AS the double-cab mid-size ute market continues to flourish, vehicle manufacturers are rushing to introduce models at the upper end of the price range – as this is where the most money is to be made and where the models are that buyers are wanting.
It’s no longer the case that a simple Ranger Wildtrak or Hilux SR5 will feed the greed; buyers’ want more and are prepared to pay for it. $60K and up is where the 4x4 ute market booms and where the manufacturers like to be selling their utes.
Now these manufacturers are only too keen to load their products up with faux-leather seats, larger diameter alloy wheels, plastic bolt-on accessories, gaudy stickers and a swathe of other goods that allow the car companies to charge more for the cars, but don’t really do anything to improve the driving experience of the vehicle. Buyers are still flocking to aftermarket accessory manufacturers to get gear that actually makes the cars better and the OEMs are missing out on their dollars.
One OEM that has got it right is Ford Australia, its Ranger Raptor a hit with its bespoke suspension and extra kit, but those features made it a stand-alone model and a pricey one at that. Still, the price hasn’t stopped buyers from snapping up the off-road ready Raptors.
Now Ford is taking some of that technology developed by Ford Performance for the Raptor and trickling it down to lower priced variants to make it more accessible to more buyers.
Welcome to the Ford Ranger FX4 MAX, a new variant to the Ranger line-up that borrows from the Raptor’s styling and employs some of its suspension technology, while also addressing some of the limitations that kept the Raptor off the shopping lists of some buyers.
We’ve lined it up here with the top-of-the-range model of the new kid on the block, Isuzu’s D-MAX X-Terrain. At $62,900 the X-Terrain is priced to compete with the $63,290 Ranger Wildtrak, but we look to find out if its worth the extra few grand to step up to better mechanical components than just bling and add-ons.
FORD RANGER FX4-MAX
AT $65,940 the Ford’s latest Ranger slots in between the 2.0-litre-powered XLT and Wildtrak double-cab models in the existing line-up. It pays tribute to the Raptor range-topper with its borrowed grille and the availability of the previously exclusive to Raptor Conquer Grey paint colour but the FX4 MAX is more than a Raptor-lite styling exercise, it’s what’s under the skin that makes it special.
The FX4 MAX is more than a Raptor-lite styling exercise, it’s what’s under the skin that makes it special
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
THE Ranger FX4 MAX is only offered with the small 2.0-litre diesel engine and 10-speed auto transmission option and not the larger 3.2-litre diesel and manual gearbox offered elsewhere in the Ranger line-up. This is not totally a bad thing as the 2.0L makes a peak 500Nm of torque at 2000rpm as opposed to the bigger engine’s best of 470Nm, and is more economical.
As we’ve said in previous tests of Rangers with this powertrain, the 2.0L feels like it is working harder to make that grunt while the 3.2L does it lazily and the smaller engine needs every one of those 10 ratios in its transmission to keep the Ranger moving forward.
For its part, the 10-speed is generally smooth and efficient but it can get a bit lost between gears at times, especially at part or varying throttle applications. The tuning of the throttle itself could also be improved on, as it is slow to react requiring a fair amount of input to get the car moving from a standstill and then lunges forward requiring you to immediately back off. This is one car that would really benefit from an aftermarket throttle controller or even an OE one like Toyota fits to the Hilux.
The remainder of the drivetrain is standard 4x4 ute fare; part-time dual-range four-wheel drive with a driver-selectable locking rear differential. As in other Ranger models, the electronic traction control remains active on the front axle when the RDL is activated to give the car the best chance at getting over difficult terrain.
ON-ROAD RIDE & HANDLING
THE Ranger FX4 MAX’s best parts are in its chassis tuning and while primarily designed to improve off-road and gravel-road performance, they are equally as impressive on the blacktop.
The model-specific calibrated springs – coils up front and leafs under the back – and two-inch monotube Fox shock absorbers work with a thinner front swaybar to better control the body movement over any surface. This is a good thing for both performance and safety as the driver is more relaxed and less fatigued over longer drives.
The all-terrain tyres and 31mm taller ride height (over an XLT Ranger) do nothing for the dynamics and on-road traction, but these factors are more than tamed by the quality suspension components.
FORD’S PX2 Ranger has always been one of the better performing mid-size 4x4 utes when taken off road and the Raptor variant is arguably the best. With its better equipped and calibrated suspension, increased ride height and BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres, the FX4 MAX lies somewhere in-between the Raptor and the standard varieties, so is still near the top of the class.
Those Fox shocks, while not the full internal by-pass dampeners as fitted to the Raptor, provide that much appreciated control over the roughest terrain, the extra height gives ground clearance while the tyres supply traction and more importantly, durability. The rear Fox shocks are the remote-reservoir type for long duration of off-road pounding without fade.
Ford also fitted hydraulic rebound stops front and rear to increase large amplitude control without compromising on-road comfort. The specs of the springs allow more axle travel as does the smaller diameter front sway bar. The way Ford allows the ETC to remain active across the front axle when the RDL is engaged gives the best tractive ability short of front and rear lockers.
A couple of off-road negatives include the design of the FX4 MAX-specific side-steps which instead of being one long step, have two separate steps along their length, giving you twice as many edges to get hung up on. Also, the way the 2.0L engine draws its intake air from above the off-side headlight instead of inside the ’guard as the 3.2L does, makes it more susceptible to sucking in water on creek crossings.
CABIN & ACCOMMODATION
THE Ranger’s cabin has always been a nice place to ride and drive and the FX4 MAX is treated to a few dress-ups such as suede-trimmed seats with model-specific stitching, a thick leather-wrapped steering wheel, sports pedals for the driver and all-weather floor mats.
A unique inclusion and something we’d like to see filter through to other Rangers, is the auxiliary switch panel that sits high on the dash for all your accessories such as lights, fridges, winch and whatever else you need switches for. The Ranger’s dash is notably lacking in anywhere to put extra switch gear, so this would be great to offer as a retro-fit accessory itself. To help power additional accessories, the FX4 MAX gets an uprated 250amp alternator.
A few things we don’t like – still no reach adjustment for the steering column, the buttons for the HVAC are still small and dark, and those new side-steps are so wide you have to step over them each time you get in and out of the car.
THE big positive to the FX4 MAX’s uprated suspension is that unlike the Raptor, this car retains it 3500kg towing capacity and 981kg payload thanks to its use of leaf springs under the back.
The cargo tub is nice and big to carry that load with tie-downs in the corners and a 12-volt power outlet fitted, but the so-called sports bar does nothing but get in the way when trying to access or load from the sides of the vehicle.
The $700 optional stripe package as fitted to this vehicle failed to make the car any faster even though the stripes are red!
The 265/70-17 BFG All Terrains are a common size if you need to change them and will do for most users. The spare is a matching BFG as well. All-weather floor mats are a welcome inclusion, while the 800mm quoted wading depth is handy although we’re still wary of that air-intake location.
ISUZU D-MAX X TERRAIN
ISUZU’S all-new D-MAX ute has been a hit since it landed in Australia back in September 2020, so much so that supply has had trouble keeping up with demand. That said, it’s now a regular among the top 10 selling 4x4s in the country and this shows no signs of slowing down.
The D-MAX X-Terrain caps the four-model line-up and all of them are powered by the same drivetrain and include the full suite of safety features. It’s only the level of comfort and convenience, and appearance features that vary across the range and at $62,900, the X-Terrain has the lot of them.
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
AS mentioned, all D-MAXes get the same powertrain, so that means the venerable 4JJ engine which in this latest iteration has a new engine block, cylinder head, pistons, fuel injection system and turbocharger; is essentially a new power plant but hopefully will retain the legendary dependability of this family of engines. These changes boost the engine with an extra 10kW and 20Nm to deliver 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm from 1400 through to 3250rpm.
The performance still falls below the 500Nm as delivered by the Ford engine and you feel this behind the wheel no matter the terrain. It might feature many new parts but this still feels like an older generation of diesel engine compared to the class leaders.
The 6-speed auto is the latest generation of that box by Aisin and as always, offers nothing to complain about. The 4x4 system is part-time with low-range and new to the D-MAX’s drivetrain, is a driver-actuated rear diff lock where none had been fitted in the past.
ON-ROAD RIDE & HANDLING
WITH a new chassis and redesigned suspension the latest D-MAX is a big step up in ride and handling over the previous generation. It still follows the tried and proven formula of IFS with coils up front and leaf springs over a live axle at the back, but fresh calibrations and mountings set it apart.
Isuzu offers two different spring settings in the D-MAX with firmer leaves under the two lower-spec ones and softer springs under the upper-spec models like the X-Terrain here. The leaf packs are unusual in that they use only three leaves in them and in this X-Terrain, they seem to struggle a bit with taming the rear-end of the car; and this is without a load on board. The front-end feels better controlled, but it’s like the rear-end is something from another car altogether.
This big revelation when driving the D-MAX back-to-back with this Ranger is the massive difference a set of quality aftermarket shock absorbers can make to any vehicle.
The Isuzu’s heavy-hitting line-up of active safety features will be appealing to many buyers, and there’s no denying they can save lives and limit injury. However the calibration of the some of the self-steering and lane keeping features on the D-MAX is too extreme and negatively affects the drive on multi-lane and country roads.
THE biggest improvement to the D-MAX’s off-road ability is the inclusion of the RDL, even though its use cancels out the ETC in full so the front axle becomes a single spinner. The calibration of the ETC is still a bit slow, however it is better than that of the old model. A bit more wheel travel at the rear axle helps keep the tyres on the deck so as to not rely too heavily on the traction aids.
Short front and rear overhangs help with clearance and Isuzu quotes an 800mm wading depth for the D-MAX even though the air intake is located above the grille in a similar way to that on the 2.0L Rangers.
Driving on gravel roads is vastly improved over the previous D-MAX although that loose rear-end still requires the driver’s attention. Some of the electronic driver’s nannies can be annoying when driving off road, especially passing through long grass or water when all sorts of systems start to sound alarms.
CABIN & ACCOMMODATION
WITH the X-Terrain being the top-of-the-line D-MAX, it comes pretty well-loaded inside and the interior of all new D-MAXes are a step up from the old models in terms of fit and finish.
There are leather seats with power adjustment for the driver’s pew, no heating or cooling though; tilt and reach adjustment for the steering column; a big 9-inch AV screen with all the usual connections but it uses small buttons instead of tactile dials for controls; climate control; adaptive cruise control (which is only an option on the FX4 MAX); and a suite of electronic safety features that put the D-MAX at the head of the mid-size LCV class.
All up, the new D-MAX cabin is a nicer place to ride and drive than it ever was in the past, particularly in the two upper-spec models.
ALL 4x4 D-MAXes get the class standard 3500kg towing capacity and in this top-spec’d (read heaviest) X-Terrain, maintains a 970kg payload. The tub is spacious and includes a roller hard cover. These cars will be great for security and weather protection but can also be a hindrance, depending on what you’re carrying.
The sail-plane is exclusive to the X-Terrain but serves no purpose and is for styling only and it too can get in the way when loading the tub. There are four tie-down points in the tub but no 12-volt power outlet. The 800mm wading depth and 18-inch wheels are standard, although you can fit 17s as specified on lower-spec models if desired.
THERE’S no denying that Australian ute buyers prefer a bit of kit on their mid-size pickups and are happy to pay for it, but choosing between these two mid-$60K high-spec examples comes down to your personal preferences. Do you want to spend the extra dollars on equipment that improves the driving performance over any terrain but especially off road, or are you happy to spend it on superfluous styling features?
Ford Australia has done another exceptional job of improving the suspension of its Ranger with changes made for the FX4 MAX. The Fox dampeners work beautifully to control body movement on any road surface and the tweaks to the springs and other suspension hardware supplement a worthwhile package for any new Ranger. It’s a factory package that will suffice for most ute owners, negating the need to fit aftermarket suspension and unlike the Ranger Raptor, maintains the payloads.
The new D-MAX is a step up from the previous model but still falls short on performance when compared with the market leading Ranger and Hilux. It claws back some points on paper with its class-leading safety features, however the calibration of some of those need some refining, especially when driving off road. The interior of the X-Terrain is a great place to travel and deserving of the top-grade model, however the suspension control still feels unsettled, especially when driven alongside a well-sorted package such as that in the FX4 MAX.
The lower list price of the X-Terrain would allow the buyer to source and fit an aftermarket suspension system to improve its control and the performance of the chassis in a similar way as Ford has done with the FX4 MAX but for our money, it would be the fully factory-backed Ford offering for us.
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