Picture this: your basic navy pea coat, the wardrobe staple of every college freshman on the Eastern seaboard. Where did you buy it? Either from J. Crew or Abercrombie & Fitch. Which is it? It's the same coat Does it matter?
For some people, it does matter. You've got your J. Crew fans, then you have your A&F supporters, and never the twain shall meet. Really (No, not really. Just trying to get a cogent lead-in, here. Bear with us.). It matters.
Same holds true for pickup trucks. Die-hard "Buy American" contenders who need to display their patriotic fervor need to have the blue oval on the grille of their truck. Others, for whom the memory of the disintegrating build quality of American vehicles of the '70s and '80s remains an open wound, need the assurance of a Japanese nameplate on their hood.
Hey man, whatever floats your boat. We're just here to tell you that the Ford Ranger and the Mazda B-Series are one and the same. No good twin and evil twin, here. Just rip off the badges and erase the nameplates and you've got the same truck, save for a few minor sheetmetal variances such as smaller headlamps and the Mazda five-point grille on the B-Series.
We've already driven the 2001 Ford Ranger in Reno, Nev. This month we traveled to the Emerald State of Washington to try out the B-Series, and were suitably impressed, as we were before.
The Mazda version sees the same changes under the hood as the Ranger. Replacing the base B2500's gaspy inline four is a new 2.3-liter inline four, boasting 140 horsepower at 5,050 rpm and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 4,050 revs, up from 119 and 143 (respectively) of last year. We have yet to receive specs for its towing capacity, but we figure that this configuration is more for picking up materials for a lighthearted weekend project than any massive add-ons to the mansion. Next step up is the B3000, whose unchanged and rather unrefined 3.0-liter pushrod is good for 150 horses at 5,000 rpm and 185 foot-pounds of twisting force at 3,750 revs.
The big news is that the 4.0-liter V6 powerplant for the B4000 has been lifted out of the 2000 Ford Explorer and plopped into the B-Series. Although displacement is the same as the previous pushrod six-banger, horsepower for this SOHC engine has been boosted 29 percent from 160 to 207. It'll output a usable 238 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm, enough to achieve a towing capacity of 5,900 pounds. The engine's mated to a five-speed automatic, the only import truck that's offering one. B4000 buyers will be rewarded with a standard limited-slip differential and a Class III trailer hitch.
The easy-to-use dash-mounted 4WD activator uses pulse vacuum technology for shift-on-the-fly convenience; you can go from asphalt to jungle without having to stop the truck and put it into neutral before engaging the transfer case. After building up speed in first gear, we were able to scamper up an intimidating hill that was moistened by the fabled mist of Puget Sound with the tranny in second and four-wheel low, as well as tread upon some treacherous terrain, in the B4000.
However, the sensitive steering, which was a boon for on-road driving, had the truck hopping all over the trail as it rebounded over rocks. In a perfect world, the steering could be adjusted automatically to provide a heavier effort and less responsiveness for four-wheeling. Alas, our universe is fatally flawed, but at least you can console yourself with the fact that all 4WD trucks get nifty 16-inch wheels.
On-road driving was a positive experience with smooth, spunky acceleration and responsive brakes. Although this writer had not driven the previous B-Series, her experience with a 1998 Ranger convinced her that Ford/Mazda did a good job of improving ride quality by altering the stabilizer bar rates, spring rates and shock tuning, all of which results in a solid, stable ride.
Three cab configurations exist for your perusal. There's the regular cab, the two-door extended cab plus that can carry five passengers, and the four-door extended cab, which facilitates entry and exit for your rear passengers with suicide-style rear doors. Still, they'll probably be mad at you for making them sit in the uncomfortable fold-down jump seats.
Trim choices for the year include the base level SX and the SE, which gets you air conditioning and a CD player. Other options that you can choose are limited to a manual or automatic tranny; a cargo box rail cover; a bedliner and side rails. The Ford Ranger, on the other hand, offers a dizzying array of things you can add to your truck.
Gone this year is the garish Troy Lee edition (boo hoo). Its replacement is the Dual Sport trim, which features 15-inch wheels and monochromatic front and rear bumpers, fender flares, front grille and lower front fascia. It affords the consumer the option of getting the added ride height of a 4WD while paying the price for a 2WD. It also weighs less, and is a good option for those who don't need 4WD capabilities. All trim levels get four-wheel ABS standard.
The interior is as functional and plain as ever, although the seats are sportier with more bolstering, and spiffier cloth covers them and the door panels. The radio is easy to use, but the controls exhibited a cheap-feeling click when activated. Fit and finish is good, but seat comfort was a contentious issue, especially in the manual version with the bench seats that we drove. Not only is there no lumbar support to speak of, there's still no height adjuster. Furthermore, although the bench seats can presumably seat three (there's a seatbelt in the middle), we don't know of anyone who'd want to sit there with the shifter between the knees and be inappropriately touched whenever traffic conditions call for a gear change.
Only a few reasons exist between choosing a Ranger or a B-Series. Ford offers you a greater variety of configurations for your truck -- you can't get a B-Series flareside bed, a choice of front grilles, the cool new off-roading package or premium-grade audio system (the Tremor) available for the Ranger next year, or some of the interior gewgaws. Mazda offers a slightly more generous warranty -- it has a comprehensive three-year/50,000-mile deal, as opposed to the Ford's three-year/30,000.
If what you're looking for is solid-quality and reliable transportation for you and your belongings, you're not too set on loading your truck with options, and you want to stand apart from the ubiquitous Ranger crowd, you've got a sure bet in the B-Series.