Ford Returns to Midsize-Pickup Game with 2019 Ranger

Ranger returns to Ford model range after an 8-year hiatus. (Ford)

The roads east of San Diego twist and rise through the mesa hills towards the Laguna Mountains, providing an ideal drive for any sports car, but Ford boldly chose these winding paths for the first drive impressions of its new midsize pickup with a familiar name, the 2019 Ranger. Gone is the previous model that languished for years while its full-sized brethren enjoyed the lion’s share of Ford’s product-development resources: the new-age Ranger re-enters the North American market as a midsize pickup ready to take on its competitors with class-leading capabilities, fuel economy and performance.

The 2019 Ford Ranger is produced in two cab configurations: 2-plus-2-door SuperCab and 4-door SuperCrew. (Ford)

According to Ford, pest-extermination company Orkin took delivery of the final compact Ranger that rolled off the assembly line in Arden Hills, Minnesota, in 2011. Outside of North America, the Ranger nameplate expanded into a wholly different midsize truck, based on the global T6 platform, to compete with vehicles like the Volkswagen Amarok and Toyota Hilux. But with an 80% growth explosion in the U.S. midsize-pickup market since 2014, Ford could no longer ignore its home customers asking for a smaller option to the F-150.

Ranger powertrain made unique for truck application

The 2019 Ranger was revealed nearly a year ago at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The company said the sole powertrain option would be the turbocharged 2.3-L EcoBoost 4-cyl. paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. This came as a surprise to many due the variety of 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder and diesel engine options available for other midsize trucks.

Ranger cabin displays mostly conventional styling, mixed with new driver-assist features. (Ford)
Ranger transfer-case control; the pickup features a new Trail Control system to automatically aid challenging off-road maneuvering. (Ford)

However, having that single engine option allowed Ford’s engineers to focus on efficiency improvements to provide claimed class-leading gasoline fuel economy of 26 mpg highway/21 mpg city and 23 mpg combined in real-wheel drive configurations. For four-wheel drive Rangers, economy drops slightly to 24 mpg highway, 20 mpg city and 22 mpg combined. The only midsize truck that bests those numbers is GM’s Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon with a 4-cyl. turbodiesel, an extra-cost engine upgrade.

The 2.3-L boosted engine is widespread in the Ford model range. For the 2019 Ranger, however, it’s seen a number of changes to make it more suitable for truck application, while also improving fuel economy and emissions. The fuel pump has been upgraded to a 250-bar (3626-psi) unit to handle higher-pressure direct injection. New pistons have been incorporated to increase the compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 10.1:1. The exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system is now liquid cooled and a dual-scroll turbocharger with an electronic wastage supplants the vacuum-acutated wastegate.

A surprising decision is the use of a mechanical fan instead of an electronic one found on most vehicles. A Ford engineer explained that the constant requirement for the fan to run in the off-road environment made a mechanical fan more applicable on the Ranger. The water pump has been moved to the front of the engine block for better cooling and easier access. A variable-displacement oil pump also is integrated —as well as the engine’s twin balance shafts—into the block. A new lightweight, forged-steel crankshaft features grooved bearings on the main journals but not the rod journals.

The 2019 Ranger body-on-frame chassis is based on the architecture of Ford's non-North American Ranger. (Ford)

While there were several changes made to the engine for the Ranger, the 10-speed automatic is essentially the same 10R80 unit used in the Mustang and F-150. First gear provides a ratio of 4.696:1 and tenth gear is set at an overdrive of 0.636:1. The rear-axle final drive is 3.73:1. The only difference between the transmission in the Ranger and the F-150 is the mounting-bolt profile on the bell housing, as the 2.3-L engine has a unique mounting pattern.

Meanwhile, the 2.3-L calibration is unique in the Ranger, here producing 270 hp at 5500 RPM and 310 lb·ft (420 N·m) at 3000 RPM. While these power numbers are down when compared to the Mustang, these rating are for 87-RON fuel rather than the 93-octane rating for the pony car. Ford representatives did confirm that the Ranger power numbers would be higher on 93-octane, but the company did not want to require premium fuel for truck owners.

Ranger chassis heavily revised

The Ranger's chassis was upgraded to handle the hefiter payload and towing capabilities U.S. buyers expect. (Ford)

Although the 2019 Ranger may look like the international truck that has been available since the domestic Ranger ended production, there have been significant updates made to the chassis for this new version. Ford engineers would not provide exact numbers for the extent of new chassis components, but they did confirm that the 2019 Ranger is not merely the non-North America T6 with a Mustang engine.

For one, they said, the frame mounts for the engine and transmission had to be updated, since this powertrain has never been an option on the truck. And the rear bed support structure saw significant upgrades to handle the increased payload and towing capacities that North American buyers demand; those updates led to a claimed best-in-class payload of 1860 lb (844 kg) and towing capacity of 7500 lb (3402 kg). While the diesel-powered Colorado and Canyon are tow-rated to 7700 lb (3493 kg), these capacities are available for all configurations of the Ranger.

Other small updates were made as well. The front steering knuckles are from forged aluminum rather than cast iron; this reduces the unsprung weight on the front tires for more responsive handling, engineers claim. The rear suspension is a Hotchkiss-type live axle with outboard shock absorbers to handle the increased capacities of the North American truck. Various other frame components were upgraded to high-strength steel.

However, many items did not change from the international truck. The wheelbase of 126.8 in (3221 mm), length of 210.8 in (5354 mm) and height around 71 in (1803 mm) are consistent with those of the T6 Ranger. While the North American truck will be built at the (Wayne) Michigan Assembly Plant, there remain multiple assembly plants around the world that will build the international versions. Keeping consistent the dimensions and hard mounts on the frame allows for obvious production-cost reductions and minimal assembly line variations and changes.

For the U.S. market, there are two cab configurations: a 2-door-plus-2 SuperCab with a 6-ft (1829-mm) bed and a 4-door SuperCrew with a 5-ft (1524-mm) bed.

Pavement performance not sacrificed for capability

Class-leading towing and payload help prove its worth as a truck, but Ford wants the 2019 Ranger to be a complete "lifestyle" vehicle that meets the differing needs of its owners.

“The customer for this truck really is somebody that is looking for a vehicle that will take them back and forth to work, park it in the garage at night, and they can go out and use it on their adventure,” said a Ford representative at the drive event. “It will take them and their gear out where they want to go, really a lifestyle-type vehicle.”

This helps explain why the first drive event was held on the roads outside of San Diego. Turn-in from the lightened front suspension was immediate and predictable and feedback from the front tires through the electrically-assisted power steering was more communicative than any of the Ranger’s competitors. While never letting the driver forget it is a truck, the Ford team has engineered the Ranger to drive more like a crossover—an attribute that owners who drive theirs daily will appreciate.

The 2.3-L turbo engine and 10-speed automatic proved to be an ideal match for the Ranger’s size. With peak torque coming at only 3000 RPM, there is plenty of pull out of corners or up hills to handle towing requirements. The only downside to the boosted engine is some lag below 2500 RPM, which is noticeable when pushing the vehicle hard. However, the multi-ratio transmission is well-calibrated to downshift when needed and helps hide this challenge. Overall, the powertrain seems well-suited—and well-tuned—for the 2019 Ranger application.

To display the off-road acumen of the Ranger, Ford also built on off-road course complete with hill climbs, steeply banked corners and even a mud bath. For owners who push their vehicles to the limit, the gauge cluster can display the truck’s roll and pitch angles. The 2019 Ranger feels just as confident off the road as it does on it, a testament to the balancing act many modern pickup truck owners demand.

The most telling off-road display was a direct comparison between the Ranger’s Trail Control system and the Toyota Tacoma’s Crawl Control over a set of tree logs. While both vehicles made it through the obstacles, the Tacoma’s system bounced the truck more considerably over the logs and sounded like it was struggling through the entire process. The Ranger steadily maneuvered over them with poise.

Owners who will use this system also will appreciate the variable speed control; Trail Control can be used with the driveline in either 4-Lo or 4-Hi, with speed increments of 0.5 mph in 4-Lo and 1 mph in 4-Hi.