Article originally published in May 2013 issue of 4X4 Australia.
THE dual-cab ute, once only a work-ready commercial prospect, is now a multi-function, family-friendly, fun-seeking off-road rig. Choosing the best fit for your needs is all about balance and compromise for optimal work and play.
You also need to decide if your ute will stay in its OEM skin or whether there are sufficient aftermarket accessories to take your new toy to the required level of off-road performance.
When John Ludlam from ARB’s head office in Perth called me to say the lads had just finished putting the final touches on their new Ford Ranger dual-cab tourer, I was keen to take a closer look. I wanted to see what had made the cut to improve the capability and appeal of this popular mining workhorse and what it offered to private buyers.
The Ranger is a formidable vehicle. There’s accommodation for five adults, with acceptable head- and legroom, and an interior design that embraces tough truck visual appeal but offers comfortable, supportive seats and good visibility. The creature comforts also fall easily to hand.
A punchy 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel – albeit a little rough at idle – with the optional six-speed auto is the preferred option over the manual to exploit the engine’s torque characteristics. Given a respectable payload of 1000kg and a deep long tub the base product ticks all of the practicality boxes.
Modified rigs take it to the next level as an extension of the owner’s style and personality. With the Ranger, ARB has spent considerable time and effort to ensure its products match and complement original OEM standards and quality. The colour-coded bullbar gives the Ranger a purposeful, muscular stance, further enhancing the Ford’s square jaw-line, as opposed to its kissing cousin, the BT-50. The bar has solid steel construction, quality welds with improved structural integrity at critical points, finished in the same Ford blue colour. With optional side-steps and rails, there’s additional protection to underbody doorsills and front quarter guards.
The rear step, encompassing a hitch rated to the Ranger’s tow capacity, will help minimise damage to rear panels and tailgate. It also provides a stepping point, covered in alloy chequerplate, to reach gear stored on top of the smooth-skinned canopy on the roof-rack. A set of Intensity LED driving lights and new snorkel design complete the aesthetics. But beauty is only skin deep – we wanted to know how the mods would improve the Ranger’s capability as a serious tourer.
The Old Man Emu (OME) suspension was the first aspect to be scrutinised. In standard guise, despite its commercial pedigree, the Ranger demonstrates predictable on-road dynamics, offering a relaxed ride that soaks up most blacktop irregularities without jarring your back. Nicely weighted steering and a flat stance in all but the most enthusiastic cornering, it’s not a bad base from which to start.
In town, the OME suspension gives nothing away in terms of original road-holding and – cornering comfort – it actually fills in the gaps and irons out the minor irregularities for an even smoother ride. The OME development team has even provided different suspension options. Rather than a one-size-fits-all scenario, you can tailor your suspension set-up to intended loads and terrain to be travelled.
Front spring rates have subtle increases over original units; our test vehicle has them matched for carrying a bullbar and winch. Where the OME suspension particularly gains in ride quality is in the development and tuning of the strut configuration, which offers an extra 25mm of travel with improved shock-absorber control across changing terrain. Overall ride height is bumped up by 50mm.
There are three leaf-spring options for the tail-end, from light to medium loads with supple ride comfort, to the heavier 300 and 600kg constant load springs. If running the heavier units, the matched greasable shackles and U-bolts are a worthy investment. Despite the Ranger’s sizable GVM, a further GVM upgrade is under development.
Punting around sweeping country bends, the vehicle’s ride control over dips and rises is markedly improved, significantly reducing the twitchiness that is characteristic of unladen utes. While the rear bar, canopy, roof-rack and fridge packed with goodies added a little downward load, we suspect the improvements in control offered by the OME’s calibrated spring and shock set-up would become even more evident after adding in the real-world weight of mum, dad, kids, camping, fishing and recovery gear, plus hooking up a camper-trailer.
Twisting up the Ranger over embankments, gullies and rocky outcrops we needed every one of the extra 25mm in travel. With articulation at its limit and steep turns covered in ball-bearing gravel, the Ranger’s rear diff lock was engaged on more than one occasion.
Watching the suspension from the outside as it was being compressed, then fully extended, was interesting. Dealing with torturous angles as we picked a path through rocky outcrops confirmed the breadth of control achieved off-road, without sacrificing well-mannered on-road handling.
The additional underbody protection plates provide reassurance over rough terrain where large jagged rocks are happy to act as nature’s impromptu can openers for sumps and transmission oil pans.
With bodywork protection and handling sorted, what about touring practicalities? Drop a canopy on most utes and you’ve got a covered storage area that will dwarf most wagons for volume. But, unless you enjoy unloading everything to get to the bottom of the pile, a set of cargo drawers to stow important gear that can be easily accessed is a must. The Ranger’s deep, long tub means the double drawers are cavernous. After mounting a large fridge on the slide and packing standard recovery gear into one drawer, there was so much room left that the gear looked rather sparse – not a bad problem to have when packing for a big trip.
The new Outback drawers are modular, providing several different options depending on the gear you want to carry. Their operation is smooth, and the easy-grip, positive locking handles will be a benefit when the drawers are fully loaded. We also appreciate the “don’t chop your fingers off” cut-out in the top of each drawer.
The canopy has load-bearing framework on the inside, allowing the roof-rack to be mounted up top. This particular roof-rack had mesh flooring, ideal to strap down lighter gear, such as a swag, canvas clothes bag or roof-top tent – because the roof-rack is open at the front and rear (no bars), longer items can be stowed with the addition of front roof bars on the vehicle. We’d choose easy-release bars to remove when not required, as you may notice wind noise from the bars above the cab. The rack is positioned well back on the canopy, helping to minimise noise intrusion in the cabin. The canopy can be optioned with sliding or lift-up side windows for easy access, with security mesh installed if needed.
The quick set-up awning is child’s play for one person, and the storage bag easily unzips and peels over backwards to stay out of the way. Unfold the canvas, drop down the pivoting support legs and tension bars and – presto – cool shade to enjoy a comfortable lunch break.
Diesels have more frugal drinking habits, but the need to carry extra fuel for extended trips away can be a challenge. The Long Ranger tank installed in our test vehicle is the larger of two options available. The 150-litre model increased carrying capacity by 88 per cent and we found it didn’t impact on the vehicle’s ramp-over angle when cresting hill climbs. There’s also a smaller 132-litre version – offering a 65 per cent increase over standard – which finishes flush with the base of the chassis for those buyers who prefer maximum clearance.
The importance of clean, dry air for a diesel can never be underestimated. A snorkel is a logical addition if you’re likely to be travelling on sandy and dusty gravel tracks, or know your adventures will include plenty of water crossings. Safari has crafted a design to exceed the airflow needs of the 3.2-litre donk. The body is a durable, thick-walled, UV-stable polyethylene material, with brass inserts to secure it to the vehicle. Its unusual potbelly design adds a curved look not often found in boxy snorkels. But, apparently, it’s all about creating effective airflow, not following vehicle curves or making a new fashion statement.
Safari suggested the ram will help separate water if driving in a heavy downpour. Given the heat wave experienced in Perth at the time of testing, there was no way we’d get the chance to test that claim. However, we did find the ram effective at catching clean air after several hours on very dry gravel roads heavily coated in a fine, talcum powder-like dust.
The standard Ford Ranger is a solid performer in a sea of dual-cab variants. Drive one for any length of time and you quickly grow accustomed to its well-mannered persona. Like those comfy hiking boots or your favourite denim, it’s just easy to live with.
ARB’s Ranger is a good example of what can be achieved when setting up a dual-cab for touring, with well-chosen accessories properly matched to the recipient vehicle and fit for the driver’s intended use.