KANANASKIS RIVER, Alberta — High in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, rivers from melting glaciers run fast and cold, while across slopes splashed with fir and birch the sporadic off-road trail climbs steeply over rounded rocks and slippery soil to reach high and scenic ground.
My four-wheel-drive edition of Ford's Ranger compact pickup truck, flashing a bold face and supporting an expansive passenger compartment, plunges through cold rivulets coursing down a creek bed, then effortlessly powers up a gravel bank on the opposite shore. At a trailhead, the Ranger continues in sure-footed stance, big tires gripping with assurance, big engine snorting an eagerness to climb the hill.
And so we go, bumping over rocks, bouncing over ruts, bounding up that slope. In such action, the Ranger reveals a can-do confidence that indicates there's probably no vehicular task in the outback world this truck cannot accomplish.
For weekend warriors intent on attaining some rugged off-road spot on Saturdays or for those who need the practical workability of a pickup, this edition of the Ranger quickly demonstrates superior traits and offers an early indication, perhaps, that Ford will safely maintain its position with the country's best-selling compact truck.
Any time designers and engineers tamper with such a proven success as the Ranger, the move becomes at best a tricky one, although with these improvements a safe and conservative course was selected.
A remake for the Ranger
The essence of the remake lies underneath the Ranger’s skin. Ford undertook measures that strengthened the truck's chassis and suspension system to create more control and smooth out the ride quality. Then the Ranger's passenger quarters were enhanced, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Also, this Ranger packs more power in three engine options. The base four-cylinder engine, expanding from 2.3 to 2.5 liters due to the increased stroke, rises 5 percentage points in horsepower to reach 119, as torque output climbs by 10 percent.
1999 Ford Ranger
The previous Ranger added two optional V-6 choices, one at 3.0 liters, which becomes the standard for four-wheel-drive editions, and a larger one at 4.0 liters. For current Rangers, the 3.0-liter V-6 also enriches torque output by 10 percent as it pumps the muscle up to 147 hp. A 4.0-liter V-6, first used in Ford's Explorer sport-utility wagon, supplies up to 160 hp and sparks with lots of low-end torque.
The base engine and the 3.0-liter V-6 connect with either a five-speed manual or smooth four-speed automatic transmission, but the 4.0 V-6 gets Ford's five-speed automatic option that first appeared with a single-cam engine in the Explorer.
We tried these various engines and transmissions in the Canadian Rockies, where the trucks covered off-road trails in the Kananaskis wilderness as well as more mundane venues like the urban streets of sprawling Calgary and long stretches of rural highways such as the Trans-Can Route 1A from Calgary to Banff. Through all experiences the Ranger exhibited surprisingly carlike ride sensations which felt firm yet comfortable in a pattern that seemed more closely akin to one of Ford's sedans than a pickup.
Under it all
The Ranger platform, reinforced with stiff boxing up front, teams with an independent front double-wishbone suspension system to produce those smooth ride sensations.
A chassis of ladderlike design forms a strong and rigid foundation, with full box bracing in the front section to further stiffen it. Ford's engineers say stiffness of this current frame improves by more than 350 percent over the previous Ranger chassis.
The independent front suspension, with front long-arm arrangement, mounts to this stiffer chassis. On 4x2 Rangers, softer springs at front wheels create an easy ride quality, but all 4x4 Rangers earn torsion bars that allow wheels to travel greater vertical distances when negotiating off-road obstacles. In the rear, a live axle combines with two-stage leaf springs to generate smoother ride sensations on 4x2 Rangers, as a multi-leaf spring on the 4x4 strengthens the overall arrangement for rugged action.
1999 Ford Ranger
Quick-acting power rack-and-pinion steering — uncommon on a truck where the more cumbersome recirculating-ball device is usually found — boosts the Ranger's agility.
And to rein the Ranger, ventilated disc brakes show up in front of back drums abetted by rear anti-lock system. The top model, Ranger XLT, has a disc at every wheel plus four-wheel ABS.
Safety systems extend to dual airbags. A switch with locking key lets driver disconnect the passenger-side airbag when a child rides in that seat.
Optional four-wheel drive, offered with either V-6 powertrain, makes a strong work truck with go-anywhere enthusiasm on pavement or dirt. A pulse vacuum hub-lock device sets front hubs quickly for push-button shifting into 4x4 mode — and it engages while moving at speeds as high as 80 mph.
Choices for body, cab and bed
Besides the three engines and two traction options, Ford's Ranger comes in both flat-sided Styleside and notchy Flareside body styles with several trim levels and a regular-sized cabin or the stretched SuperCab interior plan.
The regular-cab edition will work with both short and long wheelbases. The SuperCab moves the truck's rear cabin wall aft to form a storage bay with side-facing jump seat mounted behind driver's seat — it flips out of the way when not needed.
A rear 6-foot truck bed creates more cargo room. Four hooks mount to inside rails and help corral a heady load, and the rear lift gate can be removed easily if necessary without needing special tools.
In the cabin, a standard layout installs a bench seat with 60/40 split in both XL and XLT trims. One SuperCab version arranges twin buckets flanking a floor console, and the SuperCab also adds an optional fourth door for convenience.
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