The Ford Ranger ute is so popular, Ford can't get enough of the utes from the Thai factory with demand outstripping supply. They sold 12,753 4X4 versions and 5354 4X2 models last year, narrowly behind Focus (18,586).
The overall 4X4 sector of about 125,000 sales was up 25 per cent last year with Ranger sales rising by 13 per cent. Last month they were up 208 per cent with the segment up 66 per cent.
It's a good looking, rugged beast that ticks all the boxes. The Ranger looks like a truck which is important in this market. Some rivals have gone down the path of car or SUV style but buyers want a vehicle that looks like a truck but not necessarily drives like one.
The test ute was the Ranger 3.2 XLT dual cab turbodiesel automatic for $60,244 drive away plus $385 for metallic paint, which is at the top end of the market. Some would say it's too expensive but there is a fair bit on offer for the dosh.
There's a cooled console, front floor mats, cruise control with steering wheel mounted buttons, three powerpoints, electrochromatic rear view mirror, power windows, privacy glass, automatic wipers and headlights, a tow bar, a fuel tank guard, front and rear mud flaps, chrome sports bar, foglights, power exterior mirrors, remote keyless entry and rear parking sensors.
If all that wasn't enough it also comes with an alarm, driver and front passenger, front seat side and side curtain airbags, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), ABS brakes, Hill Launch Assist, Trailer Sway Control, Load Adaptive Control, Emergency Brake Assist, locking rear differential, rear tray liner and 12V socket, inner tie downs, dual zone air conditioning, voice activated Bluetooth, CD player and USB/iPod ports. One noticeable exclusion is satellite navigation.
The beauty of this ute is that it was developed and engineered as well as tuned, tested and validated, in Victoria, so it really is the only Australian pick-up truck you can buy.
There's a fair bit of passenger comfort inside with wide opening doors and a handy pillar grab handle. It's vast and bulky with the dashboard a symmetrical affair with many buttons in the centre for the audio and entertainment system, flanked by a large pair of air vents, an information screen above and a trio of heater/vent knobs below.
The dash is basic and utilitarian with chunky and clear markings for the speedo and rev counter as well as a large digital screen with big blue numerals for the odometer and trip computer data but there's no auxiliary digital speed readout.
There's heaps of room inside, front and rear and the front seats are more than adequate for big-boned Aussies with the driver having lumbar support adjustment as well as the usual height options.
The Bluetooth connectivity is easy to work out and there are plenty of storage places for pens, phones, papers, glasses, cups, cans, bottles and road books. The big glovebox can hold a laptop. On the safety front the Ranger rates highly for safety, including ESC with “rollover mitigation”, trailer sway control and six airbags, resulting in a five-star result.
Besides the usual folding rear backrest, the cushion folds upwards to provide extra load-carrying solutions, while also featuring a couple of lidded floor cubbies for out-of-sight storage when the seat is back down in position.
The rear tray features a 12-volt power outlet and several fixed tie-down points, while moveable tie-down points, tonneau covers, hard covers and a sliding tonneau are also available. The Ranger can tow 3500kg and its payload capacity is 1528kg. While the tray measures 1549mm long and 1560mm wide, a pallet can't fit between the wheelarches.
Crank it to life and the thrummy 3.2-litre inline five-cylinder common-rail turbo-diesel does vibrate at idle. But it's a strong and solid performer, if a little too loud under acceleration. Delivering 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque, it is not the most refined unit.
There's a moment's hesitation launching off the mark and then a torrent of thrust with more than sufficient grunt for lugging or towing, an ideal workhorse. On wet roads, such as the Kuranda Range Rd, the traction control light works overtime as the electronic driving aids try to contain wheelspin at the unladen rear.
Mid-range acceleration is a forceful and noisy affair with the engine finally settling down to a more hushed 1750rpm at a 100km/h cruising speed in top gear. Drive it sedately and you can expect to see the average diesel consumption readout fall below 10L/100km, although last weekend which included suburban, off-roading and highway stints, I saw 10.3.
The six-speed automatic with a grade-logic algorithm that adapts its shift points according to the driving characteristics of the operator is good although there were a couple of clunky downshifts. Overall this gearbox is an ideal pairing to the muscular diesel, particularly if the more enthusiastic driver slots the lever across to “Drive Sport”, which holds on to ratios a little longer and locks out sixth.
Whether on bitumen or gravel, the Ford's brakes are well up to the task, with short stopping distances on a range of surfaces and little to no skittishness on the really slippery stuff. That local honing sure shows here.
The big Ford tackled Black Mountain Rd between Kuranda and Julatten with ease and was surefooted over gravel. It was only on a steepish climb with just the rear wheels engaged that it started slipping.
On the Rex Range and along the Captain Cook Highway between Mossman and Cairns there was car-like steering for safe, agile and surefooted handling and roadholding. The steering is light enough around town for effortless manoeuvrability yet not too sharp for it to feel nervous on the open road.
Only the sizeable turning circle betrayed its truck architecture and there's a bit of body shake. The Ranger's ride is firm and controlled but never too hard with Ford's engineers finding the right balance between driver appeal and comfort.
4WD selection is on the fly (except for low range) and a locking rear differential is standard on the XLT to aid with traction in severe conditions, as is hill-descent control, which automatically maintains 7km/h on downhill sections.