice is you can cycle through TMS' modes on the fly. I primarily relied on Grass/Gravel/Snow for hills, but when I was just having fun intentionally sliding around at speed on the flat stuff, I chose Sand mode (and occasionally Mud and Ruts) to allow for more wheelspin to indulge my adolescent need for rooster tails.
Like the FX4, the Tremor also features Trail Control, which is Ford's low-speed, off-road cruise control for both ascending and descending hills at preset speeds from 1 to 20 mph. It's really, really useful and confidence-inspiring tech, as it allows you to focus on steering the vehicle without having to worry about modulating the pedals. Combined with the Ranger's other electronic aids and the Tremor's upgraded hardware, the entire package is so capable that these assists ultimately remove some of the sense of challenge and accomplishment of off-roading. It's nice to know it's there, but sometimes, it's just more fun to go manual and do it yourself.
That said, there are a couple of hardware tricks that I wouldn't mind seeing on the Tremor's spec sheet, including a front locking differential. A rear e-locker comes standard, but there's no front-axle equivalent like a Chevy Colorado ZR2 or a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, so you're ultimately going to give up some ability when rock climbing. Fortunately, the vast majority of the time, you'll never know it's missing.
On the other hand, there's one thing you will definitely miss while off-roading: a forward-facing camera. I didn't have a pal to stand outside in the blustery cold to help guide me over and around obstacles, and when on steep ascents and descents, you can't see over the hood to know what you're about to crawl over. While it's understandable that an older and more-affordable midsizer like the Tremor might not yet be offered with 360-degree camera coverage, a low-mounted front-facing camera would be mighty welcome and would provide a further point of differentiation from lesser Ranger models.
As it is, the Ranger's tidier dimensions are inherently easier to manage off-road than a full-size truck. There's less chance of scraping your fancy Cactus Gray paint in narrow forest passages and tight turns are easier to negotiate than they'd be in an F-Series, as well.
Off-road, you really appreciate that this turbo four has so much low-end torque and it's great that the transmission has so many gears to choose from; you never feel like the EcoBoost is straining to get you through, even if it does sound flaccid compared to competitors' V6 engines. All that torque helps on-road, too, delivering a best-in-class 7,500-pound tow rating or 1,430 pounds of payload in its 5-foot bed. Those numbers are right at the head of the class, and they're important metrics when building an overlanding rig laden with lots of heavy gear.
Pricing and final judgment
So, the Ranger Tremor isn't a high-speed off-roader like a Ford F-150 Raptor (or even the overseas-only Ranger Raptor), nor is it a hardcore rock crawler. This truck feels like it's been designed to sit right in the middle capability-wise, which could have resulted in a vehicle that feels muddled and indecisive, like one that can't figure out what it's designed for. Instead, the Tremor seems like it's found a capability sweet spot. It's quite good at a variety of off-road disciplines and that makes it a better baseline platform for customizing if you haven't decided what kind of off-roading you really want to commit to, be it desert bombing, overlanding or forested mountain ascents.
If you're someone who off-roads a lot, the 2021 Ranger Tremor is big fun, but it isn't cheap. Whereas a non-Tremor XLT SuperCrew 4x4 starts at $35,940 (including $1,195 destination), an XLT Tremor will run you $41,900 delivered -- without extras. An option-free, top-trim Lariat runs $46,275 in your driveway, but it includes niceties like a B&O audio system, leather seats, navigation, remote start and adaptive cruise control. With options including the Technology Package ($995 for adaptive cruise, navigation, etc.), spray-in bed liner ($495), remote start ($195) and SecuriCode keyless-entry pad ($95), my XLT tester rings up at $43,680 delivered.
Overall, the Tremor is competitively priced within its segment (a Tacoma TRD Pro starts at over $45,000), but this Ford's base MSRP is also really close to that of the new F-150 XLT 4x4 with a 5.0-liter V8. The F-Series is a much, much more advanced machine with similar efficiency.
Of course, not everyone wants or needs a full-size pickup and the number of buyers splurging on smaller, costlier, factory-backed hardcore off-road specials like this 2021 Ranger Tremor appears to be growing every day. In order to stay competitive, it's important that Ford play in this space. And you know what? Despite this truck's shortcomings, I still kinda dig it.