While other compact pickup trucks have sold well--the Tacoma arguably has given Ford the strongest run for its money--the evergreen Ranger just keeps ticking along, providing vast amounts of utility in a wide range of styles and prices. Because Ford has been building the Ranger for so long (since 1983), you'll see one on just about every used-car lot in America.
Ford had a good thing going with the previous-generation (1993-1997) Ranger, despite its telephone-booth appearance and agrarian demeanor. With stiffer competition coming from Japan and a new Dakota from Dodge, Ford preemptively upped the ante. The 1998 Ranger received a host of improvements, including a larger standard cab (three inches longer), larger base engine (2.5 liters instead of 2.3), new four-wheel-drive system, new front suspension (replacing the twin I-beams), and carefully massaged sheetmetal that was less cube-like, but nonetheless recognizable as a Ranger.
Perhaps one of the Ranger's true strengths--one not shared with the mechanically identical Mazda B-Series--is the number of configurations. There are two cab sizes, standard cab and SuperCab, the latter also available with an extra set of rear-hinged doors for improved access. Two- and four-wheel drive are available for any configuration. There are myriad option and trim-level packages, two bed lengths (6- and 7-foot) for standard-cab models, and three engine options for every year.
It's the engine choice that'll most define the Ranger experience. Owners describe the base 117-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder as barely adequate, but it gets decent mileage. Up to 2001, the middle engine was a 145-horse, 3.0-liter V-6 that was a flexible-fuel design. It came standard on 4x4 models. The top pick is a 4.0-liter OHV V-6 initially rated at 158 horsepower. Transmission choices include five-speed manuals and four-speed automatics across the board except for the 4.0-liter, which received a class-first five-speed automatic.
For the 2001 model year, Ford updated the driveline options, switching to a more powerful SOHC engine from the Explorer. Power jumped to 207 horsepower with an excellent 238 pound-feet of torque. The Ranger could be had with a five-speed manual or automatic. At the same time, Ford swapped the old four-banger for a DOHC 2.3-liter I-4 with a respectable 135 ponies. In 2003, the base and middle engines got an eight-horsepower boost.
Not a lot changed in the chassis. ABS became standard in 2001, yet the Ranger retained the front-disc/rear-drum setup. All Rangers of this period ride on one of three wheelbases: 125.7 inches for the SuperCab, 117.5 for the longbed standard cab, and 111.6 for the shortbed standard cab. That measurement says a lot about the Ranger's highway ride, which can be choppy on smaller versions of the truck. Long-wheelbase SuperCabs are fine over most roads, however. Don't expect the Ranger to have F-150-like refinement. It doesn't.
Owners praise the Ranger for what it is: an inexpensive trucklet with a host of options that can be taken to near-luxury levels. From a reliability perspective, maintenance issues are scattered across the board. We found several mentions of transmission troubles, particularly with the five-speed automatic, and notations of early clutch replacement. (It'll pay to inspect those parts and records carefully when looking at a potential purchase.) Owners typically praise the truck's performance with the larger engines. You can't have everything, it's true, but the Ranger, more than most, does offer a wide range of appeal for trucklet buyers.
By Marc Cook