We were about 10 kilometres down a rutted gravel road when the forest spirits decided to make their presence known. Stopping beside a creek to grab a quick photo and a snack for my youngest daughter, I spotted a tiny, grey, furry ball perched atop a rock: a stuffed Totoro, the eponymous woodland troll of the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro.
My four-year-old laughed to see one of her favourite characters in the middle of nowhere, while I scratched my head as to who could have left it here. Yet, there was no time for tarrying over the mystery. Snacks eaten, we were soon gleefully on our way again, deeper into the unknown, not sure what other surprises lay in our path.
If a white F-150 is the company truck that gets most Canadians to the job site, then Ford would like you to consider the Ranger its fun-loving and adventurous little sister. While the previous Ranger, discontinued in 2012, was emphatically a budget-friendly work tool, this new one is designed for playtime.
Totoro isn’t the only overseas import to have made inroads in the North American market. Ever since Marty McFly showed up in a black Toyota pickup wearing yellow KC auxiliary light covers, the recreational sport truck market has largely belonged to Japan.
With the Ranger, Ford is gunning for a piece of the action, and they’re likely going to get it. The Ranger is tough off-road, quick on tarmac and generally a delight to drive.
It’s a perfect fit for our team of two, if only just barely. The cabin space is well laid out, but a little tight on storage. A retractable bed cover would improve stowage for camping gear, while retaining the ability to hang mountain bikes off the rear tailgate.
As I discovered while loading up on supplies in town, the Ranger’s slightly narrower and shorter footprint makes it far more convenient to park than any full-size pickup. The turning circle isn’t quite as good as short-bed versions of the Tacoma, but it’s better than the popular long-bed 4x4 variant.
Seated up front, the drive is almost car-like, with a little more body roll than the wider F-150. The standard turbocharged engine feels a lot punchier down low than its six-cylinder rivals, but it’s still muted apart from a bit of turbo whistle.
If it’s entirely manageable day-to-day on the road, then the Ranger really comes alive floating over washboard forest service roads with a preschooler in the back shouting, “go faster!” The chassis shrugs off punishing potholes that would make any Subaru owner wince.
There’s also an optional FX4 off-road package for those looking to venture off the beaten path. All Canadian-spec Rangers get a proper low-range 4x4 gearbox, but the FX4 upgrade adds underbelly skid-plating, an electric locking differential and more rugged tires. There’s also a selectable terrain-management system to take the guesswork out of four-wheelin'.
As a total package, the Ranger has the same affinity for dirt as my young passenger, as well as the same hard-headed zest for the rough-and-tumble parts of life. Both also cleaned up well for polite company once I turned the garden hose on them. (If my wife’s reading, that’s a metaphorical garden hose.)
The F-150 will undoubtedly outsell its younger sibling and it’ll still be the sensible choice for everyone from paving company fleet managers to independent contractors. The Ranger, on the other hand, will get to have all the fun. So will its passengers.
- Base Price: $30,569
- Engines: 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
- Transmission/Drive: 10 speed automatic, four-wheel-drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km; city/hwy): 11.8 / 9.8
- Alternatives: Toyota Tacoma, GMC Canyon, Chevrolet Colorado, Honda Ridgeline
Perhaps because it doesn’t need to compete in the hotly contested full-size pickup truck market, the Ranger doesn’t have a face like a belt buckle you can see from space. Instead, it’s rather reserved, even handsome. I’d keep the chrome extras to a minimum, and maybe save up for some vintage aftermarket KC light covers.
One persistent annoyance with the Ranger is the placement of the headlight switch, which contacts the knee of the driver any time you climb in. The rest of the ergonomics are more car than truck. Some of the plastics are a little cheap-looking considering the nearly $50,000 price tag on higher trims, but it’s nicer than the Toyota.
The big difference between the Ranger and its V-6-powered rivals is torque. The 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder makes a hefty 310 lb-ft of torque, and the 10-speed automatic transmission is geared high. The Ranger scoots up to speed from low-revs when passing, yet also returns real-world economy figures that are very close to official ratings.
The Ranger gets the same SYNC system as most Ford products, and it’s intuitive and works well. However, it’s sluggish when cold, and the controls aren’t easy to use with gloves on. Again, the Ranger doesn’t feel built to be a work truck.
Extended-cab Rangers get a six-foot box, but the four-door versions likely to be the most popular have to make do with a five-foot box. Maximum payload is 748 kg, with a peak towing capacity of 3402 kg.
The verdict: 8.5
While it won’t be able to match the Toyota Tacoma’s incredibly high resale value, the Ranger drives better on the road, and is just as good off the beaten path. It’s a proper weekend warrior pickup truck that’s entirely livable day-to-day.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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