If you're a fan of heading bush, towing stuff about or getting lost on your very own adventure, you'll need a set of wheels up to the task. We test drove the 2014 Ford Ranger, and it combines smart technology with rugged science to get you from point-A to point-B, allowing you to drive over just about anything in your way.
The Ranger is the new ute from Ford, and from our tests, the damn thing is a tough beast to kill.
You've got a choice of 2.2- and 3.2-litre engines in your Ranger, as well as a choice of 4x2, 4x4 and the premium 4x4 Wildtrak drivetrain. Ford throws just about any cab or tray you could want on the Ranger, and sells them in around 160 countries around the world. To put it in perspective, there are 23 different configurations of Ranger (with only two of them packing petrol-powered engines over diesel).
The Ranger will also tow up to 3.5 tonnes of stuff about with the 6-speed manual configuration. Plus, the new Ford Rangers have 5-Star ANCAP Safety ratings, which is important if Ford wants them to be used on mining sites as well as off the beaten track.
There's also a choice of options like cruise-control, heated seats, a 3.5-inch, 4.20-inch or 5-inch display, Bluetooth with Voice Control, satnav, USB integration and more.
Those options might not give you the respect of the old-fashioned four-wheel drivers, however, but the joke will likely be on them at the end of the day. According to some, four-wheel driving is meant to be a tough slog. There's a perception in the 4WD-ing community that if you aren't covered with sweat, dirt and mud after digging your car out a handful of times, you haven't done it right. There's also a perception that technology has no place out in the field where roads don't exist and normal cars fear to tread. The Ranger, however, disagrees with both of these assertions: it wants to make your drive smooth, and wants to use technology so you barely have to do a thing.
The new Hill Descent Assist feature on the 2014 Ranger, for example, is less of an assist and more of a "move over human, let the robot drive". Once you've engaged the Hill Descent Assist and the low-range gearbox, sophisticated software takes over to read the road surface, allowing you to take your feet off both the brake and the clutch (provided you're in a manual) as you go down the hill.
From there, the car takes over the revs and the braking by firing the automatic hydraulic system and uses the four-wheel drive ABS system which brakes each wheel on its own to get you down the bottom of the hill with no drama, and no input from you when it comes to the pedals.
The HDC is the stand-out feature on the Ranger, given the fact that it can take on damn-near vertical descents without you having to touch anything (provided you've calibrated it correctly before you went over).
It's also a shockingly smooth ride on savage terrain. The suspension travel is so intense that you think the Ranger is on the precipice of bending your axle over deep potholes, but instead, it just deals with the surface disappearing beneath your tyres, and smooths out the bumps when the rubber eventually returns to Earth. We went over some intense potholes before plunging down a terrifyingly steep hill, and not only did the HDC take over to set our minds at ease, the suspension software anticipated the wheels crashing back into the dirt and smoothed out the impact considerably, to the point that we had to get out and double-check the wheel had actually left the ground while executing the manoeuvre.
The only real problem with the Ranger that we found in our hands-on is that it's so capable, it gives you a weird sense of overconfidence. After having the car do most of the driving for me for the day -- from smoothing out the bumps, stabilising the suspension and driving me down complicated hills -- it filled me with a sense of power. "I am the master of the dirt!" I thought. "Nature bows before me!" I laughed as a looked ahead to the next obstacle.
My thoughts of driving invincibility were immediately dashed when said obstacle turned out to be a bit steeper than I had anticipated, causing me to abruptly crunch my way down into a small river bed. Dammit.
I had been going much too fast for the terrain, simply because I thought the car was bullet-proof, and most of all, idiot-proof. But alas: I am the idiotic monkey behind the wheel of a car, trundling through an environment I stopped respecting for a split-second. No matter what you're driving, you never stop respecting the terrain. Having said all that, I'd rather make a mistake in the Ranger than anything else: it's tough as nails.
At one point, the Wildtrak's optional-extra side-steps were gouged on a particularly sharp hill turn. They caught on the terrain as the car plunged down a short, sharp, 40-degree slope, clouting the steps on the way through. Not great. After the car was down another few hills, however, we simply stepped out, gave it a few swift kicks and she was right as rain. Something tells me that if anything else went wrong on the Ranger in the wild, all you'd need is a hammer and bit of know-how to get yourself out of trouble.
Despite the fact that the Ranger isn't actually put together in Australia, Ford's so-called 'global truck' couldn't be as good as it is without the land Down Under. Ford's boffins were instrumental in the design of the Ranger, putting it through its paces in some of the harshest conditions known to man, found only in Australia. The harsh Aussie outback made the Ranger the truck it is today.
Disclosure: Ford flew me from Sydney to Melbourne for the day to drive the new Ranger.