Somehow, pickup trucks are less offensive than SUVs. Perhaps it's because there's a still-existent inherent utility to pickups that is antithetical to the glorified station wagons that many urban dwellers appropriate for daily transport (to the detriment of others). One uses pickups to haul the spoils of a shopping rampage from the Home Depot, not the anniversary sale at Brooks Brothers.
Compact pickups don't serve the transportation needs of family or bodyguards, except in South America where the Ford Ranger is offered in a four-door crew-cab configuration. The bed is meant to haul stuff around, whether you're a Joad or an Arkie buck lining the bed of his Ford with Astroturf for youthful shenanigans (ah, Mr. Clinton, how we'll miss you), not mollycoddle you in comfort.
We know that's why we felt the need to lease one for our long-term fleetour 1998 Ranger has served us well, despite a spotted history of reliability due to a clunky transmission that tended to freewheel and a squeaky, aged suspension.
Since its introduction in 1982 as a 1983 model, the Ford Ranger has dominated the compact pickup truck segment, holding the title of sales leader since 1987. Last year, Ford sold nearly 350,000 of these popular trucks, accounting for one out of every three compact trucks purchased, outselling the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, the Mazda B-Series (pretty much a twin of the Ranger), the GMC Sonoma and the Chevy S-10. According to marketing folks, the Ranger appeals to a younger crowd, the first-time buyers who appreciate a good deal as well as a myriad of configurations to customize their vehicle.
And a rainbow of flavors abounds for this compact truck. The Ranger is available in Regular or SuperCab configurations, with the SuperCab comprising 60 percent of sales. No, they haven't altered the less-than-accommodating fold-down rear seats (One editor recounted a tale of how he drove to a restaurant with his ex and her current flame in the rear. Not that he harbors any resentment, mind you, but it amused him to see said current flame all scrunched up). If you opt for the Regular Cab, you get a choice of the regular 6- or the longer 7-foot box. You can also choose from the Flareside or Styleside, but we maintain that the Flareside not only reduces bed size but makes the truck look bottom-heavy.
The 2001 Ranger can be equipped with a 4.0-liter SOHC V6 engine (the same one found in the ubiquitous Ford Explorer) that increases horsepower by 29 percent to 207, and torque to 238 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm, over the previous 160-horse pushrod V6. The 3.0-liter V6 powerplant, which produces 150 horsepower with 185 foot-pounds of twisting force, is still available, as is the 2.5-liter inline four with 119 horsepower and 146 foot-pounds of torque. In the fall, an all-new inline four will be introduced.
Trim choices include the base level XL with the inline four and the fancier XLT that gets you A/C and a stereo system with CD. Whereas the previous Ranger had only rear-wheel ABS as standard, all Rangers now have four-wheel ABS. If you opt for the XLT 4WD, aluminum wheels and front tow hooks will be yours, as well as a revised fascia in the form of a raised hood so as to evoke its handsome bigger brother, the F-Series. You also have the option of getting a mesh grille.
The Ranger Edge, a new trim level, gets you a monochromatic exterior; rather than the chrome bumper and gray plastic wheel fenders, you get body-colored adornments that go a long way toward making the Ranger look sportier. You also get a bed rail (reviews were mixed on this one, as it decreases load capacity), larger wheels and tires, tow hooks, and the aforementioned grille, as well as a standard 3.0-liter V6. The real advantage of the Edge is that you opt for the 2WD configuration if you don't need 4WD capabilities, don't want to pay the extra premium, or feel that the truck already weighs too much, but still provides the added ride height of the 4WD; rather than 6.7 inches, it provides 7.4 inches of ground clearance.
We also got a sneak peek at an off-road package that will be available in the fall. Though it has yet to be named or priced (sources predict that it'll be around $2000), it will include cosmetic alterations such as bucket seats, additional grab handles on the A-pillars, aluminum wheels, chrome tow hooks in the front, a retro-cool gearshift handle with an eight-ball shift knob, and an easy-to-operate manual transfer case. Its underpinnings are tuned for off-roading adventures with Biltstein shocks, a Torsen limited-slip differential, a heavy-duty rear axle that's 20 percent stronger than in the regular 4WD Ranger, skid plates, and a higher effort of steering (a boon for keeping the truck true on its course when bounding over the path less traveled).
And for all you audiophiles, the Ranger Tremor package, available in the SuperCab configuration, will offer a 560-watt Pioneer stereo system with subwoofers built into the floor behind the front seats, and six other speakers dotting the interior landscape. The aftermarket-grade system will be available in the spring of 2001.
Auditory issues seemed to be foremost in the engineers' minds as they introduced the 2001 model. One aspect that they took into special consideration was the exhaust burble. As the press kit states, "the right kind of sound...is viewed positively by consumers." As trite as it may seem, they're right. Auto weenies always prefer deep tenors of, say, the V8 in a Dodge Dakota over the tinny racket of the V6 in an Isuzu Hombre. Yes, trucks will almost always make more noise than a car. But we can't believe that even a die-hard truck enthusiast would enjoy a raucous idle; thus it would be safe to say that the less screechy noise an engine makes, the better. The Ranger folks also addressed NVH issues by tuning the engine mounts so as to reduce vibrations and installing an insulation blanket under the hood. The result is noticeable and appreciatedcompared to our long-termer, the exhaust note is much more sonorous, and nary a rattle emitted from inside the cabin.
We drove the 4.0-liter configuration at a press intro in Reno, Nev. We're happy to tell you that the SOHC V6 is a vast improvement over the unrefined pushrod motor, with smoother power delivery and greater oomph in acceleration. Downshifts were a tad sludgy, and we felt that the tranny shifted at a too-high 5,200 rpm. Turns out that the Ranger now incorporates "adaptive shift technology" that gauges the type of driver you are; the more aggressive, the later it'll shift. Nice, but we always get a little skeptical when a vehicle does stuff "automatic-like."
Rectified, also, was its rambunctious, tail-waggin' nature; on the whole, the 2001 version seemed more composed. Ford revised the suspension by tweaking the stabilizer bar rates, spring rates and shock tuning, and the improved ride quality was duly felt and appreciated. Although we've learned to forgive our bouncy long-termer that becomes somewhat unnerved after hitting a bump or taking a speedy corner, we prefer the more stable ride of the 2001 version.
Steering was more responsive on-road than in our long-termer, although the Ford folks stated that there have been no alterations to the steering gear; the models we drove were missing the discernable on-center dead spot. Great for on-road driving, a little disadvantageous for dirt-trekking. While on our way to the off-road course, we had to traverse a 10-mile bumpy dirt road. We left the tranny in Drive and the 4WD-High mode switched on, but the too-eager steering had us constantly correcting wheel position. Then the journalists were let loose on a dirt course constructed on a "ranch" in the middle of Nowheresville (nowhere being in the desert east of Reno). Wild horses galloped, random herds of cattle magically materialized. The off-road package truck really showed an advantage as compared to the regular 4WD, with greater suspension articulation, stiffer shocks for a good rebound rate and the aforementioned higher steering rate.
The interior remains the same, with utility in mind. We were impressed by the fit and finish, and although it looked the same as in our long-termer, everything seemed more tightly screwed in. Ford had yet to address the comfort of the front seats, one of our biggest complaints. A seat height adjuster isn't even available as an option, and when asked why they had not addressed this issue, an engineer replied the seats were designed for optimal comfort for a wide variety of sizes, but we contend that when it comes to driving positions, one size definitely does not fit all.
What they did work on were some dealer-installed options for the bed, like a cool bed extender that was simple in its design and operationflip it in to create a safe haven for otherwise itinerant groceries. Drop the tailgate and flip it out to increase the capacity of your bed by 4 cubic feet. Another bright idea is the ingenious tonneau cover with a hardtop that folds in the middle, so that when you have tall items to transport, you can just flip one side over, rather than an unwieldy one-piece that you have to disassemble altogether.
With the aggressively handsome looks and the excellent V8 of the Dodge Dakota snapping at its heels, Ford needs to further expand its line to include a more-powerful Ranger. We're hoping that this will be the case with the complete redesign, due in 2002. Meanwhile, the pilfered engine and purty new colors will keep our idle hands occupied.