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I remember my childhood days quite fondly. As an eight-year old, I was squished between my two big brothers, my small frame restrained only by the rudimentary lap belt provided by my mother's 190E. For hours and hours I'd sit there, acting as an armrest for my larger siblings. Sounds terrible, doesn't it?

Well no, not really. I used to love getting into the car, watching the scenery through the windscreen, wondering where we were and asking hundreds of questions about anything that aroused my curiosity. It may come as no surprise then, that at the age of 24, I still absolutely love road trips. The idea of taking a car onto the open road and absorbing all the sights and scenes is still immensely appealing.

So when the opportunity to do a road trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg came my way, I snatched it with both hands. A full 2 303 km in Ford Rangers would be fantastic. Comfortable double-cab bakkies, with automatic gearboxes to make the job easier and a high seating position to enjoy the scenery being pushed past the windows. However, this wasn't just going to be any regular road trip. The entire journey was to be completed away from the velvety smooth tar of our national roads. Nearly each and every kilometre was to be travelled on gravel.

Upon arrival at Meerendal Wine Estate, the Rangers were lined up and ready to set off for the first leg. I decided to start the trip in the Ranger Wildtrack. With 157 kW and 500 N.m of torque, the Wildtrak would have no problem making steady progress on loose surfaces, especially with four-wheel drive engaged. Initially, the gravel roads just outside of Cape Town were reasonably smooth and easy to drive on. The Rangers, especially the Raptors, took everything in their stride, handling bumps and corrugations without fuss.

Our guide told us via radio that a stop was imminent. As we arrived in the small town of Moorreesburg, we entered a farm. There, the bakkies were all loaded with hay bales, which would be taken to a farmer in the Karoo where a drought had caused severe food shortages for farm animals. Interestingly, the hay bales further improved the road holding of the Rangers on the gravel roads, their weight pushing down on the rear wheels and aiding in cornering stability. Our first stop was Tankwa, one of the driest and possibly most desolate places in South Africa. To watch the sunset from the hill, low range was engaged and the Wildtrak scaled the incline with ease, as if it were crawling slowly in stop/start traffic.

The sun was up at 5:30 am and soon we needed to be on the move. Despite the day just starting, the temperature gauge read an alarming 25 degrees celcius. Day two saw myself and my driving partner switching to an XLT. While it shares its 2,0-litre engine with the Wildtrak and Raptor, the XLT has to make do with a single-turbo arrangement. While it may produce a modest 132 kW and 420 N.m of torque compared with the loftier figures available in the Wildtrak and Raptor variants, the XLT held its own, making impressive progress over the Ouberg Pass. Not a road to be scoffed at, it demands a capable four-wheel-drive vehicle with plenty of ground clearance. Even in the lowliest of Rangers, we tackled the pass with caution and ease, the electronics slowly guiding the XLT over rough terrain when needed. In fact, the only thing that did stop the Rangers were the pesky hay bales (sometimes the rough and rutted roads simply proved to too much for them).

After dropping off the hay bales, we set off to our lunch stop. As we approached Sutherland, something rather unexpected happened. A raindrop or two hit the windscreen. In most parts of the country, that's nothing to write home about but when you're in an area that hasn't seen rain in more than eight months, it's rather special. Once the drivers and Rangers were filled up, we set our sights on Nieu-Bethesda. The rain had turned the once dusty and rough gravel into a rather slippery, muddy road. Puddles formed in ditches, often spanning the width of the road. Our guide instructed us to adapt our driving styles to this foreign surface. Without the hay bales in the rear, this advice was even more important. Interestingly, to keep control through a large, deep puddle, you need to maintain speed. As the car dives into the water, it feels as if the entire vehicle is about to spin. While the mud and water washes over the car, and the automatic wipers fight to keep the windscreen clean, the four-wheel drive and traction control take charge of the situation and the South African-built bakkie is still pointing in the right direction. After a while, it even becomes fun.

On day three, we had a much easier journey. A mere 300 kilometres, but on far rougher roads. Adjusting our speed appropriately, we glided across the rutted surface, dodging Springboks and large stones in the road. Of course, this led to one or two tyre issues. Strangely, the Wildtrak I was piloting seemed to pick up a nail. With the help of our expert guides, this was plugged in no time. Unfortunately, one of the Raptors suffered a similar fate but needed a complete tyre change. This, too, was remedied in no time, and we were on the road again. The Wildtrak, as competent on gravel as it is, had to deal with a fairly loose back end, the smooth surface and fine dust proving a worthy adversary, trying to flick the Wildtrak off course every chance it got. By contrast, the Raptor ahead was as composed as a car could be in these conditions, shrugging off whatever the road ahead could throw at it. As we arrived at Otterskloof, the sun set on the Rangers, their bodywork and powertrains tinking away in exhaustion.

The last stretch was upon us. It was the final day, and the next stop was Johannesburg. Ahead of us was 800 kilometres of gravel, and I sure was thankful that I'd be in the Raptor. Employing the same engine as the Wildtrak, the Raptor has a trick or two more up its sleeve when compared with its lesser counterparts. Indeed, indpendent suspension and Fox shocks go a long way to making the Raptor the capable off-road machine it is. Surfaces that make other bakkies shudder go unnoticed in the Raptor, its compliant suspension soaking up the bumps and rattles so commonly associated with gravel driving. At times, it really does feel like the accomplished Raptor is driving along on tar. The way it deals with undulations and corrugations too, is a revelation. Puddles and standing water are waded through with ease, as if the Raptor is unstoppable. The standard Ranger XLT and Wildtrak are already competent on gravel, making the Raptor stand out just that much more.

As great as the vehicles were, this trip was about so much more. Being able to experience a road trip on gravel is certainly something I won't be forgetting any time soon, especially with all the natural beauty that constantly surrounded us. Much like the Rangers, our country surprised me and left me amazed by what it has to offer, by its natural beauty and ability to leave you in awe.

UPINGTON, Northern Cape – Does the average South African bakkie-buyer really need the ability to blast along off-road terrain at breakneck speeds? Or string together drift after dirt-flinging drift? Or, indeed, jump the vehicle off a gravel-road crest at 120+ km/h without fear of the underpinnings positively disintegrating upon landing?

Almost certainly not. Although many probably want that ability. And now they can have it.

Yes, the locally built Ford Ranger Raptor has finally hit the market in South Africa (read our pricing story here and our international driving impression here), with the Blue Oval brand billing its beefed-up bakkie as downright peerless when it comes to high-speed off-roading talent. And, after spending many hours subjecting the aggressively styled newcomer to numerous tests over various unpaved surfaces – from the soft sand of the dunes to the brittle surfaces of a salt pan – it’s safe to say that’s more than mere marketing talk.



Thanks to an army of bespoke under-the-skin items (check out our in-depth technical article to see exactly what it took to design and build this vehicle), including a strengthened chassis frame, uprated brakes, high-performance Fox dampers and a new coil-over rear suspension set-up featuring an integrated Watt’s linkage (the latter noticeably reducing body lean through fast bends), the Raptor-badged model boasts a level of off-road talent that is simply streets ahead of any other straight-from-the-factory bakkie currently offered in our market.

Add a comprehensive “terrain management system” – which offers six driving modes in the form of normal and sport (for on-road use) plus grass/gravel/snow, mud/sand, rock and Baja (for off-road use) – that allows powertrain characteristics and the level of electronic assistance to be varied, and you have something not too far from a fully fledged off-road racer.

Of course, what’s not so racy is the oil-burning four-banger Ford opted to drop over the front axle. The 2,0-litre four-cylinder bi-turbodiesel unit (offering 157 kW and 500 N.m) has been at the centre of heated discussion since the reveal of the Ranger Raptor back in February 2018, with many enthusiasts suggesting a couple more cylinders would have been more fitting for a vehicle developed under the Ford Performance banner.



Granted, on tarmac the Ranger Raptor doesn’t accelerate particularly quickly from standstill (in fact, Ford has made a point of not mentioning the Silverton-built Raptor’s claimed 0-100 km/h sprint time in its press material ... but it’s 10,5 seconds, if you were wondering), so those hoping it will keep up with the likes of the Volkswagen Amarok V6 and Mercedes-Benz X350d from light to light will be bitterly disappointed. And it’s also a little irksome this very engine can be ordered in the Ranger Wildtrak (and even the Everest), too.

But seldom during my time with the Ranger Raptor off-road did I find myself thinking more grunt would have been useful (and not once when rally ace Gareth Woolridge had me holding my breath and bracing for impact as he attacked obstacle after obstacle during a punishing hot lap across varied terrain). And that leaves me feeling the Struandale-assembled engine is at the very least sufficient for high-speed off-road action.

The 10-speed automatic transmission, too, does a fine job of selecting the appropriate cog for most driving situations (magnesium paddle-shifters ship standard, but seem superfluous here), with the final couple of ratios further settling what is already a pleasingly hushed diesel engine when on the long road.



The specially developed BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres (in 285/70 R17 size) under those menacingly flared arches, meanwhile, not only come to the party in the rough stuff, but also help deliver an almost plush ride quality on tarmac, despite an aggressive tread pattern. Ultimately, the generously specced Raptor is certainly usable as an everyday on-road vehicle, although its considerable width sees it spilling from the average parking bay.

While the bold exterior styling (only amplified by the lofty 283 mm ground clearance and 150 mm wider tracks) makes the Raptor easily distinguishable from lesser Ranger derivatives, inside the differences are not quite as marked. The most obvious upgrade to the cabin is the fitment of model-specific sports seats offering a handy mix of comfort and support, while more subtle changes include blue stitching, a freshened-up instrument cluster and a red top-centre marker on the leather-clad tiller. Frustrating, however, the steering column is still missing reach adjustment, which makes it difficult to lock in the perfect driving position.

The Ranger Raptor is a particularly interesting addition to a local off-road market that generally focuses on low-speed, technical jaunts off the beaten track. The newcomer, by contrast, offers high-speed thrills away from the asphalt, flattering drivers with even limited skill or experience. Still, I can’t help but feel the majority of Ranger Raptors sold in SA won’t ever see the sort of terrain for which this vehicle has been been expressly designed.



Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if a healthy chunk end up being bought on looks alone, with buyers perfectly content to sacrifice towing capacity (which drops to 2 500 kg) and payload (reduced to 607 kg) at the altar of a highly sophisticated suspension arrangment that will seldom see anything more rural than an immaculately graded gravel road.

Of course, there's an argument to be made that Ford could have simply slapped an aggressive body kit onto a standard Ranger (and perhaps thrown in a smidgen more under-bonnet oomph), with the result likely to sell in significant numbers while requiring far less-intensive development (and thus a mere fraction of the investment that went into the Raptor). But those who get the chance to experience this machine at maximum attack off the beaten track will be glad this isn’t the case.

So, back to that original question: does the typical bakkie-owner really need this level of off-road wherewithal? Well, does the average supercar driver need the ability to reach licence-losing speeds? The answer to both is “no”, but (in each case) that doesn’t mean they don’t want it...

GEORGE – Do you know Ford SA sells more Ranger double cabs than Toyota SA does Hilux double cabs? Or that Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa contributes more than 1% to South Africa's overall GDP, a large percentage fed by local production of the Ranger? The big bakkie is nothing other than crucial to Ford's bottom line and the economy of South Africa. What will traditionally conservative bakkie buyers make of a small-displacement turbodiesel under the bonnet of the revised Ranger, then? 

Heralding the local introduction of Ford's new 2,0-litre turbodiesel (and 10-speed automatic which has already seen service in the F-150 and facelifted Mustang) in both single- and twin-turbo guises, the updated Ranger also introduces new safety technologies, subtly revised styling and a rethink of the local range.

So, what's new?

The main change is that engine. It's the biggest update of the eight-year-old Ranger since its introduction and will be exclusively coupled with the 10-speeder, mirroring the drivetrain in the upcoming Raptor (which launches in May 2019).

In the XLT reviewed here, the power unit develops 132 kW and 420 N.m, ballooning to 157 kW/500 N.m in the Wildtrak when the second turbo is added.

When we last tested a Ranger in May 2017, it formed part of a seven-bakkie comparative test. On our scales, that 3,2 TDCi test unit (incidentally, the 2,2- and 3,2-litre engines will stay – find more info on the range here) was comfortably the heaviest of the lot at 2 229 kg.

I mention the Ranger’s weight because it has a notable effect on the performance of the new 2,0 SiT engine. Despite delivering its maximum torque from as low as 1 750 r/min, the unit does labour somewhat under the Ranger’s bloat; at higher speeds, in-gear acceleration is decidedly leisurely.

That said, the transmission adroitly selects the right ratio to keep the engine on the boil and, while performance is measured rather than sparkling, there’s always enough punch in reserve to see the Ranger SiT accelerate steadily. I would, however, suggest that – if you’re interested in towing – you should consider the BiT option. A brief stint behind the wheel of a Wildtrak model showed the second turbo to make a substantial difference to performance.

Far more impressive is the 2,0-litre’s refinement. Quieter than other four-cylinder bakkie engines, it’s also impressively smooth. It’s comparatively light on fuel, too; we averaged less than 10,0 L/100 km in a variety of driving conditions, including some challenging off-road terrain.
 
Anything else I’ll spot?

Visually, the revitalised Ranger sports a lower, wider grille and bumper, and new 17-inch alloy wheel design (pictured here, and also available in a black finish). Wildtrak models add LED running lights and xenon headlamps, among other changes.

Most intriguingly, XLT and Wildtrak trim offers something called an "EZ lift" tailgate using a torsion rod to lessen the effort of closing the tailgate by as much as 70%. It works brilliantly and it’s therefore baffling why we haven’t seen this feature before.
 
And inside?

XLTs and Wildtraks boast keyless entry and start, plus Sync3 with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. There’s an advanced new Thatcham security system to lessen the chance of the Ranger being stolen, plus acoustic laminated front glass to reduce noise intrusion to the cockpit.

Otherwise, it feels very familiar. The Sync3 system is one of the best in the market, seating comfort fore and aft is better than in most other leisure bakkies, and it’s still frustrating that the steering column doesn’t offer reach adjustment.
 
So, business as usual?

Precisely. Incrementally improved where needed, the facelifted Ranger should expand its reach into the segment thanks to the addition of that refined new 2,0-litre powertrain and rationalising of some models to appeal to more buyers. But don’t worry if the smaller engine has you raising a brow. It seems there’s no replacement for displacement as the 3,2 TDCi soldiers on…

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