I agree. The roads in Mpumalanga are legendary. There’s just one little problem; we’re hurtling along in Ford’s new, noticeably larger, Ranger bakkie. Not quite the first choice to chuck at a great set of twisties.
Local journalists are in the Nelspruit region to drive the all-new Ranger, a bakkie designed in Australia but built in Silverton, near Pretoria, for export to 148 countries. That’s huge, almost as huge as this bakkie, looking more like a big American pick-up than the one-tonners we’re accustomed to in South Africa – and it’s a welcome change.
The "all-new Ranger" is a leap forward for Ford with its all-new exterior design, new interior and a new range of power trains that have reduced CO2 emissions all round. Dean Stoneley, Ford SA’s vice-president for marketing, sales and service, proclaims "only thing the same is the name”.
Ford has unashamedly sniffed out the best attributes of its fiercest competitors to produce a bakkie it says doesn’t skimp on the details. It’s claimed to be bigger, more refined, safer - it is, after all, the first bakkie to achieve a five-star rating in the EuroNCAP assessment.
Its 4x4 models have more ground clearance, a deeper fording height (800mm) and best-in-class towing ability - a staggering 3350kg. It’s twice as rigid as the outgoing Ranger. It’s Ford’s super bakkie and it comes at a great price.
The SA model line-up is comprehensive: 23 derivatives thanks to a choice of three engines, three body configurations, three transmissions, two or all-wheel drive and a number of trim levels to fill the gaps in the previous Ranger range. There are only two options – a "safety pack" (R5300) and metallic paint (R750).
The engine range comprises a 2.2 Duratorq TDCi four-cylinder available in two states of tune (88kW/285Nm or 110kW/375Nm), a 3.2 Duratorq TDCi five-cylinder with 147kW/470Nm on tap and a 2.5 Duratec four-cylinder capable of 122kW/226Nm.
I didn't get a chance to sample it but the six-speed automatic, from what I was able to gather, is rather useful. The six-speed manual I drove came with either the 2.2 or 3.2 engine, was easy to shift and manoeuvre, and has with a handy "time to change gear" indicator.
RADICAL: The Ranger Wildtrak tackles a river crossing.
Though Ford is pushing a homogenous global identity the new Ranger heavily references the company’s North American trucks such as the F-150 that has for decades been the market leader in the US, a fact of which the Blue Oval people are incredibly proud. The three-bar grille is a signature of that model and has been duly incorporated into the Ranger's design.
The upright grille and front bumper is echoed in the Ranger’s high belt line and pronounced wheel arches. A neat design touch is a side vent that can be removed to attach a snorkel.
The Ranger’s safety quotient has been beefed up with a honeycomb bonnet lining for the best energy dispersion should a pedestrian's head hit it; the door structure, 42% stronger, incorporates pressure sensors that work in conjunction with the Ranger’s accelerometers for faster deployment of the side air bags. The ESP comes with off-road logic to detect when the bakkie is being driven on a broken surfaces or the system can be partly switched off in 4x4 models.
It may be a sexy bakkie but technology featured high on Ford’s list of priorities when it was developed. Smart technology features include trailer sway and rollover mitigation, launch assist, hill-descent control, shift (into 4x4) on the fly, a rear-view camera, Bluetooth with voice recognition, driver recognition technology and a "battery monitoring system" - brake regeneration, if you please.
I was quite keen to try out Ford's novel approach to hill-descent control but took a trundle across the Riverwild 4x4 course in a 2.2 4x4 sans the system. For this system to work, you apparently stick the gearshift into neutral at the top of a steep decline, engage hill descent, liberate all the pedals and go, enabling the Ranger to do the braking for you.
Simply use the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel to speed up or slow down. However, driving a model not equipped with this technology, the good old brake pedal worked just as well…
And it’s as decent off-road as on. The Ranger’s display of traction on the slippery stuff was quite impressive – ambling over slopes and obstacles - and its approach to scary angles and daunting gradients rather reassuring. The ride quality, generally, is quite comfortable for a bakkie. A quick glance at the fascia may trick you into thinking you’re in a car and the level of refinement in the cabin is undoubtedly high, but it remains a bakkie.
There is, however, an element of ruggedness in the ride quality to remind you that you’re in a bakkie, not a sedan. It does, after all, still ride on a ladder-frame chassis suspended at the front by a coil-over-strut arrangement and leaf springs at the rear. The ride is comfortable, though, leaving little to complain about when whizzing through the countryside or hobbling through brush and over rocks.
CUBBY FOR A LAPTOP
LAP OF LUXURY: Ranger's comfortable interior is passenger car-like.
The wheelbase has grown to 3220mm for this model and front and rear tracks have been increased for a wider stance and also to increase passenger comfort inside the cabin. Leg room, particularly in the double-cab models, is impressive.
There are also more nooks in which to stow stuff, such as the lockable cubby big enough to swallow a laptop, generous cup and bottle holders, underfloor bins and nooks behind the seats. It’s quiet in there, too, with hardly any wind, road or engine noise making its way into the cabin; another quality that featured high on Ford's Ranger to-do list.
All-in-all, the Ranger makes an attractive prospect and while it's not likely to threaten the dominance of Toyota's Hilux, Ford has VW's newcomer, the Amarok, firmly in its sights.
Should be interesting; let the sparring begin.
2.5 Base LR 5MT - R174 000
2.5 XL LR 5MT - R193 400
2.5 XL Hi-Trail 5MT - R205 600
2.2 LP Base LR 5MT - R184 400
2.2 LP XL LR 5MT - R204 700
2.2 LP XL HR 5MT - R217 700
2.2 LP XL 4x4 5MT - R262 900
2.2 XLS HR 6MT - R251 100
2.2 HP XLS 4x4 6MT - R296 300
2.5 XL HR 5MT - R228 000
2.2 HP HR 6MT - R251 200
3.2 XLS HR 6MT - R323 900
3.2 XLS 4x4 6MT - R370 300
3.2 XLS 4x4 6AT - R380 200
2.5 XL HR 5MT - R259 400
2.2 HP XL 6MT - R272 300
2.2 HP XLS 6MT - R319 200
2.2 HP XLS 4x4 6MT - R364 400
3.2 XLT HR 6MT - R380 400
3.2 XLT HR 6AT - R391 500
3.2 XLT 4x4 MT - R426 900
3.2 XLT 4x4 6AT - R436 700
3.2 Wildtrak 4x2 6MT - R402 600