Payne: Compact Ford Ranger has out-size capabilities

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I get the big truck thing. Big Ford F-series trucks that drive small business to construction sites every day. Big Ram trucks that haul race cars to the track. Big Chevy Silverado profits that fuel GM’s big autonomous dreams. Big, big, big. “Ungh, ungh, ungh,” as Tim Allen might grunt.

But I’m a compact vehicle guy.

I like spicy Ford Fiesta ST meatballs with nimble handling and hatchbacks you can stuff IKEA stuff into. Mazda CX-5 crossovers that will carry the kids to school, then dance through the twisties on the way home. Buick Encores that have single-handedly put POP POP into a FIZZLE FIZZLE brand.

So I’ve been watching this compact truck thing. Once a sleepy segment monopolized by the Baja-shredding Toyota Tacoma, it has come back to life as the Detroit Three have invaded with their unique truck features: Handsome GMC Canyons, Chevy Colorados with corner-step beds, Rubicon-forged Jeep Gladiators.

Now comes the Ford Ranger pickup, and I like it a lot.

It’s a truck with all that compact stuff I crave: utility, interior room and fun, fun, fun. If I were a construction boss like my neighbor, Pickup Bob, I’d have an F-series with acres of interior room for long days on the job. But we can barely fit the things in our garages. It needs a tugboat to get down my driveway.

The Ranger is for the weekend warriors who want a truck to drive to work on Monday. The adventure seeker who wants to load up dirt bikes for a Saturday trip to the country. Or go-karts for day at the track in East Lansing. Or, if more space is needed, it’ll pull a rented U-Haul trailer with its best-in-class 7,500-pound towing.

As that towing number would indicate, the Ranger is a chip off the old F-150 block. Like big brother, it wears that best-in-class muscle with pride (best payload, too).

But I have to admit, I was underwhelmed at first sight. The Ranger has been a long time coming since Ford left the segment in 2011, but the midi-pickup didn’t spend a lot of time at the plastic surgeon. Whereas big brother wears a chiseled bod and Olympian’s face, Ranger wears rounded, plain lines. There are no signature F-150 touches like the scalloped A-pillar window – though the higher bed sills look cool.

Add three things and my pulse quickens: FX4 off-road package, Sport package... and getting behind the wheel.

Compact sedans like the Volkswagen Jetta are value leaders with standard safety features like adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist, etc. Compact trucks, not so much.

The Ranger doesn’t get interesting until you opt up to the $35,210 XLT SuperCrew with standard Co-Pilot360 safety package (adaptive cruise-control, Blind Spot Information System, etc.) plus FX4 off-road goodies like a bash plate. It makes the Ford a better deal than a comparable Toyota TRD Off-Road.

Add the Sport package’s blacked-out grille and 17-inch wheels, and now you got attitude. Attitude to match the Ford’s handling.

I’m a big Tacoma fan, but its talents lie off-road, not on.

The Ranger is a mid-sized truck that truly feels compact on the road with tight handling and minimal bed flutter. Where I had to saw at the Tacoma’s wheel through fast corners, the Ranger is steady. It’s got the feel of the pricier, Multimatic-shocked Chevy Colorado ZR2.

Under the skin is one of Ford’s finest mills – the versatile 2.3-liter turbo-four found in the riveting Focus RS and base Mustang. But while the four-banger seems inadequate in the pony car, Chief Engineer Rick Bolt and his merry band of elves have blessed Ranger with a gravelly voice. Ungh, ungh, ungh.

Married to Ford’s 10-speed tranny, the engine's 310 pound-feet of torque does everything well from cruising to hauling motorbikes.

Excellence extends off-road.

While Ranger left the U.S. market, it never ceased international production. But to meet U.S. customer standards — and the expectations that come with being Son of F-series — engineers went through the Ranger head to tow (pun intended).

The head gets a class-exclusive steel bumper for when, well, you hit things off-road. Towing gets the aforementioned muscle thanks to liberal use of high-strength steel in the frame. On a challenging California off-road course, the Ranger rollicked like a Raptor, eagerly attacking moguls with its steel chin and underbelly skid plates (get the FX4 off-road package), then sprinting across open spaces under full throttle.

Ford trucks are expected to have brains to go with their brawn. The Ranger brings to the game Trail Control, the clever low-speed adaptive-cruise option I also tested on the F-150 Raptor in Utah last month. The feature takes care of low-speed crawling over rocky terrain so you can enjoy the scenery while steering.

This Jeep-like feature is a reminder that the Ranger’s size is more suited to the craggy Outback than big brother Raptor. (Ahem, when is that Ranger Raptor coming to the U.S., Ford?)

Thus equipped, my lightning-blue, tech-tastic, 4WD, SXT (middle trim) Ranger with Sport package comes in at a very class-competitive $40,000.

The bad news for the Ranger is that, at $40,000, pickup lovers might just trade up for a bigger F-150 XLT.

The good news is that a well-equipped Ranger SuperCrew can be had for about the price of a Ford Escape Titanium for the family that needs access to a bed for weekend adventures, but without sacrificing good road manners and most interior amenities.

The Escape customer might frown on the Ranger’s hard plastic surfaces like door sills and lower dash. Ford counters they’re necessary for the truck customer who expects a truck to be rough, muddy — and even washed down internally. Fair enough. But a truck for this price should also come with the same standard amenities as a compact car.

Pay the premium, however, and Ranger’s tech offerings are plentiful: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, two USB ports in the rear seat, digital instrument display. It’s a thoroughly modern truck that's light years from the ol’ 2009 nail.

“In some ways it’s a good thing it took us a decade to get back to market,” says engineer Keith Erickson, “because the truck has changed so much.”

Welcome back, Ranger. Because big matters — but so does compact.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Ford Ranger

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $25,395 base including $1,095 destination fee ($42,085 SuperCrew 4x4 as configured) 

Powerplant: 2.3-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 310 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3-6.7 seconds (Car and Driver est.); 1,860-pound payload (SuperCab 4x2); 7,500-pound towing

Weight: 4,145 pounds base (4,441 pounds SuperCrew 4x4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 20 city/24 highway/22 combined (4x4)

Report card

Highs: Capable on and off-road; tech-tastic

Lows: Vanilla looks in base truck; tech will cost ya.

Overall: 3 stars