2019 Ford Ranger First Drive – Fighting For First Place Out of the Box

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If you’ve paid attention to any of Ford’s marketing lately, you’ll know the company has been making vehicles for 115 years. When it comes to F-Series, the best-selling pickup truck line in the country, they’ve been ahead of the pack for 41 years. It should shock nobody that the company knows how to build a pickup truck.

There’s more to the success of the 2019 Ford Ranger than just whether or not the company can build a good pickup truck. The Ranger is a good truck. But will it be able to draw new customers to the growing midsize truck segment, and will it be able to attract people from Colorado and Tacoma?

(Full disclosure: Ford flew me to San Diego and put me up in a nice hotel in La Jolla, provided me with food, and let me drive their new Ranger. I kept a little Ford Ranger backpack and declined some other goodies. Also, I was supposed to go paragliding but there wasn’t enough wind and I didn’t want to crash land on a nude beach.)

How good is the new Ford Ranger? As of this writing, it is easily the best truck in the segment. For a refresher, the midsized Ranger is powered by the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that started life in the Mustang. There are several changes made for truck duty, the biggest one involving lower availability of torque. In the Ranger it makes 270 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque.

Power is sent to either the rear wheels or a four-wheel-drive system through the company’s 10-speed automatic transmission. Unlike the upcoming Jeep Gladiator and the current Toyota Tacoma, a manual transmission isn’t an option.

2019 Ford Ranger

Normally on press launches like this, the manufacturer brings out a fleet of fully-loaded vehicles for journalists to drive. In this case, Ford had a wide variety of trims and configurations. I figured you folks would be way more interested in a short-cab XLT two-wheel drive with the towing package than a fully-loaded Lariat. So that’s the one I grabbed when I landed in San Diego and hit the streets.

A base XL Ranger starts at $25,395 after a $1,095 delivery charge. The Lightning Blue XLT tester you see here is $36,635 with destination. Some key features include the trailer-tow package and a technology package that includes SYNC3 infotainment, satellite radio, and full-stop adaptive cruise control.

Towing is rated at 7,500 pounds, which Ford is quick to point out is best-in-class for towing with a gasoline engine. Max towing is achieved with either the 2WD or 4WD trucks. For comparison, the Colorado diesel is rated at 7,600 lbs for gasoline and the Gladiator, when it goes on sale, will be at 7,650 with its towing package.

Despite being a mid-grade truck, the inside of the Ranger is a nice place to be. The interior plastics are significantly better than what’s offered on Nissan’s Frontier. They’re also superior to the segment sales-leading Tacoma. They are on par or better than what you see in a Colorado or GMC Canyon.

2019 Ford Ranger

The cloth seats feel durable and are power-adjustable for distance and height. Disappointingly, the seatbacks are manually adjustable for rake. And, while the SuperCab’s rear seats are useable in a pinch for children, they really only make sense as an area to store things.

Despite the limited usability of the rear seats, there are two USB ports and a 110-volt AC plug in the back, just in case

After a tiny hint of turbo lag, the 2.3 delivers a wave of torque that accelerates the truck briskly. Despite there being 10 gears to choose from, the truck always seems to be in the right gear with little hunting. As Ford spends more time working on this transmission, the calibration keeps getting better.

I also like the way EcoBoost engines make power. The wave of torque down low feels solid in a truck, and I prefer this engine over anything the competition offers in gas. It’s a far superior experience to the gas V6 in the Tacoma and punchier than the gas V6 in a Colorado.

I get why they’re only offering one engine in Ranger. Everyone gets the upgraded engine without having to get an upgraded engine, so to speak. The base truck won’t feel like a penalty box but the engine delivers the high performance buyers expect in the premium truck.

At the risk of sounding like Ford’s marketing team, if you’re going to have just one engine to choose from, this is the one to have.

2019 Ford Ranger

Steering is spot on, with the weighting of the Tacoma and the responsiveness of the Colorado. While feedback is still better in Tacoma, the accuracy in Ranger is there, and based on the off-road course Ford set up, I can’t think of a steering rack I’d rather have than the one in the Ranger.

Towing performance is also solid. Most people in this class are towing around 5,000 pounds of stuff, and the Ranger tows it, no problem. There is a tow setting for the truck and the blind-spot monitoring covers the trailer, but a trailer brake controller doesn’t come standard from the factory.

Rick Bolt, Ranger’s chief engineer, tells me it’s configured for a trail brake controller to be installed easily, and buyers should be able to get assistance from their dealer on getting the factory-approved one installed.

Basically, it comes down to picking nits to find faults with Ranger. The rear sliding window isn’t powered on any trim. While it might not be a big deal for most midsize buyers, when you have the SuperCrew cab you can’t reach the window from the driver’s seat to open or close it.

Additionally, the rear tailgate isn’t damped. Most new trucks have a spring installed that makes raising and lowering the tailgate easier. The additional added benefit comes from being able to open the tailgate and not have it slam down.

While I consider it a “surprise and delight” feature over necessity, I brought up this concern with Bolt. Because the tailgate is lighter than most – it’s aluminum in the Ranger – it apparently becomes more difficult to get the dampening right, especially in the cold. While it could’ve been done, the time and money involved in making it work wasn’t a priority for the team.

2019 Ford Ranger

But as a I said in the beginning, the Ranger is a good truck. I’d buy the new Ranger. That’s not the challenge the Ranger faces.

This is the first time in a long while that there’s a truck segment Ford isn’t dominating. Tacoma is king here, and their customers are fiercely loyal. Ford understands that, though this is the first time they’re on the other side of the loyalty coin.

Will Ford be able to take Tacoma buyers? Ranger’s marketing manager Chad Callander thinks there’ll be a few. He knows some customers went to Tacoma when Rangers disappeared early this decade.

But new customers are where growth opportunities lie. The midsize segment has exploded in recent years, which is why Colorado and Canyon returned, why Honda makes a midsize truck, and why Ford thinks now is the time to return with Ranger. Callander believes that’s where customers will come from.

What about previous Ranger customers? Ford’s Brian Bell, retail marketing manager for Ranger and F-150, tells me that midsize truck buyers are different than they were when Ranger was last on sale. He understands the new truck isn’t a compact offering like the old truck, but actual buyers in this segment are looking for something different than before.

He views Ranger as part of the overall package for a customer. Trucks like Raptor are driven to a location to go Raptoring. Ranger is a tool to get you to the activity that you want to do, but not the activity itself.

Bell’s research also suggests that while Ranger buyers might be weekend warriors, they aren’t the same type of do-it-yourselfer that opts for the F-150.

2019 Ford Ranger

For some of you, that’ll be a bummer. If you were hoping for an inexpensive compact truck like the old Ranger, you’re probably disappointed. But I can’t argue with Ford’s decision to go after the largest buyer profile of midsize trucks.

As for pricing, the Ranger can get pricey quick. A Lariat FX4 is the price of the more off-road capable ZR2 Colorado and TRD Pro Tacoma. But the equipment level in both of those trucks is lacking compared to Ranger. The Ranger is nicer to live with every day than the Tacoma.

That’s true at any price or any trim level.

Ford has the right product for a growing segment. Will it be a sales success? Ford has a history of building successful trucks, so I wouldn’t bet against them. But with Gladiator coming and solid refreshes from the competition, this segment is white hot and only getting hotter.

[Images © 2018 Chad Kirchner/TTAC]

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