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2019 Ford Ranger: The Midsize Truck Battle Is On Like Donkey Kong

No country for midsize pickups.

Todd LassawriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

LA JOLLA, California — Ford mercifully avoided piping country music into the events accompanying launch of the new Ford Ranger pickup truck. It was early 2000s music instead, with groups like Coldplay in heavy rotation, attempting to appeal to the millennials that the Blue Oval hopes will buy the truck for urban commuting during the week and bicycle/kayak/motorcycle/camping gear hauling on the weekends—more likely full of REI gear than that from Cabela's.

By adapting the global-market Ranger for North America, Ford hopes to recapture its title as the pickup-truck leader in the United States. Although the F-series remains the bestselling anything in all the land, Ford doesn't have the absolute sales numbers for the pickup title. Add up the Chevrolet Silverado and Colorado with the GMC Sierra and Canyon, and General Motors' pickups collectively outsold the F-series by 52,145 units in 2017. While Ford is loath to project any sales estimates, it's easy to predict they'll sell more than enough Rangers to bridge the gap. That said, the Ranger faces stiff competition. The bestseller in the segment remains the Toyota Tacoma, at 198,124 in 2017, and there's more competition on the way: The Jeep Gladiator arrives in showrooms next year, and a new midsize, Dodge Dakota-style Ram will arrive shortly thereafter.

Relying on its global Ranger pickup, Ford was able to rush a new competitor to market while engineering a North America-specific variant that could become the segment's bestseller by relying on a cocktail of brand equity and good overall design. Deliveries of the '19 Ranger will start any day now, with just one powertrain choice, a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four and 10-speed automatic driving either the rear or all four wheels. In contrast, Toyota's Taco comes with a choice of naturalyl aspirated four-cylinder or V-6 gas engines, and the GM twins offer both four- and six-cylinder gas engines and a four-cylinder diesel, and all these models are available with a manual transmission with certain engines.

"This is the perfect powertrain for our customers," Ranger marketing manager Brian Bell tells us, although the single-engine strategy stands in stark contrast to the F-150's offering of six engines and two transmissions. Based on the same 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbo four available in the Mustang, the Ranger's engine is rated for 270 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Ford has done its best, though, to have this setup serve several masters. The Ranger offers the best gasoline-fueled economy in it its class, the payload rating is 1,800 pounds, and maximum towing capacity is 7,500 pounds. That last number is also best-in-class until the Jeep Gladiator and its 7,650 max tow rating hit the scene.

On northeast San Diego County's twisty, mountainous roads, the 2019 Ford Ranger is smooth and quiet. We started with a 4x2 XLT SuperCab Lariat and found the EcoBoost four pulled nicely in the mid- to upper rev ranges, though from a standing start, there's a definite turbo lag enhanced by the engine stop-start system. You can mitigate this by brake-torquing the Ranger's EcoBoost and revving it up to roughly 2,800 rpm; doing so evens out the acceleration considerably, but this is admittedly a solution highly future owners are highly unlikely to use often.

The Ranger turns into tighter corners in a nice, predictable, and easy way, with more resistance evident as you push it hard—though this is still a tall, heavy vehicle and few are likely to drive it in such a manner. Still, there's fluidity to the truck's moves that you won't find in a full-size pickup, or even the Ranger's Tacoma competitor. (Ford had a few of the Toyotas on hand for comparison, though not any Chevy Colorados or GMC Canyons.) We were also unable to induce wheel hop despite the empty six-foot bed—the bed is five feet long in the bigger, four-door SuperCab—a common issue in most full-size trucks save the Ram 1500 with its rear coil springs. The Ranger uses a live axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs and outboard dampers out back and an independent control-arm setup with tubular anti-roll bar up front.

The Lightning Blue Lariat 4x2 SuperCab we drove, which has a base price of $33,305, came with adaptive cruise control, five-inch rectangular chrome running boards, a chrome appearance package, the trailer tow package, 18-inch chrome wheels, and the obligatory spray-in bedliner, for a bottom line of $38,320. All Ford Rangers come with automatic emergency braking and a blind-spot-recognition system. Ford's Co-Pilot 360 suite of advanced driver-assist systems is included on the XLT and Lariat, and optional on the base XL model.

We also had a chance to test the Ranger's chops off-road on a pre-prepared course designed to show off the advantages of the new truck versus the competition. With that in mind, we did find the Ford's Trail Control off-road cruise control—standard on 4x4 models—operated more smoothly than did the Tacoma's. With Trail Control active, the Ranger barely elicited a single electronic grunt on a bumpy downhill trail, while the Tacoma's similar system jerked that truck through the demonstration as its ABS brake sensors played an industrial metal band soundtrack.

Ford's Trail Control may be used in four-and two-wheel-drive high range as well as 2-Lo at speeds of up to 20 mph. On the longer, winding off-road trail prepared for the event, the Ranger 4x4 with its 17- or 18-inch all-terrain tires (we took three laps, each in a different-spec truck) and terrain control handled everything from loose dirt to downhill steps to an articulation course, plus a mud bath. We're sure this truck won't be able to follow the Jeep Gladiator along a Moab trail—that's what the upcoming Bronco and Bronco Jr.  will be for—but anyone who wants to take his or her bike far off-trail will be able to get a good head start with the Ranger.

The terrain control adjusts for mud and snow, on-road, off-road, etc., with the twist of a dial on the center console. The interior layout is refreshingly simple, with tough seat fabrics and upgrade leathers befitting a work-or-play truck. The standard instrument panel features a real tachometer with a physical dial, while the tech package gets you configurable instruments including a digital rev counter. We prefer the real tach, natch.

In another staged exercise, we drove a 4x2 SuperCab XLT along a few miles of San Diego County canyon roads with about 450 pounds' worth of two KTM 450 SX-F dirt bikes. Again, the EcoBoost four proved plenty powerful for this situation, although the suspension feels just a slight bit more jittery here than when unladen. You probably won't feel that wobble if your choice of two-wheeler is an aluminum-framed mountain bike.

Our final stint was in a 4x4 SuperCrew Lariat, with the FX4 off-road package. The base price of this one was $39,490, and our example stickered at $44,255. The 4x4 Ranger CrewCab was no less pleasant to drive in suburban and urban settings than the 4x4 SuperCab, nor did did it exhibit any of the dive or squat of full-size pickups. The Ranger lineup as a whole feels right-sized and well-suited to working in all sorts of traffic situations.

Ford's new Ranger is a worthy rival for the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and it may make some headway against the older, more traditional-feeling Toyota Tacoma. While the Ranger's slight fuel-economy advantage isn't great enough to overcome the GM twins' wider variety of powertrain and trim choices, especially with oil remaining dirt-cheap, having another choice in the market is no bad thing, and this is no bad truck.

Yes, but what about a Ranger Raptor? Basically, you can forget about it for a while.  Ford's under-the-skin rework of the Ranger for North America included adding a fully boxed frame, which reportedly precludes the global Ranger Raptor's Watts-link rear suspension. In addition, the non-U.S. Ranger Raptor comes with a number of engine choices and our Ranger has a streamlined lineup. But body-on-frame trucks are easier to redesign than unibody cars and SUVs, so keep your hopes alive and check back again when the next-gen Ranger is engineered with America in mind from the outset.

2019 Ford Ranger Specifications

PRICE $25,395-$39,480
ENGINE 2.3L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4; 270 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 310 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT front-engine, 2+2 or 4-door, 5-passenger, RWD or 4WD pickup truck
EPA MILEAGE 20-21/24-26 mpg (RWD/4WD)
L x W x H 210.8 x 85.8 x 70.7-71.5 in
WHEELBASE 126.8 in
WEIGHT  4,145-4,441 lb
0-60 MPH N/A