Being late to the game is rarely a good look. In almost any business there’s a definite competitive advantage to hitting the market first and making a strong initial impression in the minds of consumers. Do it right, and you’ve won the chance to set the tone for the competition as they rush not just to catch up, but also live up to the expectations established by whatever product has scored the coup.
That said, adopting a more tactical approach to entering – or, in Ford’s case, re-entering – the fray can also be laden with opportunity. After sitting on the sidelines of the midsize truck game for nearly a decade, and seeing cross-town rival General Motors wade into the good fight against Toyota’s Tacoma with two well-received alternatives (the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon), it might at first have seemed like the Blue Oval had squandered its chance to ride the surging wave of interest in entry-level pickups
A more charitable reading of the situation, however, attributes Ford’s inertia as a calculated move to analyze the battle plans of its opponents before adapting its international midsize platform (dubbed the Ranger, just like its long-slumbering American counterpart) to the needs of U.S. customers.
Did Ford truly make the best use of the years it spent on the outside looking in as Toyota and GM punched and counterpunched their way to near-complete dominance of the small truck sphere? Or is it merely corralling a captive import to soak up any extra undecided cash that might have a hankering for a garage-friendly hauler? I traveled to San Diego, California, to get behind the wheel of the 2019 Ford Ranger and find out.
As with all things Ford, it’s important to understand the Ranger from within the context of its relationship to the F-150, that massively successful cash cow that calls nearly all the shots at FoMoCo now that traditional passenger cars have been phased out of future plans.
Given that the revenue generated by Ford’s full-size truck funds a significant portion of the company’s operations, it’s a behemoth that must be jealously protected from any possible internal infringement that could negatively impact its market appeal.
And so, we are presented with a midsize truck that does its level best to avoid igniting the passions of potential F-150 shoppers in any conceivable way. The Ranger comes exclusively with turbocharged 4-cylinder power, lacks any of the luxurious appointments one would find inside the cabin of a larger pickup, and studiously avoids presentation as a utility-focused vehicle, instead aiming its appeal at that slice of the truck segment that would only occasionally avail itself of its practical advantages over an SUV.
There is no V6 engine to step up to, no King Ranch logo emblazoned on rawhide leather seats, and certainly no hardcore, Raptor-style Baja boogie machine waiting in the wings. The Ranger isn’t just a come-lately, it’s a little brother, and that’s entirely by design.
Conversely, there’s a certain freedom – or perhaps clarity of purpose – that can come with product limitations imposed from above. Four-cylinder only, you say? Well, then, why not a turbocharged 2.3-liter that offers more torque than any other gas-powered pickup in its class?
Paired with Ford’s increasingly ubiquitous 10-speed automatic transmission, the 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque delivered by the Ranger come close to blowing the doors off the six-cylinder versions of the Tacoma, Colorado, and Canyon. While each member of that trio may breathe deeper in the horsepower department, the throttle response and straight-line speed of the Ranger have decidedly more spring to the heel.
I discovered this to be true whether driving the vehicle unladen or when dragging a massive boat trailer that hews close to the pickup’s 7,500-pound max tow rating. It also doesn’t hurt that the vehicle’s combined fuel economy rating of 23 miles per gallon matches that of the turbodiesel Colorado (with 26 miles per gallon available on the highway).
Dynamically, too, the Ranger outshines the broader-shouldered Tacoma when hurtling downhill through the spinal asphalt that links the town of Julian with the San Diego coast. It’s a stretch to label the Ford sporty, but its suspension and steering do a better job of communicating the details of any given journey as compared to the Toyota.
Still, both the Chevrolet and the GMC options in its class are a step above in terms of handling smoothness and ride quality, with the Ranger’s rear-end wiggle on two-wheel-drive models occasionally making itself known over rough pavement.
Off-road ready, for real
Another area where the Ranger proves to be a delight is the off-road arena, where its reduced wheelbase as compared to a full-size truck proves that you don’t have to dune-bash to have a good time behind the wheel of a pickup.
The narrower, more agile truck was able to pirouette its way around low-speed, off-camber corners, rise up from steep ditches, and dangle from high-angle dirt berms in a way that would be difficult to replicate in a burlier full-size model. Again, it’s a paean to those who are asking for a dual-purpose machine that won’t feel the squeeze in the company parking garage on Monday morning after spending a weekend on the trail or at the beach.
To this end, Ford has also made a play for beginner off-road fans with the Terrain Management system that comes bundled with the FX4 Off-Road package’s tow hooks, mild front-end underplating, and knobby tires. Able to juggle traction needs with the realities of the surface being conquered, and featuring several enviro-specific settings (such as mud, snow, sand, etc.), it performs well enough to act as a helping hand for first-timers eager to avoid getting stuck.
There’s also ‘Trail Control,’ a sort of low-speed engine limiter that maintains forward momentum automatically from one to seven miles per hour at the click of a button. The end goal is to allow drivers to concentrate more on steering than throttle control, especially over longer sections of trail that can pound the mind into submission.
Back-to-back against a similar setup found on the Tacoma’s TRD Off-Road package, it was clear that Ford engineers had gone out of their way to maximize smoothness of the vehicle’s ABS system as it gently squeezes the front brakes to claw back speed. In contrast, Toyota’s more industrial solution sounded like someone was breaking metal fingers underneath the front axles.
One other truck-like thing the Ranger is good at is towing (with 7,500 lbs. showing as best-in-class by a margin of 500 pounds over GM and 700 pounds over Toyota, with the trailer brakes and tow package installed).
With the Ford hitched up to a massive Moomba boat trailer nudging just south of the truck’s theoretical ceiling, if not for the scream of the turbocharger it would be hard to tell that there was a four-cylinder under the hood, even when starting from a stop on a grade. I didn’t have the chance to tackle a long, high-speed climb with the boat dragging from the bumper, but cruising at 75 miles per hour the Ranger felt stable and strong.
A little less useful for true trucking is the five-foot bed that comes with the four-door SuperCrew model. Again, the Ranger’s capabilities have been kept carefully walled off from that of the F-150, with a cargo area that easily accepts kayaks and mountain bikes but shies away from heavy-duty gravel hauling or transporting stacked cords of firewood.
Sure, the SuperCab (with its smaller, rear-hinged back doors) adds an extra foot of box, while posting the best highway payload rating (1,860 pounds) in its segment (as long as you order two-wheel drive), but this truck is intended for odd jobs, not working for a living. The latter is clearly reserved for the F-Series flagship.
Lagging in luxury, style
The final piece of evidence that the Ranger has been safely sequestered from punching up against the F-150 is apparent as soon as you either open the door to the cabin or open your wallet to pay for the pickup.
Put simply, the high-trim Lariat isn’t close to where it needs to be to justify the $39,480 sticker price associated with 4×4 SuperCrew models. It’s not a question of feature count, as items such as adaptive cruise control, the touchscreen Sync 3 infotainment system, and a digital gauge cluster all put in an appearance (although if you off-road, I’d be wary about sensor placement for the cruise system low on the front bumper).
No, the issue is that the materials found within the Ranger’s Lariat passenger compartment are in no way concomitant with the expectations engendered by its sizable ask. The truck greets you with a fair amount of hard plastics in drab, dark colors, with only the seats offering more supple leather.
The center stack is particularly egregious from a design perspective. It’s functional, yes, with knobs and buttons you can operate while wearing gloves, but it looks dated for a 2019 model and lacks any of the detail or relief found in trucks like the Canyon or Colorado. It’s a dark-colored plastic slab regardless of whether you’re riding in a base $25,395 XL or the $15,000-more Lariat.
This is also somewhat problematic when considering that the Ranger’s single engine option has it priced more in line with the V6 members of its cohort. If you want a cheap truck, you can snag a Chevy or a GMC for around $20K, but Ford has set its sights on Toyota, with a comparable sticker match from top to bottom (and the added bonus of considerably more power at the entry-level). Bargain hunters won’t be shopping for either a Ranger or a Tacoma.
At the very least, the interior room in the four-door SuperCrew is more than acceptable, even for rear passengers. Expect SuperCab riders to fight for shotgun as if their life depended on it.
Not a volume play
The 2019 Ford Ranger isn’t intended to make a splash in the midsize truck world. Given the lack of a volume-heavy, loss-leading base motor like you’ll find from General Motors, and without the built-in loyalty that has kept Toyota at the top of the sales charts for almost 15 years, the Blue Oval has instead decided to target the profit-laden pockets of so-called ‘lifestyle’ buyers, those who buy a truck not because they need it every day, but because from time to time it allows them to access the various hobbies and adventures that they enjoy.
This explains the Ranger’s gobs of power, respectable off-road capability, and useful towing and hauling capacities. It also goes a long way towards helping understand why it’s priced to compete with a class-leader despite coming in cold after so many years on the bench.
Ford may not have honed the global Ranger into a perennial all-around all-star, but they’ve already got one of those on the team – and much like in professional sports, no one’s going to claim a bigger slice of the financial pie than the long-time leading scorer. The F-150 might play a big part in keeping the Ranger humbler than it might have been, but there’s still a lot to like about this alternative choice among smaller trucks.