2023 Ford Ranger Wildtrak First Drive Review: Over Everything But Snow

Inevitable connecting flights, brazen weather, and a short three-day affair – this isn’t the perfect setting for a tropical holiday on the beautiful island of Phuket, Thailand. However, it was the best backdrop to put the new-generation Ford Ranger through its paces.

Along with a handful of media personnel from Asia and South Africa, I had the opportunity to sample the latest Ford Ranger before it goes on sale in over 180 markets worldwide including the US – the second iteration of the midsize pickup truck since it Ford consolidated it into a global model in 2011.

The Ranger now sits on a heavily-modified version of the acclaimed T6 platform – dubbed T6.2 – adding modularity to the ladder-frame chassis. The three-piece construction allowed modifications such as wider tracks, revised monotube front shock absorbers, and a repositioned rear suspension outboard of the frame rails for more on-road stability, off-road capability, and ride refinement. Some form of electrification through a hybrid setup has also been made possible with the revamp – a different story for another time.

As tested, the latest Ford Ranger has improved upon the acclaim of the outgoing model with the chassis updates and technological upgrades. The redesigned underpinnings promote better driving traits on both pavement and unchartered roads. The added technology amplifies the truck’s slew of capabilities even further.

But the increased integration of technology leaves room for improvement in terms of seamlessness and overall experience. The Ranger could also use some help from a more powerful engine as well – at least with the one I drove for this review.

More Rugged Three-Box Hauler

The Ranger is a macho-looking midsize truck, but Ford wanted to amplify its ruggedness further in the latest model with a squared-off front fascia and more defined fenders. From front to rear, there are chiseled lines all over the vehicle, making the truck look extra muscular than before.

The Ranger’s face and its distinct C-shaped LED DRLs have a striking similarity to the smaller Maverick compact truck. The Ranger Double Cab Wildtrak, which was the star of the show and the default body configuration on this side of the world, remains distinct with the gray trim on the lower bumper that connects to the meshed grille. Ford claims that the new matrix LEDs are intelligent. In contrast to automatic high beams, the lights could stay bright the whole time but have the ability to pinpoint and shut down specific diodes that can blind oncoming traffic when detected.

The shortened front overhang is evident with the new model when viewed from the side, done by moving the front wheels two inches forward to extend the wheelbase. This means a better approach angle, but more on that later. The silver rails over the bed not only maintain design continuity with the silver roof rails and step boards but also work as functional tie-down points when needed. Gone are the uninspired block taillights of the outgoing model; the lights now come with LED details to keep up with the times.

Functional Bed – As It Should

A functional bed should always be part of the conversation when talking about trucks. For the Ranger, I’m happy to report that Ford made sure that the rear was as practical as possible and could serve as a workstation.

Just like the bigger F-150, the new Ranger’s tailgate comes with slots for C-clamps. There are power outlets positioned near the tailgate, as well, demonstrated during the pre-drive briefing by charging a laptop while a block of wood was clamped on the opened tailgate. By the way, the tailgate has also been equipped with a damper, so lifting it takes only a finger.

A gray bed liner is standard on the Wildtrak, while the upper part of the bed gets plastic liners to protect the sheet metal. The polymer parts can serve as drill points for those who want to add accessories. Ford also added a handy step-board for the bed, which is integrated onto the bumper for easy ingress/egress. Nifty.

Smarter Than Ever, But With Room For Improvement

As the latest version of the midsize truck, the Ranger foregoes analog controls and displays in favor of a fully digital instrument cluster and a massive 12.0-inch, portrait-oriented infotainment screen with Sync 4 – at least in Wildtrak guise. The displays are quite legible and the contrast of colors makes the text pop, while the capacitive feature of the center touchscreen allows for quick responses.

But just like most vertical infotainment systems that integrate most (if not all) controls into a hulking screen, the learning curve is steep. It took me some time before I was able to familiarize myself with the menus – finding the around-view monitor and off-road menus meant pulling over and digging into the system. The experience would have been better if it was just through a single touch of a button. Going through the rotary menu of drive modes wasn’t seamless, either. There was substantial latency and the knob felt cheap, spoiling the overall experience.

The biggest problem with this digital setup, at least while I was off-roading, was the fact that the rear differential lock is clustered within the infotainment screen. Granted, the control on the outgoing model was also digital, but the arrangement was better before when a physical diff lock button was clustered together with the shift-on-the-fly 4WD modes. For the more traditional crowd, the new setup would be a point of contention and could potentially raise questions.

Thank heavens Ford chose to separate the dual-zone HVAC controls onto a cluster of buttons and knobs, which allows for a no-look operation even whilst driving. The 360-degree camera also has one of the clearest (and most accurate) displays I’ve seen so far – something that was quite useful during the off-road course.

Conquering Ranger-Ville

Speaking of the off-road course, Ford prepared a manmade area hundreds of miles away from Phuket in the province of Krabi to showcase the Ranger’s reinvigorated off-road prowess. Ranger-Ville, as Ford dubbed it, consisted of steep rocky slopes, a water-wading traverse, slippery muddy trails, knee-deep ruts, rocky crawls, and very loose sand.

Basically, Ford wanted us to go over everything but snow, which should be all covered by the preset drive modes of the truck, namely Normal, Eco, Tow/Haul, Slippery, Mud/Ruts, and Sand. These modes adjust everything depending on the parameters, including the transmission, throttle response, traction and stability controls, braking, and more.

The adjustments on the Ranger’s track and wheelbase allow for better parameters in relation to off-roading. The approach angle has been increased to 30 degrees (up from 28.5 degrees) and rear departure angle improved to 23 degrees (up from 21 degrees).

On the steep slopes, the Ranger’s hill descent control took the center stage. The downhill drop was controlled and didn’t feel unsafe, plus the 360-degree camera helped in maneuvering through the rather narrow passageway. The improved approach angle was also showcased here as I didn’t feel any instance of the front underbody scraping during the encounter.

The Ranger proved it’s at home on dirt more than ever with the help of technology.

The water-wading course was unsurprisingly a cinch, given that the Ranger can handle depths up to 2.6 feet. The manmade lake, in my estimate, was only around 1.5 to 2 feet.

On the slippery tracks, which were extra slippery given the intermittent rains, we went to Snow/Slippery mode, allowing variable torque distribution among all four wheels depending on the slippage. I felt the tail slide out a bit but it was controlled and a rather fun encounter, despite having trees in close proximity. Same with the deep ruts, rocky crawls, and very loose sand tracks; the Ranger proved it’s at home on dirt more than ever with the help of technology.

Ian Foston, the T6’s chief platform engineer, said that the Ranger can go over the off-road course without the help of the preset drive modes, and I believe him. On our way back to Phuket, we were surprised with another course consisting of everything we experienced in the Ranger-Ville, albeit, in natural occurrence. I didn’t use any of the drive modes, instead just switching from 4H and 4L, as well as toggling the diff lock on and off as needed. The 360-degree camera played a major role in finishing the job, considering that it was my first time driving on the right-hand side of a vehicle, more so, on an advanced off-road trail.

Refined Ride And More Confident Handling

After the dirt tracks, we went on to a long drive through the mountains of Krabi and onto the stretches of Phang Nga highway to get back to Phuket. The unforgiving weather continued, which made the traverse on winding roads extra dangerous.

The Ranger was easy to maneuver through the twisties of Krabi. Given my inexperience in right-hand side driving, the lane centering function, which can detect the edge of the road, was my guide. The steering felt firm and decisive as well, promoting more confidence even through the tight corners of the mountain pass.

But what the Ranger gains in refinement, it lacked in oomph and grunt.

On the highway and on provincial roads, I felt the Ranger’s ride refinement. It now holds a candle to the segment frontrunner, the Nissan Navara, in terms of overall comfort. It was plush for a body-on-frame truck, while roll through corners was predictable and progressive in how it arrived. The ride was car-like, as many journos used to say.

But what the Ranger gains in refinement, it lacked in oomph and grunt. The Ranger Wildtrak I tested was powered by a bi-turbo 2.0-liter inline-four EcoBlue diesel engine, good for 210 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. There were moments when I had to overtake to keep up with the convoy, only to be met with a feeling of wanting more pull from the rear wheels. I felt the truck’s 5,000-pound weight during these attempts, which took a toll on the otherwise already powerful four-pot oil-burner.

The silver lining here was that the 10-speed automatic transmission didn’t have any shift shock, while the outgoing model’s tendency to fumble over the gears has been eliminated. I appreciate the more civilized drive, but I wish there was more when I needed it most.

Setting The Bar Higher

I can’t deny that the improvements on the latest Ford Ranger are met with relative success.
Shortcomings notwithstanding, it sets the bar higher for its rivals – in terms of refinement, driving dynamics, off-road prowess, and technological advancements. Ford now has work to do in making the in-cabin technology connive more seamlessly to complete the package. I wish I could say the same for the lackluster mid- to high-range grunt from the 2.0-liter diesel power plant.

Then again, there’s the availability of a V6 turbodiesel Ford Ranger in select markets such as Australia, which should be good for 247 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. As to the other markets that will get this top-spec engine, that’s still a mystery.

For the US and Canada, the new Ranger is all but confirmed at this point. A Ford representative refused to give me a specific timeline when asked, dismissing the conversation with its standard response on future products.

But an educated guess tells us that the North American market will get this version of the truck (with some changes to accommodate crash standards) at a later date given that the current model was just introduced in 2019. It’s now just a question of when. The US will likely get the same 2.3-liter EcoBoost gasoline engine bound for the Middle East and currently featured in the current North American Ranger, which is good for 298 hp and 333 lb-ft of torque. But there are a lot of things under consideration, including an Ranger EV co-developed with Volkswagen. 

What’s clear after this test, though, is that the new Ranger is smarter and more capable, particulalry when it comes to going off road. That should make it an even more popular offering for customers in Asia, Europe, and yes, North America.

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