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New Ranger’s a game changer

Just as you wouldn’t expect a McLaren F1 fan to switch allegiance to Ferrari or an Orlando Pirates supporter to jump ship to Kaiser Chiefs, bakkies often tend to be similarly chosen on long-held and very vociferous brand loyalties.

Someone who’s for instance been buying Hiluxes all their life is unlikely to switch to a Navara or Amarok, no matter how impressive their spec sheets might look or how many road tests claim they’re better.

New Ranger is a bold-looking beast that would not look out of place on a Texas cattle ranch. Our test vehicle had a gutsy 3.2-litre turbodiesel.

The blue oval too has its loyal followers, and they had reason to puff their chests out when the new Ford Ranger was launched in South Africa a couple of months ago. It’s a huge step forward over its capable but ageing predecessor, and follows the trend set by the Navara and Amarok in introducing pick-ups that are ever more sophisticated and SUV-like.

Some of the new Ranger’s highlights are that it’s the first bakkie to be awarded a maximum five-star safety rating in Euro-NCAP crash tests; it can tow a class leading 3350kg (certain derivatives), it can wade through 800mm deep water (Hi-Rider and 4x4 models) and it has a modernised interior with class-leading cabin space.

NEW FROM GRILLE TO TAILGATE

The Australian-designed bakkie, which is built at Ford’s Silverton plant in Pretoria for the local market and exported to 140 countries, is new from grille to tailgate; all that’s carried over from the old range is the name.

The first derivative from the 23-model line-up to come our way for a road test is the 3.2 TDCI double cab 4x4 XLT auto, which sells for R436 700 and, like all Rangers, comes with a four-year or 120 000km warranty and five-year or 90 000km service plan. It’s powered by the most powerful of three brand-new engines introduced in the Ranger family, a five-cylinder turbodiesel that’s paired with either a six-speed auto transmission (as in our test vehicle) or a six-speed manual gearbox.

What strikes you right away about the blue oval’s new bakkie is its bold design. One-tonner bakkies have no business looking limp-wristed and the Ranger looks like the bully that steals your school lunch and runs away with your girlfriend. Designed with what its stylists call “21st Century Tough”, its flared bodywork and oversized grille give it the robust, in-your-face look of an American pickup, and it wouldn’t look out of place parked at a Texas rodeo.

HIGH-TECH TOYS

But the cowpoke metaphor evaporates when you step inside and check out its modern, luxury interior that’s lost all signs of workhorse origins. The cabin surfaces still lag a little behind the Amarok in terms of outright classy feel, but the Ranger has all the high-tech toys today’s drivers demand, including smart technologies such as Bluetooth with Voice Control. Along with auxiliary ports for MP3 players, you can wirelessly play music from your cellphone through the Ranger’s audio system and scroll through songs using the audio buttons on the steering wheel.

Safety features in the XLT comprise no less than seven airbags, stability control and antilock braking. There’s decent oddments space - including a large air-conditioned centre bin that holds six cans - and a number of handy 12-volt sockets for plugging in accessories. Ford missed a trick by making the steering column tilt-adjustable only, though. With no reach-adjustment, longer-legged drivers tend to sit with outstretched arms.

Where this bakkie truly excels is its cavernous cabin space. Ford says it has best-in-class rear legroom and after sitting in the roomy back seat - which will comfortably seat a pair of front-row Springboks and a Boerboel - we see little reason to dispute that claim.

EASY-CRUISING ABILITY

Load capacity has grown and the new Ranger has one of the biggest box volumes in its class at 1.21 cubic metres and a 1049kg capacity. What we like about the load area is that it’s nice and deep and has good loading width between the wheelarches.

The new Duratorq 3.2-litre turbodiesel engine, at 147kW and 470Nm, is one of the most powerful in its class (only the much more expensive Navara three-litre is stronger), and delivers gutsy performance with reasonable refinement.

With the auto gearbox there’s some noticeable turbo lag on take-off when driving at high altitude, but after the initial delay the Ford pulls with great gusto. Apart from its easy-cruising ability it feels like it would easily manage the 3350kg braked trailer it’s rated to tow, and it has trailer sway control to provide stability. Fuel economy’s acceptable if not brilliant, and our test vehicle averaged 10.6 litres per 100km.

Our fuel figure included some off-roading, an activity that the 4x4 Ranger took to very comfortably with its shift-on-the-fly 4x4, rear differential lock, low range, hill and descent control. Selecting off-road driving modes is a cinch and involves twirling knobs or pressing buttons (no heavy levers to manhandle).

LIKE JUSTIN BIEBER THROUGH TEENAGE GROUPIES

A jaunt through our off-road course offered little challenge to this bakkie, which breezed through bumps and axle-twisters like Justin Bieber through teenage groupies. We were impressed with its 237mm ground clearance and generous entry and departure angles (25.5 and 21.8 degrees respectively), which ensured the belly never made contact with the ground - although there’s a sturdy bash plate under the engine in case you do.

The Ranger has a comfortable ride quality on gravel and feels robustly built, with rough roads failing to elicit significant rattles in the cabin. When unladen it has the typical bakkie tendency for the rear to jiggle about on very rough roads, but in general it has good directional stability and feels well-mannered in corners.

Missing from the Ranger’s dirt repertoire are off-road antilock brakes tuned for gravel roads. We’ve experienced them in the Amarok and they significantly shorten stopping distances under emergency braking.

VERDICT

A terrific effort by Ford to bring its one-tonner into the 21st century. Tough and rugged, but comfortable and sophisticated, the Ranger is capable in all terrains and not afraid of hard work. Ford fans can celebrate, while neutral buyers should definitely consider a test drive. - Star Motoring

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