Tugboat: The RockCandy 2019 Ford Ranger
From showroom to off road in less than one week.
The 2019 Ford Ranger hit the US markets before the Jeep Gladiator. I’d originally had my heart set on the Gladiator, but wanted to give the Ranger a fair shake. So when my local Ford dealership let me know the first of the Rangers was in their showroom, I decided to take a look. But when I found out it was a fully loaded, Lariat FX4 crew cab with the off road and towing packages AND the Saber color I was looking for, well… ‘Just looking’ quickly changed to buying.
The Ford package options give a lot more choice than the other midsize competitors – including the Jeep Gladiator. This is because the FX4 package is not associated with the trim packages. You can of course get a Lariat FX4 with all the bells and whistles. But you can also get just the FX4 package – and nothing else – on a bare bones XL Super Cab for about $34K US. That includes upgraded shocks, locking rear differential, and the trail control and terrain management goodies without also having to pay for leather interior and other fluff. That creates a really good platform for those looking for a solid base to build an off road rig, without paying for a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make sense in that application.
It didn’t take long to go find some mud at the local off road park, Prairie City. Right off the showroom floor, the truck did a pretty good job of the easy to moderate obstacles at Prairie City. At the stock FX4 package height, the front and rear approach angles were a bit of an impediment, but the relatively short wheelbase made it handle obstacles in a way that was more than capable for a straight from the factory setup.
The rear locking differential was easy to use and quick to engage. However, the Gladiator has the advantage in articulation due to the overall wheel clearance, and the ability to disconnect the front sway bar on the solid front axle. The independent front suspension on the Ranger had me up against the bump stops on one side and hanging the wheel on the other side a little more than I might have hoped for. Because of that, the lack of a locking front diff left me wanting compared to the Jeep Gladiator.
After letting my camera man (aka my 12 year old son) have some fun playing in the mud behind the wheel, it was time to go. I of course had to try just one more obstacle on our way out of the off road park. And of course I managed to find the limits of that short wheelbase. Luckily, a friendly member of the Capitol City Mountain Goats was nearby to offer me the hook end of a winch cable.
Daily driving in the truck was completely uninteresting to me. Which is good. It gets me to the day job, is comfortable, feels stable without being too stiff. Just what I want for something that can get me to work, but still haul stuff from the local hardware store. But we’re not done playing off road yet.
The next off road test was outside of Reno, Nevada. It was a longer trail run punctuated with more interesting obstacles. The Ranger was not only 1 of only 3 pickups in the 25 rig run, it was also the one with the lowest ground clearance. I think there was expectation that I’d be the guy if there was some problem. The high desert was mostly about picking your line over and around head-sized rocks, and the Ranger took it is stride. A couple of water crossings resulted in the front and rear bumpers being dug into the ground a couple of times, but nothing the truck couldn’t plow through. Well…. the running boards did take some damage and are now deleted.
At lunch the guy behind me was joking about how many times I had a tire off the ground, but driving it I never felt like I had traction issues. However, there were a couple of steeper, slow, steady descents that highlighted some of the technology poured into traction control on the truck. I’m used to off roading in rigs that are manual everything, so this technology is frankly new to me in this Ranger. And I must say, for an all-day trail excursion with my son, it was pretty nice.
Electronic transfer case is something that is pretty common. And the Ranger has that via a simple dial located next to the shift lever in the center console. In addition to that it has “Terrain Modes” – Normal, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts and Sand. (And, incidentally, a recent video for the EU release of the Ranger Raptor also shows Baja as an available mode.) These apparently do a bunch of magic in regards to traction control, in addition to being a different way to engage four wheel drive. So that was interesting, but not especially noticeable while driving.
One thing that was very noticeable to me however was the way the truck behaved in four low. As I said, I’m used to using four low in manual transmissions with manual transfer cases. There, the engine compression does a really good job of slowing down the vehicle when you let off the gas. In fact, it is generally preferred to find the right gear and control descent speed that way rather that relying on the brakes. My first attempts to apply this same thinking failed miserably in the Ranger. Letting off the gas on a steep, slippery descent in the Ranger didn’t really slow the truck down. So I had to rely on the brakes. Until I tried out the Trail Control.
Trail control is essentially cruise control for low speed four wheel drive usage. It will allow you to set a speed of up to 20 MPH (10 MPH in four low) and like normal cruise control it controls the throttle for you. But it also controls the braking. And this is where the magic happens. It doesn’t just apply the brakes like you would with the brake pedal. Instead, it leverages the computer controlled anti-lock brake system to control the speed on a per-wheel basis. Essentially, trail control can manage your descent better than you can with the brake pedal alone. The other difference from regular cruise control is that you can use the brake without deactivating the system.
This took me a bit to get used to, but once I was accustomed to how it worked using trail control – especially on descents – I realized how much better it was. Ford had used technology to recreate the driving experience I was used to, without making me do the dirving. People more accustomed to electronic traction and drive control may not find this that interesting. But as a guy used to driving completely manual off road rigs, this was some wizardry.
Unfortunately the Reno trip was not without incident, but not because of any inherent mechanical failure with the Ranger. Instead, I managed to rip the sidewall of the tire with a rock and had to change a flat in the middle of the run. But that did lead me to my one big complaint about this truck – the silly scissor style jack. It is completely worthless off road in my opinion. And, the space it takes up behind the rear seat is just about the right size for a bottle jack that is 10 times the jack the factory thingy is. And that was what I did immediately after coming back from the run. If you go for that “upgrade” however, be sure to hold on to the handle for the scissor jack. That is also the tool that is used to lower the under-bed mounted spare tire. Unless you’ve gone full overland on your build and can ditch that too.
All is all, the Ranger performed better than I’d expected off road, and didn’t disappoint on road. I’ll leave the towing to another article, but if you are looking for a daily driver that can get you out to locations most vehicles can’t make it on the weekends, it is hard to argue against the bang for the buck in the new Ford Ranger.