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Ranger is Ford's answer to the masses of mostly younger buyers who, for reasons of size, price and long-term operating economy prefer compact pickup trucks. It's been the segment sales leader almost since the day it was introduced in 1982, and contributed to Ford's 2 million truck sales in the 1996 model year, an all-time record.
Although the exterior cosmetics were redone three years ago and the interior a year later, the basic Ranger shape, dimensions and proportions are the same as the original 1982 truck, and it's due for a total redesign next year.
Like all American trucks, the Ranger is available in an enormous variety of models, 19 in all, starting with a four-cylinder five-speed short-wheelbase XL for $11,380 and going up from there to nearly $25,000. It is also sold in clone form as the Mazda B-Series.
Ranger's competition includes the Chevy/GMC S-trucks (S-10 and Sonoma), the Dodge Dakota, Toyota Tacoma and Nissan pickup trucks.
What started out as a Ford response to the very successful Japanese import compact pickups has sailed away from all of them in sales and popularity, offering a wider variety of powertrains, real American truck strength and commercial-grade durability.
For 1997, the Ranger lineup adds a significant product advantage in this segment, a new five-speed automatic transmission called the 5R55E that improves performance.
A new single-disc player has been added to the audio option list, in addition to the six-disc changer that's already there. Power windows and locks have been added to the low-line XLT models as options. Flareside rear fenders can now be ordered on Ranger models other than the Splash. A second power point has been added to the dashboard, as has a SuperCab cargo area cover.
ABS, previously standard on 4x4 models, has been made optional for 1997 to lower the price and offer the buyer more choices. The Ranger is unique in the industry in that it has a dashboard switch, operated by the ignition key, that can switch the right-side airbag off when the seat is empty or when it is occupied by a small child in a special seat. The system is automatically reset to "on" every time the truck is started.
The Ranger shares its instrument panel with the Explorer sport-utility, an outstanding piece of design. This is how a modern truck instrument panel should look; integrated, properly spaced, with a minimum of color and surface variations. The dials and indicators are just about perfect. There is a visible, palpable richness to the quality of the plastic and fabrics, making it an altogether pleasant place to be. (It wasn't always this way. Remember that this is the end of a 14-year evolution.)
Vinyl bucket seats are standard, with 60/40 split bench seats the prime option and sport buckets a second option, including a floor console with cupholders. If you get a SuperCab without the optional jump seats, there's a locking rear storage compartment back there instead.
Ranger's cab, whether standard or Super, is fitted with a cross-truck steel beam and side-guard door beams for added stiffness and intrusion protection. In both the five-window and standard-cab models, the Ranger and all of the other trucks in this class yield the roominess title to the new 1997 Dodge Dakota, which is slightly bigger in all dimensions. Ranger's standard-cab cabin is not the most hospitable place for taller drivers, with short legroom and restricted seatback rake, but the SuperCab version allows plenty of backrest rake, more legroom and plenty of floor space for cargo, or for the kids to use the side-facing jump seats.
The Splash bucket seats are very comfortable, roomy and supportive for long treks. We confess we didn't try out the jump seats, but we did use the rear cargo floor frequently and found it very convenient. The tailgate operates smoothly and easily, even for those of feminine size and musculature.
The Ranger lineup is among the broadest in the industry, and includes short- and long-wheelbase regular cab models, flat-sided and rear-fendered models (which Ford calls Styleside and Flareside, respectively), SuperCab models with or without rear jump seats, and, of course, both 2WD and 4WD models, in XL, XLT, STX and Splash trim levels. The Flareside version has a padded step built into the side so you can hike yourself up to retrieve small cargo from the left or right side without having to drop the tailgate. And, of course, it looks cool.
The Ranger SuperCab Splash 4x4 is thus right at the top of the line. With a Ranger, the 4x4 model always gets a monochromatic paint treatment, including the bumpers, and we think the 4x4 is much the better looking and more modern truck than the chrome-grille 4x2 versions, especially when it is painted in high-impact colors.
The base 2.3-liter four that's standard on 2WD Rangers makes only 112 horsepower, and the first option is a 3.0-liter V6 at 147 hp, standard on 4WD models. Even the top engine, the 4.0-liter V6 in our test truck is rated at only 160 hp when some of the competition has 190-hp V6 engines. It's a 25-year-old design, and its age is definitely beginning to show. Both V6 engines tend to be a bit shaky and fairly loud at full throttle, and above 4000 rpm there's not much gain in power.
The five-speed manual, with its long-stick shifter, is pretty slick, and if you're planning on going off-road, it will be far more flexible than the automatic. But if you're going to stay on ubran/suburban pavement, opt for the new five-speed automatic. The drive system in the 4x4 Ranger is a straightforward part-time setup with automatic locking hubs and a simple three-way dashboard switch with lighted indicator that will swap between 2- and 4WD instantly, or into 4WD Low for slogging.
On the road, the Ranger behaves much more like a tall car than a truck. It has been smoothed out and quieted a little bit each year for the past dozen years, to the point where it is really quite a refined vehicle, but not especially in the powertrain area.
The Ranger 4x4 suspension system is a modification of the Ford Twin I-Beam with coil springs at the front and regular old truck leaf springs at the rear, and it works well, delivering a good ride on good to medium pavement, without jarring your teeth loose on choppy pavement. That's not to say that the Ranger handles like a sports car, because it doesn't. It's tall, and you have to respect its high center of gravity, or it will get tippy on you.
Steering is power recirculating-ball, and it is quick and lively for such a system, with a narrow dead spot when driving straight ahead. We found the disc/disc ABS brakes worth every bit of the option price, because they stopped short and tamed the usually bad braking behavior of an unladen pickup truck.
One look at the Ranger models and option package list will tell you why so many Americans are opting for small pickups as their everyday transportation: three window options, five sound systems, four seating plans, five tire options, four wheel options, including aluminum, chrome and steel, and every luxury option you can get on a Taurus. In easy-to-understand increments, there are the Handling Package (4x2 only), Luxury Group, XLT Group, STS Group and Splash Group, in ascending order, each with a few more items of equipment.
You certainly don't have to spend anything like $24,000 on a compact truck like the Ranger Splash we tested. This one was loaded with big-ticket items like air conditioning at $805, ABS at $610, a CD changer for $445, the power window and lock group at $395, a tilt wheel with cruise control for $395, sport bucket seats at $360, and an anti-theft/keyless remote entry system for $275. The passenger airbag, which is optional, costs $400, but we view that as a must-have.
With an all-new 1998 Ranger on the way, this is an excellent time to wheel and deal on the outgoing model.