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ELLIJAY, Georgia — Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains it’s easy to get lost on the countless trails that lace up the mountains of north Georgia. Was it a left at the chicken coops and a right at the volunteer fire department? Or was it a right at the pack of wild turkeys and a left at the cabin where they feed the bears and make America’s most ill-advised home videos?
The directions don’t really matter, because no matter how you get lost, it’s more important to have the right vehicle to get found — one that can extract you from the trails and get you back home. Something like the Ranger FX4 Level II, maybe the most expensive Ranger we’ve ever driven but also the most capable.
Ford’s Ranger is the evergreen in the truck forest. Along with the Chevrolet S-10 that also appeared about the same time America last saw Michael Jackson’s OEM nose, the Ranger has been a veteran of the compact truck market since the early 1980s in pretty much its current shape and form. Toyota’s Tacoma and Nissan’s Frontier are comparative Nineties newbies.
Though it underwent revamps in 1993 and 1998, the Ranger’s updates were done more in dragging-tail fashion than in a cutting-edge Lexus way. Is that bad? How new does a truck have to be, to be useful? It depends on how much you like good steering, airbags, and a comfy interior, not really strong Ranger attributes until the 1998 redo. Since then, it’s been the truck of choice in its niche, with decent safety ratings and reliability, and a clean shape that’s been updated enough to keep its innocuous good looks in good repair.
For 2003, the Ranger gets the latest in its periodic nip-and-tuck jobs. This one needs to be good, too — the Chevrolet S-10 is about to be put down in favor of a new Colorado, and the Nissan Frontier will be replaced in the next year and a half. With Ford’s financial issues pressing some new products back, a new Ranger hasn’t been talked about much in Dearborn.
With no announced plans to replace the Ranger anytime soon, it’s going to be up to the fundamentals to carry this one through an extended lifespan. That, and new variations like the off-road specialist package introduced this year, the FX4 Level II.
Improved for 2003
2003 Ford Ranger FX4 Level IIAvailable in rear- or four-wheel
drive, with a choice of one of three engines, one of two transmissions, varying
bed lengths and fender styles, outfitting the Ranger gets nearly as bewildering
as ordering a full-size truck.
2003 Ford Ranger FX4 Level IIEnlarge Photo
The engines include Ford’s 2.3-liter, 143-hp four; a 154-hp flexible-fuel V-6; and the 207-hp 4.0-liter six shared with the Explorers. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard on most models, as is rear-wheel drive; a five-speed automatic is a notable higher-dollar option on many Rangers unavailable on the competition. Body styles are Regular Cab or four-door SuperCab, though a true front-hinged four-door model isn’t in the lineup; bed styles are Styleside or the hippy Flareside and beds come in six-foot or seven-foot lengths.
Every 2003 Ranger gets some improvements. All Rangers get freshened styling with a new power-dome hood and most of them get a new honeycomb grille. Tow hooks are standard on 4x4s; Edge and 4x4 XLTs get fog lamps. New seats are available and new paint colors are too.
More serious hardware improvements slot in underneath the sheetmetal. The front rotors have been upsized and get the requisite new calipers; the rear-wheel brake cylinders are bigger, too. Glass areas are thicker and there’s more attention to sound deadening. The LATCH child-seat tether system has been installed, lastly.
The trim levels include XL; XLT; Edge; Tremor, with its 485-watt sound system; and the two FX4 Off-Road 4x4 packages. The base one includes all-terrain tires, premium gas-charged shocks, front tow hooks, skid plates, limited slip axle and unique badging. The FX4 Level II, driven here, gets special sport front bucket seats trimmed in blue on our tester.
Scooting around the dirt roads up and down Double Knob Gap, the Ranger’s basic virtues shine right through its up, up, and away sticker price of $25,095 as tested. It’s a roomy little truck, with an interior as user-friendly as that in the Explorer (because, in essence, it’s the same dash found in the Explorer Sport Trac), a bed large enough to carry along mountain bikes and a gas grille and coolers filled with designated beverages — and when that’s all emptied out, the hardware to go exploring beyond the trails cut for the easiest tourist access.
The FX4 Level II takes the basic off-road package and adds fillips that probably willl appeal to guys who watch a lot of TNN — sorry, Spike TV — and can’t quite justify a diesel duallie full-sizer. It’s a toy with a limited appeal but a decently broad portfolio of talent.
At the core of the package are Bilstein shocks, a Torsen limited slip axle, Alcoa forged aluminum wheels and BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires. The 31-inch-by-10.5-inch tires are mounted to 15-inch, eight-hole Alcoa forged aluminum wheels.
The cosmetic touches include a decal package, steel tow hooks, black wheel moldings, deeply grooved floor mats, and two-tone interior treatment (matching the Sonic Blue exterior of our truck). Underneath, there are skid plates for the skid plates that cover the front suspension/differential, transfer case, and fuel tank.
First impressions of most any Ranger V-6 are good ones. The bigger engines have decent power and torque, and in the last recalibration of the suspension and steering back in 2002, Ford’s engineers found a good compromise between the off-road slack needed and the on-road composure required for most Ranger drivers.
Throwing out the low scores you’d give for the crappy pavement on I-75 heading out of Atlanta, the Level II’s suspension wouldn’t give critics anything to file civil charges over: though I steeled myself for a couple of hours of kidney-thumping impacts, the FX4 handled them with all the grace you can imagine a short-wheelbase off-road truck commanding. One sloppy-mud test on a winding uphill trail barely fazed our laden Ranger, and even with an empty bed and less weight on the rear wheels, it clambered around a six-mile dirt loop we know with aplomb.
The 207-hp six is the clear choice in powertrains; the 3.0-liter six gets thrashy when pressed to do more than low-speed, low-inertia maneuvers, and I can’t imagine a less powerful four being a step up from it.
Noise is a prime factor among those who buy Rangers and who like driving them. On the one hand, powerful audio systems available would be the envy of some luxury cars — MP3-capable disc players and in the Tremor, a 485-watt stereo are available. But even with thicker glass, the cabin isn’t all that insulated from road and suspension noise — and on manual-transmission models, the amount of noise passing through the shift boot is a big distraction from the latest Linkin Park CD.
Yes, it might be five years since its last major overhaul — and two decades since you could call it truly all-new. But the only real gut check when it comes to shopping a Ranger is the sticker price. All the good off-road hardware supplied here drives up the basic $12,500 Ranger to a lightheaded $25,980, including no-cost air conditioning and a nifty modular-molded bedliner.
Fortunately for shoppers, the Ranger is a constant fixture in the rebate and incentive game; $5-a-day leases can be had on basic Rangers running through mid-June and $3000 rebates have been standard equipment for much of the past year. Clearly the Ranger’s got serious marketing muscle behind it. And with the Level II package it safely squares away its off-road credentials, too.
2003 Ford Ranger FX4 Level II
Base price: $25,095
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 207 hp/238 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Length x width (inches): 201.7 x 70.4
Wheelbase: 125.9 in
Curb weight: 3707 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 15/19 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Skid plates, intermittent front wipers, 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, chrome bumpers, sliding rear window, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles