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Ford Ranger - Not just your little brother's pickup

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By Martha Hindes
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

There wasn't any 2,000 foot dropoff at the edge of our driving lane. Ford Motor Co's. 30-foot high mountain in the middle of a parking lot was infinitely safer. And while a five minute cruise up the 22 percent slope, then back down a 26 percent one couldn't challenge a Rubicon ride, we still were headed to the sky approaching the summit. Once there, a brief pause allowed time for a zoom lens on tripod setup to capture the passenger peering over an imaginary cliff edge.

So much for selling the idea the company's revitalized Ranger midsize pickup truck in four-wheel drive mode and 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine is truly off-road capable without transporting a cadre of journalists, photographers, company executives, and a plant full of UAW hourly workers who will build it to a remote destination in order to prove the same points. Those same workers at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant near Detroit start building it in the first week of November. Ford, it seems, had invited almost everyone in town to the kickoff of production of its renewed 2019 Ford Ranger.

Actually, the points were well taken. Our driver (no one in the crowd outside of company drivers got an opportunity behind the wheel) made up for the lack of hands-on grunt testing by subduing a half dozen hazards that a conditioned off-roader would expect in transit. There was a curving 20 percent off camber slope we transited on a steep enough angle to assume the vehicle might just slide sideways down hill. It didn't. But we had to clutch the passenger-side A pillar grab handle to keep from sliding into the driver's seat, despite being secured with a seat belt.

We rounded a curve in the short demo track before wallowing through wave-like twisting mounds meant to rock the suspension back and forth and that might play havoc with door alignment if someone unwittingly tried to open it during one of the pretzel twist motions.

Short but sweet. The brief venture into Ford Ranger off-road country was sufficient to declare this wasn't you little brother's pickup any more.

If the Ranger name sounds familiar, it should. For some three decades it was one of the prominent names in a small cluster of compact pickups designed for lighter weight duty, smaller truck bed loads and leaner prices that included competitors from General Motors, Nissan, Dodge, Toyota and Honda with its sloping truck bed sides that lend it a dual personality.

By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, as companies began dropping those vehicles from their American lineups, it seemed no one had a use for anything less than a half-ton that could do a week of work on the job before a good car wash and brush-down of a leather-trimmed interior left it ready for a night on the town. Ford opted then for a variety of F-150 pickup trims, stating their improved full-size pickup fuel economy made a smaller version unnecessary.

A friend of ours had lamented at news of the upcoming loss at that time, not long after he broke the budget to buy a Ranger in a deep shade of purple in the waning days before Ford finally pulled the plug. He wavered on driving it or just keeping it. Of course that only lasted for a couple of work days.

In addition to the venturesome, that kind of hints at the specialty -- aka "lifestyle" -- buyers who might be waiting in the wings: the yard sale junkie who wants enough truck bed space to capture a setee and side chair before someone else with enough carrying capacity grabs them instead, the California script writer who thinks pickups are really cool, and a good way to regularly drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We can't guarantee he'd trade in his Frontier but now the option is there. Then there's the small business owner who can get by with a smaller extend cab pickup, like the one we pretended to go mountain climbing in. For those who aren't certain about its hauling DNA, Ford had three giant pumpkins loaded into one that looked like they had award winning size and weight.

With Ford abandoning the declining automobile market, with the exception of its hot-selling Mustang, we think the Ranger can be expected to pick up some consumers who already had written autos off their list and find a smaller pickup is a fresh alternative. And Ford wants to be at the summit of the half dozen true contenders now making American waves as customers continue to transition there.

Copyright, 2018, Martha Hindes, Automotive Bureau