Thick, heavy snowflakes are peppering the windshield as my Lighting Blue Ranger FX4 squirts through the narrow streets of downtown Nashua and heads northeast for Maine. As each county line passes, the weather conditions change — right along with the temperature readout. Heavy rain replaces the wet snow, but just after the York toll plaza, the mercury drops 8 degrees and the Turnpike is now down to just two travel lanes as motorists clench their steering wheels and tailgate other traffic like lemmings, as the snow starts to pile up.
Ford’s new compact Ranger, returning to the market last year after an eight-year absence, features the same Ecoboost engine as the base Mustang — a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes almost as much horsepower (270) as Toyota’s Tacoma (278, with a V-6) — a recent visitor that will inevitably invite comparisons.
With many miles to go today, the console mounted electric 4WD switch is clicked over to four-wheel-drive high, as the Ranger is pushed into the vacant left lane. For seasoned travelers, this is why you buy a true 4WD vehicle — the ability to lock the front axle into four-wheel drive. For the next four hours heading north, the Ranger’s 4WD is activated and deactivated as necessary to easily pass, maintain momentum and otherwise provide driving confidence.
Blessed with the optional FX4 off-road package — more aggressive tires, locking rear differential, skid plates, some appearance items — the Ranger is not fazed in the least by the elements. Sure, the electronic sensors for dynamic cruise, blind spot detection and other assists sound audible alarms about their failure to handle the ice and slush, but the truck itself is a rock star.
Critics haven’t been hesitant to remind buyers that this platform is almost 10 years old, has been used in other markets for years and lacks some refinement compared to recent full-size offerings. Well, OK. But the new Ranger is still “new” to this market and it is much more than a modest improvement than the dated truck that Ford stopped selling in 2011.
Easier to access than the Tacoma, despite both trucks having elevated entry points, the Ranger is quieter down the road, has a much more comfortable seating position, plus a powertrain that is smoother, especially on the highway. The Ranger is slightly louder at low speeds, as the turbo-four is not as refined sounding as the V-6, yet the opposite holds true when exercising the Ford at higher speeds, while the 10-speed automatic works without any of the excessive drama of the Toyota’s six-speed.
With temperatures wintry-like most of the time together, the Ford achieved 22 mpg — smack dab in the middle of the EPA estimates of 20/24 mpg. Gas or electric vehicles all lose range when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. And if you do a lot of highway driving — at the prevailing pace found on most interstates — you will likely never see anything close to the EPA estimates, as its testing uses a top-speed of 60 mph for highway fuel economy.
Like its compact rivals, the Ranger has a 5-foot pickup box for CrewCab models, 6 inches more with extended cab versions. The Ranger does have a towing edge over several rivals; up to 7,500 pounds of trailer can be pulled when properly outfitted.
Inside, Ford gave the Ranger Sync 3 info/entertainment capabilities with an easy-to-use screen. The navigation system got fooled a couple of times during our use, but more often than not it exceeded expectations. The optional 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system is impressive in this small space. The electric driving aids — including automatic braking assist, blind-spot and rear parking assist — were all welcome winter aids, while the automatic stop/start proved to be more of a nuisance than not.
Also available: lane-keeping assist, forward sensing system, heated leather seating, rear window defroster, plus Ford’s 4G Wi-Fi HotSpot Telematics system. Critics can claim that the platform may be dated, but the interior doesn’t make buyers feel that way.
Ride dynamics are similar to the Tacoma — pretty reasonable really when you think both sampled trucks had off-road themed suspensions and tires. Steering feel, braking power and handling on the tortured two-track that suffices for the path home demonstrated that both of these compact pickups will jiggle your kidneys.
Pricing for the Ranger starts at just over $24,000 for 2WD models. Our loaded tester featured much of the option sheet’s contents and stickered for $44,785. This is heady for buyers out of the market for several years.
Yet, the modern performance of the Ecoboost engine and the 10-speed automatic mean you won’t lament the absence of a V-6 in this Ranger.