Forget about utes being just working vehicles. Utility sales numbers are now second only to small cars – with last year’s 11,500 sales passed by October this year thanks largely to the rise and rise of the double-cab.
Or, more accurately, to the double-cab that offers genuine accommodation in the rear. For it means people needing a ute for work can carry the family at the weekend, while those whose downtime is active, have a real alternative to the SUV.
And it’s particularly true since there’s now a ute for every taste, from the radical-looking Mitsubishi Triton to the conservative-looking Ford Ranger.
The Ford what? Yes, the Courier name is no more.
Ford NZ managing director, Richard Matheson, says market research helped make the decision – but synergieswith other markets using the Ranger name were pivotal.
Those synergies have allowed a fair bit of choice within the Ranger line-up, though there are no petrol engines.
Both the 2.5- and the 3.0-litre motors offered are twin-cam turbodiesels with common rail direct fuel injection. The 3.0 gets a variable vane turbocharger to cut turbo lag, although it has to be said the 2.5 was hardly sluggish.
The engines are mated to a new manual transmission – heavy-duty for the 3.0 – and a
five-speed auto for the XLT due in the first quarter next year.
Drivelines include two-wheel drive – with a low ride height or high ride and 4WD,
with single, double and super-cab bodies. The bodies are all new, and like the suspension set-up are designed for car-like on-road handling.
But what most impressed on-road, was the low-riding 2.5-litre 2WD ute. The short straw at the start of the launch drive programme at this month’s Ranger media launch soon proved itself a keen performer thanks to the flexible torque delivery.
The 330Nm peaks at 1800rpm but most of it’s available virtually from idle. So it pulls strongly, and despite rear-drive and an empty tray in the flat-deck single-cab I sampled, it handled impressively well on seal, although not surprisingly, it proved a tad skittish on recently graded gravel, where the 4WD drivers had accessed shift-on-the-fly to drive all four wheels for more predictable handling.
Farm time – and into the high-rise 3.0-litre 2WD ute for the rough track. Surely 4WD would have been better? Yes, but after a heavy shower, the flock of male motoring writers sprinted for the four-paw Rangers, leaving me to 2WD. The going wasn’t especially demanding, bar some muddy water courses crossing the rough dirt track. Picking one’s line, easing in and maintaining momentum meant barely a moment’s concern.
A later drive in a 4WD version of the Ranger’s mechanically-identical Mazda BT-50 relative showed impressive off-road skills too – thanks to the performance of the 3.0-litre engine.
That unit develops 115kW peaking at 3200rpm and 380Nm of torque at 1800 – though 90 percent is on tap from 1400rpm.
Off-road it pulls like the proverbial train – plugging along from as low as 800rpm. Indeed, take your foot off the throttle in first and it’ll continue to clamber inexorably forward over hill and dale, rendering obsolete that farmer’s friend.
On-road the torque’s so strong you can leave it in top most of the time. Performance is smooth as well as flexible. Ford says that’s thanks to counter-rotating balance shafts, part of the anti-vibe equation.
It was on the open road that the suspension came into its own – an independent double wishbone set-up front, now with a larger torsion bar, with dual-rate rigid leaf springs and wider-diameter shocks out back.
As for braking, larger ventilated discs provide stopping duties up front, with leading and trailing drums out back – ABS with EBD and BA is available. Pedal feel was initially a bit spongy, but response is just fine.
The wellside has a few clever touches. There’s a horizontal rib along each side to hold a tray cut to size, slots on the side to hold cross-dividers, and the wellside’s sidewalls are 60mm taller, boosting storage to 1266 litres.
Inside there are effective seats, good ergonomics and a decent range of storage – including a clipboard tray that slides from the dash. All Rangers get dual front airbags, and XLT models add dual side airbags.
The super cab’s small rear suicide door is only accessible when the front is open. The vestigial seat base swings back against the rear if you’re carrying luggage, or down if you want to quickly pop the kids down the road or give a mate a lift.
First impressions are of a solid ute that’s neither too big to be practical, nor too small to offer useful rear seat space without compromising tray space too far. The Ranger isn’t a flashy looker, but is strong on basic comforts – like unusually supportive seats.
Prices range from $34,390 for the base, 4x2 XL single cab, chassis cab and up to $53,990 for the 4x4 double cab, wellside, five-speed auto.