Return of the Ranger

2019 Ford Ranger Review: Ford Takes Aim at the Tacoma


December 18, 2018 Reviews By Photo by Bryan Campbell
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The 2019 Ford Ranger pickup truck marks the Blue Oval’s return to the midsized pickup segment for the first time in over a decade. Going up against the crowd-favorite Toyota Tacoma, the Ford Ranger is positioned as less of a utility truck and more of an everyday recreational vehicle.

The Good: For a midsized pickup truck, the 2019 Ford Ranger is relatively refined. Ford did the Ranger a huge favor and channeled into the midsized newcomer what customers love most about the ever-popular Ford F-150 Raptor. That’s not to say the Ranger is a hardcore, off-road monster like the Raptor, but the Ranger is expected to be put to work as a recreational truck. It has plenty of weapons in its arsenal too: a 10-speed transmission, four different drive modes for varying terrain and a 7,500 lbs towing capacity are present regardless of the trim level purchased. Boasting that kind of equipment as standard is a big advantage in the affordable truck arena.

Who It’s For: Ford recognizes the outdoors lifestyle crowd loves midsized trucks for their size and everyday livability; the Ranger doubles down on that knowledge. As evidenced by an accessory list packed with Yakima products like bed racks, a canoe carrier and rooftop tents, Ford is clearly aiming squarely at the adventure and recreational off-roading customer: the heart of Tacoma territory.

Watch Out For: Ford is fairly confident in its 2.3-liter Ecoboost inline-four engine and 10-speed automatic transmission combination – so much so that it’s the only engine optional available. Regardless of the trim level and cab style you choose, you get the same power. That’s a deal if you opt for the absolute base model, but if you spring for the top-rung Lariat SuperCrew 4×4 — a $12,000 premium — nothing changes under the hood.

Alternatives:
Toyota Tacoma ($25,550 base)
Chevy Colorado ($20,500 base)
Nissan Frontier ($18,990 base)

Review: Take one look at any full-sized truck currently rolling down the road and it’s easy to understand why midsized pickups are making a comeback. Ford’s own F-150, the Chevrolet Silverado and (Dodge) RAM are so gargantuan you’d think their owners might need a Commercial Driver’s License to go grocery shopping. The sheer size of these mass-market Mack trucks is becoming too much for the average person, and buyers who want a big truck just for the sake of having a big truck are becoming scarce. Not only do midsized trucks navigate crowded parking lots and dense traffic more easily, but drivers can also take them down trails and go off-roading on the weekends without stressing about losing a wing mirror or creasing a fender when a turn is tight. Moreover, the “adventure lifestyle” movement is on the rise; vehicle shoppers want to know their next car or truck can take them as far as they want to go. Ford knows this, which is why the Ranger is aimed squarely at the outdoor community — it’s gunning for Tacoma territory with gusto.

Before I even arrived to test the new truck it was wildly obvious what sort of customer Ford has in its sights: an ‘off-road experience’ was on the second day’s itinerary. Outside our hotel Ford had spelled out ‘Ranger’ using camping gear, cut up mountain bike tires, kayak paddles and all manner of other adventure gear. It seemed Ford’s marketing team had gotten carried away with the #lifestyle vibe, but after putting the Ranger to task on long stretches of highway, tight canyon roads and repeated laps through an off-road course, Ford’s new midsized pickup takes what the Tacoma does well and does it better.

The Tacoma is not a bad truck at all. My colleagues and I have driven the Tacoma many times, and we’re definitely all huge fans — it does everything you ask of it on-road and off. In fact, when it comes to midsized pickups with off-roading capabilities, there has been zero competition up until recently: one-horse races are the easiest to win, no matter the horse. However, in 2019 Chevy brought the formidable Colorado ZR2 AEV edition to market, and now that the Ford Ranger FX4 joins the fight it’s already looking like the Tacoma pales in comparison.

One reason the Ford Raptor has such a massive fan club is it’s insanely competent off-road. Between its transmission, suspension and power delivery, it’s in a class of its own. While there’s no Ranger Raptor (yet), the 2019 Ranger gets the same 10-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel-drive system with locking rear differential and off-road driving modes you’ll find on the F-150 Raptor. Whether it was going through loose dirt up a steep incline littered with obstacles, rounding bankings with 20 degrees or more of lateral incline or plowing through door-handle-high mud pits, the Ranger seemed planted and unphased.

Helping the Ranger over hills and through axle-twisting moguls are Ford’s Terrain Management and Trail Control systems. Terrain management offers four different drive modes: normal; grass, gravel and snow; mud and ruts; and sand. Like any other drive mode system, it modifies suspension settings, transmission shift points and how aggressively the torque goes to each wheel at any given time. Trail Control acts as cruise control on steep inclines and declines. Again, this is nothing new for the off-road world, but the way it’s put to work in the Ranger feels more refined and smoother than the Tacoma.

Refined. That word kept coming to mind throughout my drive. The Ranger handled itself off-road and down the highway in a more sophisticated manner than the Toyota does. I’m not saying the Ranger pickup would give a Mercedes a run for its money, but for a pickup truck in the $30,000 range, you’re getting your money’s worth in terms of all-around capability. There are (mostly industry standard) driver’s aids like a lane departure alert system that faintly buzzes through the steering wheel. The materials used throughout the Ranger’s interior make the Tacoma feel more like a rental. In the world of off-roading, an easy-to-clean interior is a big help – the Ford never feels fancy, and I wasn’t exactly overcome with guilt when I tracked some mud inside, but it didn’t feel plastic-y or cheap.

If the superior off-road handling, max towing capacity of 7,500 lbs or a maximum payload of 1,860 lbs isn’t enough to convince you Ford wants customers to actually use this truck, the accessory list might be. It’s full of over 20 Yakima add-ons like a bed rack and roof-top tents to accompany them, tow hitch-mounted bike racks and roof racks that fit paddle boards and kayaks. It’s the extra mile Ford went to set up the Ranger as an adventure-ready truck that puts it ahead of the Toyota in my book.

Verdict:
When Ford puts real energy and passion into a project, they can knock it out of the park – some other notable hits include the F-150 Raptor, Focus RS, Ford GT, not to mention that whole “winning Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69” thing. On that same token, when Ford pumps out a car out for the sake of hitting sales numbers, it can be excruciatingly disappointing. Look no further than the Focus Active, or almost anything from with a Blue Oval Badge from the ’80s, to see my point. Thankfully, Ford recognized the rising enthusiasm for exploring the outdoors and channeled that energy into the Ranger.

The off-road community is a difficult crowd to pull one over on — if your truck shouts about its rock-crawl cred but turns out to be garbage when the pavement stops, they’ll let you know. The Tacoma has earned its reputation for being a fantastic truck off-road not because of skilled marketing team, but because the community embraces its simplicity and capability. It’s is a genuine benchmark. So when I say the Tacoma is in danger of losing its crown to the new Ford Ranger, it’s not a knock against the Toyota. It’s high praise for the Ford.

Key Specs

Engine: 2.3-liter Ecoboost Inline-four
Transmission: 10-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Horsepower: 270 horsepower
Torque: 310 ft-lbs
Max Tow: 7,500 lbs
MPG: 21 City/26 Highway

Ford hosted us and provided this product for review.

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