In its third year of production, the 2021 Ranger successfully fills the midsize void in the Ford truck lineup created when the last version was discontinued. Although the full-size F-150 is the best-selling truck in America, the Ranger is a good choice for those who do not need something that big, especially if they spend much time in urban traffic.
The Ranger is a good looking truck with an upright stance that makes it looks larger than it actually is. It can be ordered in two-plus-door SuperCab or four-door SuperCrew cabs, with a five or six foot bed, and the choice of rear- or four-wheel-drive. The punchy standard turbocharged 2.3-liter engine delivers plenty of power that is efficiently handled through 10-speed automatic transmission. Interior room is good and practically every advanced automotive technology is available on the upper trim levels.
Despite its smaller size, the Ranger is a real workhorse. It can carry up to 1,860 pounds, and any version can tow up to 7,500 pounds with the available towing package.
Three different 4WD systems are available. The basic setup with the Ranger offers rear-drive, high-range 4WD, and low-range 4WD. The FX4 off-road package features a higher and softer off-road suspension, skid plates, and Ford's Trail Control system. It works like cruise control for off-road driving, allowing the Ranger to climb up and down hills or over obstacles with the driver only steering.
New for 2021 is the Tremor Off-Road Package that has a wider stance, improved ground clearance, front and rear suspension travel and greater approach, departure, and breakover angles. But if you something even more serious, the all-new midsize Bronco SUV, which is based on the Ranger chassis but designed to compete directly against the most off-road capable vehicles. Ford also released the Bronco Sport this year, which is based on the compact Escape crossover but also capable of serious off-road driving.
The Ranger nameplate has a long history that reflects the ups and downs of small pickups in American. Until the late 1960s, every popular truck was made by one of the big three Detroit manufacturers — Chevy, Dodge and Ford. But then Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) slowly started cracking the market by offering compact trucks that could haul a reasonable load and got a lot better mileage. Ford jumped on board in 1971 by selling a rebadged Mazda B-Series as the Courier, without offering the optional rotary engine available in the original version.
Then the Arab oil embargo hit in 1973, driving up gas prices, creating shortages, and dramatically increasing the demand for more fuel efficient vehicles of all kinds, including trucks. Ford was slow to develop its own small pickup, finally introducing the domestically-produced Ranger in 1983. It also served as the platform for the Bronco II and original Explorer SUVs. The Ranger went through two more generations before the demand for small trucks seemed to dry up and it was discontinued in 2007. Chevy also dropped its S-10 and Dodge discontinued the Dakota, the first midsize truck, too.
But the demand for small — or at least smaller — trucks never went away. They just got a little bit bigger. Nissan and Toyota continued selling their now midsize Frontier and Tacoma pickups. As full-size trucks continued to get ever larger, Chevy and GMC jumped into the midsize market with their Colorado and Canyon in 2004. In contrast to the original basic compacts, all could be ordered in multiple trim levels and with option packages that included serious off-road packages.
Although the full-size F-150 has been the best selling truck for many years, Ford finally realized it was missing out and reintroduced the Ranger as a midsize truck in 2019. Although based on a model first introduced worldwide in 2012, it was substantially upgraded with a fresher styling, a new powertrain, a better suspension, a more refined interior and other improvements.
Our test Ranger was a SuperCrew XLT, which slots between the base XL and top-of-the-line Lariat. It came with a five-foot bed which made downtown driving easier and the basic 4WD system. It provided an impressive (and good looking) amount of ground clearance, which made quick work of the improvised off-road course of poorly maintained city streets and deeply rutted shortcuts in my hilly neighborhood. Ford did not enter 4WD version of the Ranger in the most recent Mudfest completion sponsored by the Northwest Automotive Press Association, but I think my tester would have been able to tackle even the toughest course.
The engine/transmission combination also hit the sweet spot. The Ecoboost four produces a healthy 270 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, pulling much like the V6s offered in some competitors. The 10-speed auto always seemed to be in the right gear, making it much less work to drive around town than the seven-speed manual Bronco I tested a few weeks ago with the same engine.
Inside the SuperCrew Ranger was plenty roomy, with good head and shoulder space in the front and enough seat and leg room for three adults in the rear. Although the Lariat version comes with leather, the XLT was practical enough with a combination of hard and soft plastics, plus heavy-duty cloth seats that felt like they would last for many years. Although the infotainment system was not as advanced as some competitors, it still did the job. The large stereo control knobs were appreciated, although those for the climate controls were small and hard to see. Switching to the climate setting on the display screen solved that problem, however.
The Ranger's available technology are competitive, too. The XLT comes with a rear-view camera, blind spot monitoring, and lane keeping with curve control as standard equipment, and the ability to get the truck its own 4G data plan and create a wi-fi spot in the cab. Upgrades include adaptive cruise control and a forward collision sensing system as well as Sirius/XM satellite radio and GPS navigation in an 8-inch screen.
The bottom line is, if you don't need a full-size F-150 but still want a truck that is Ford tough, the midsize Ranger will likely exceed your expectations.
2020 Ford Ranger XLT SuperCrew 4X4
Base price: $31,075
Price as tested: $37,205
Type: Midsize pickup truck
Engine: 2.3-liter turbo four-cylinder (270 hp, 310 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 20/24
Overall length: 210.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,441 pounds
Final assembly: Wayne, Michigan
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