JOHANNESBURG - As we reported in our Drive360 bakkies edition, South Africans can’t get enough of the Ford Ranger (and bakkies in general). The current generation Ranger (facelifted two years ago) has been so well received by the public that it’s regularly one of the best-selling vehicles in the country each month.
I’m not the biggest bakkie fan on earth and to be honest, when it comes to pickups I prefer things like the GMC Syclone and Lumina SS. We don’t get those sorts of performance pickups anymore, but we do get some really cool special edition products with some choice engines and drivetrains.
I recently got to experience a special edition model that’s been added to the local Ford Ranger line-up, the Thunder, and came away impressed at its level of refinement on the road and off-road and its ability to run on fumes if you drive it with a light foot on the highway.
What is a Ford Ranger Thunder?
So, what’s the Ford Ranger Thunder all about? It’s basically a beefier version of the Wildtrak that sits under the Raptor in the line-up.
Think of it as a cocktail of the best bits of the Raptor (sans suspension and brakes) with the best bits of the Wildtrak - so you get a wonderful, compact twin-turbo diesel engine, a 10-speed autobox and (in the case of the test vehicle) low-range 4x4 capability. You also get unique styling inside and out and safety features that normally come standard in premium luxury cars.
For the Thunder, Ford has restyled the front of the Ranger by adding a honeycomb-style grille with red ‘nostril’ intake sections. It gives the bakkie presence for sure, but I’m not 100 percent sold on the idea of the red accents on the front as they look more aftermarket than OEM. The red accents are carried throughout the vehicle inside and out and additional use of black paint ensures you have black mirrors and black wheels and black trim pieces.
It’s a menacing-looking thing in the darker colours and certainly has that ‘big-bakkie’ presence to it, yet it comfortably fits in parking bays and is easy to manoeuvre at low and high speeds. Compared to the Ranger Raptor that we are running for the next few months, it’s actually a breeze to live with, and the additional styling tweaks give it an edge over those modified Rangers you see out there with the large bonnet kits and Raptor stickers.
Inside the car, you get similar black-out treatment for the leather and there’s red stitching to give it that premium feel you would want in the high-end model.
I loved the inside of the car and the SYNC radio system made it a great place to be on the road. Maps were easy to use on the SYNC system and I could pair my phone through Android Auto for handsfree control of the music on the device. I could even stream directly from my Apple Music account to the radio or listen to one of the live channels as long as my phone maintained a solid 4G signal along the highway.
Under the hood of the Thunder beats the 2.0-litre diesel heart that powers the Ranger Raptor, making the same 157kW of power and 500Nm of torque. While these numbers sound beefy, there’s very little room for revs, and it tends to run out of puff around 3500rpm, but that’s fine because the automatic gearbox makes progress seamless in the lower rev range.
Being twin-turbocharged, there’s little lag for a diesel engine and if you’re in the boost zone you can make quick and safe overtaking moves without breaking a sweat.
What’ the Ford Ranger Thunder like to drive?
I hit the road to the Pilanesberg National Park to see what the vehicle was like on the highway as well as off-road once we got to our destination. On the way out from Johannesburg, the GPS said it would be around 200km to the destination. I reset the onboard computer and took to the road. Around 50km in, I cycled through the computer. It showed around 10l/100km - a far cry from Ford’s 7.8l/100km in the spec sheet but I had been travelling at more than 100km/h and there was lots of traffic throughout the initial part of the journey that required braking and accelerating.
Once we got onto the N4, I made an effort to drive with fuel economy in mind and stuck to the national speed limit or below. We were three up with luggage and after another 50km the computer had dropped to 9l/100km. I thought it would settle around this mark and continued to the overnight stop maintaining a smooth driving style without any harsh acceleration or overspeeding. When I checked the trip computer again at the destination, it said we were sipping 8.0l/100km; not bad for a beastly 4x4…
The next day we headed into the Pilanesberg National Park to see if we could spot some Rhino, which we did, but we also discovered that we weren’t on the path and had cut our own trail into the wilderness. We drove around for several hours, to the point where a Park Ranger found us and stopped and said to follow him or we would be locked in the park overnight. It took a few hours to get back to the gate and thank goodness for the 4H and 4L modes of the 4x4 system in the Thunder as it allowed us to make haste, safely considering the 40k/h speed limit in the park.
The Park Ranger, incidentally, was driving an older model Ford Everest and there were some off-road sections that you could see he struggled to climb, but the Thunder seemed to simply roll up and over with very minimal fuss.
We managed to make it to the exit on time, well after closing hours, and eventually made it back to our overnight accommodation but the successful adventure would not have been possible if we were in a less capable off-road vehicle, for sure.
Is it worth buying a Ford Ranger Thunder?
If you’re in the market for a double-cab, you must take a Thunder for a test drive. You have to feel its grunt in combination with the 10-speed auto and you have to feel how comfortably it rides over bumps and undulations.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of body roll and it’s never going to be as composed as an SUV will, but you can tell that Ford has been working hard at refining the way it drives.
This latest Ranger we tested felt more car-like than ever before and it’s certainly creeping closer and closer to the Volkswagen Amarok in terms of comfort and features.
In terms of safety spec too, the Thunder is packed to the rafters with items that include radar-guided cruise control, lane departure warning, a self-parking mode and airbags for all occupants. Overall, it’s a very compelling package, one that makes me consider a bakkie as a genuine alternative to my family sedan for the very first time. It’s a tough segment, and if you want something fresh it’s definitely worth a look.
If you want to know more about the precise spec upgrade on the Thunder versus the Wildtrak, I’d recommend getting in touch with Ford through its website as the company can send you a personalised one-sheet with the exact information you require.
All Ford Ranger Thunder models come with a 4-year/120 000km warranty, 6-year/90 000km Service Plan, 3-year Roadside Assistance and 5-year/unlimited-kilometre anti-corrosion warranty.