When the Toyota HiLux first appeared on the monthly top-10 sales list a while back it was dismissed as an aberration rather than a meaningful shift in the market. A year or two on the Toyota ute is not only still there it's well entrenched in the top three or four selling models.
The stunning success of the HiLux has caused other manufacturers of similar utes, like Ford, to take another look at their own models with a view to cashing in on this new popularity. When they did look they found the reason for this new success didn't lie in the traditional working class segment, but in the growth in the use of these vehicles for recreation.
For its part Ford, and its Mazda partner, went back to the drawing board and came up with a new and expanded range of utes to cover all bases in the changed market.
In a reflection of the changing demand from ute buyers Ford changed the name of its offering, from the rather working class Courier to the rather more adventurous Ranger. It's the demand from people who want to use them for more than their work needs, for their recreational, or lifestyle, purposes as well that is driving the development of today's one-tonne utes. The Ranger is in reality a Mazda BT-50 with a different set of sheetmetal clothes.
Ford followed its "trough truck" theme when it restyled front of the Mazda to create the good-looking Ranger with a clear link to his F150 big brother. The restyle brought a new grille and blue oval badge to the Mazda's muscular lines, which gave it a bold, purposeful look, but the rest was all Mazda BT-50.
Ford's model line-up included three body styles, with the single cab, extended Supercab, and the Crewcab. Each was available as a cab-chassis and a ute with a box bed, and in 4x2, 4x2 Hi-rider and 4x4 models.
Two equipment levels were offered; XL on 4x2 models, and XL and XLT on 4x4 models, with the XLT 4x4 being the hero model aimed at those using their Ranger for a bit of weekend fun.
Inside, the Ranger was the same as the Mazda, apart from the steering wheel. It had the same neat car-like dash, a standard MP3-compatible CD player, a decent array of dials, dual airbags, and most models had standard air-conditioning.
Underneath, the Ranger had a beefed-up ladder chassis, torsion bar front suspension and longer rear leaf springs with heftier shocks to improve the ride without sacrificing its load carrying capacity. The steering was also retuned to be more responsive.
Braking was by front ventilated discs and rear drums, with ABS antilock and EBD electronic brakeforce distribution systems standard on the XLT, but optional on the rest of the range.
Like Mazda Ford dropped the petrol engine option in the Ranger and only offered diesel engines. There were two of them, both with common-rail injection and variable geometry turbocharging for smooth and steady power delivery across a broad rev range.
The 4x2 models had a 2.5-litre version that produced 105 kW at 3500 revs and 330 Nm at 1800 revs, while the 4x2 Hi-rider and all 4x4 models had the extra zip of a 3.0-litre version that produced 115 kW at 3200 revs and 380 Nm at 1800 revs.
There were two transmissions on offer, a five-speed manual, which was standard across the range, and a five-speed auto, which was optional with the larger engine.
Manual four-wheel drive models had a dual-range transfer case with remote locking front hubs and a limited-slip rear diff; the autos had an electronic shift-on-the-fly mechanism for easier 4x4 operation. All models had a full one-tonne payload, while the 3.0-litre manual would tow three tones.
ON THE LOT
Pay $12,000-$20,000 for an XL base model, $15,000-$25,000 for an XL Hi-rider, and $25,000-$34,000 for an XLT with the lot.
IN THE SHOP
The Ranger is generally a tough and reliable ute, whether working or touring the land on a journey of discovery. There have been some issues with the cruise control where fitted and Ford is in the process of changing to a new supplier to fix the problems. If you are looking to buy a model with a factory-fitted cruise check the operation to make sure it is working correctly.
There have also been one or two reports of auto transmission troubles, specifically reports of gears slipping, so check the auto transmission carefully. Look for the telltale signs of hard work, either on the work site or in the bush; in particular look for battered bodywork and underbody.
IN A CRASH
Utes have generally trailed passenger cars in the level of safety they have offered, but the latest models are closer than ever to their sedan cousins.
With ABS antilock brakes and EBD brakeforce distribution the Ranger has a reasonable level of active safety, while dual front airbags give it the basic level of passive safety. ANCAP rated the Ranger 4x4 at three stars out of a possible five.
AT THE PUMP
With a diesel only option the Ranger manages to dodge the fuel consumption bullet that hits most of its rivals offering a petrol engine option. The base model with the 2.5-litre engine boasts a claimed consumption of 8.3 L/100 km, while those models with the 3.0-litre engine are claimed to deliver 9.2 L/100 km.
David Trevaskis has had his 2007 Ford Ranger diesel auto for 18 months now and is really happy with it. It's tough, good on wet or dry forest tracks as well as ordinary roads, rides comfortably, has good fuel efficiency, and an excellent towing capacity.
. Tough Ford looks
. Diesel economy
. Good build quality
. Comfortable ride
. Three-tonne towing ability
. One-tonne payload
ALSO CHECK THESE
TOYOTA HILUX - 2007-2009
The market leader boasts a range of working class and sporty models with two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, single and dual cab body styles, and petrol and diesel engines. Generally well built and reliable, but complaints about the auto transmission overheating should make buyers wanting to tow a caravan or large boat wary. Pay $10,000-$42,000.
NISSAN NAVARA D40 - 2007-2009
European built dual-cab is a popular choice for recreational users who appreciate its roomy cabin, smooth ride and three-tonne towing capacity. Complaints about diff problems when towing suggest buyers should be wary. Pay $24,000-$38,000.
GREAT WALL - 2009-2010
A recent arrival from China, the Great Wall is an affordable dual-cab ute with a petrol engine and plenty of fruit, but it's still largely untried in this country. Pay $12,000-$17,000.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Well built ute that drives smoothly and delivers diesel economy.