Dinghy Towing: Ranger FX4/Level II

March 1, 2003
Filed under Dinghy Towing, Motorhome Reviews

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An SUV, for many motorhomers, is the ideal dinghy-towed vehicle. If a vehicle that leans a
bit more toward the “utility” end of the SUV spectrum is called for, a small pickup like
the Ford Ranger is a mighty fine alternative that can serve well as your motorhome’s second
set of wheels. Ford approves its Ranger for four-down dinghy-style towing when equipped
with a manual transmission, and this applies to both the two-wheel-drive (2WD) and
four-wheel-drive (4WD) versions. A shift into neutral with the steering column unlocked is
all that’s needed to ready the truck for dinghy towing. Our test vehicle was the Ranger
FX4, an upgraded model with features aimed at the off-pavement driving enthusiast. It bore
a $26,310 manufacturer’s suggested retail price (msrp) as tested, and started with the base
FX4-equipped truck at $24,830 msrp. We found the truck also functioned well for our daily
commuting and other driving chores. Our FX4 truck was based on the extended-cab, shortbed
Ranger. Extra aft-opening doors for the extended part of the cab make for easy access to
the area, but with full-size adults up front and the seats pushed back for legroom, there’s
not much space in back for anyone bigger than a small kid. Any trip more than a run to the
store or theater would seriously cramp a full-size adult, who would need to be seated
sideways in back. Up front, there’s a surprising amount of space for a large driver.
Legroom and headroom are ample. The nostalgic 8-ball-style shift knob is a nice touch that
feels good and harkens back to an earlier day of Hurst four-speeds and muscle cars, and the
brushed-aluminum shift-boot trim rings add contrast to the otherwise monotone interior.
Vehicle controls are fairly simple. Climate, truck function and entertainment controls
won’t confuse anyone, and the usual array of basic, but easily read, gauges adorns the
dash. Ford has done a good job with the sound insulation. The Ranger is comfortably quiet
at freeway speeds and allows easy enjoyment of the stereo or casual conversation. Out back,
an optional hardtop tonneau cover and bedliner ($895) provides dry, semisecure bed storage.
However, it also restricts storage to whatever fits within the bed-rail height. Ford’s
4.0-liter V-6 engine, rated at 207-hp at 5,250 rpm and 238 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm, is
standard on the FX4, as are a five-speed manual transmission with overdrive and a
manual-shift two-speed transfer case. Manual transmissions are fairly common among dinghy
towing-approved vehicles, and the Ranger’s gearbox is easy to live with and unstressful to
use. Once the driver adjusts to the clutch characteristics and learns the shift gates and
patterns, the manual five speed seems like a natural that’s well-suited to the Ranger’s
size and powertrain. The V-6 propelled the Ranger along with little evident strain and more
than a fun degree of performance. Yet, it averaged more than 19 mpg in varied driving
conditions, which is good for the pocketbook. Although the FX4 is an off-road package, its
robust suspension didn’t beat us up on the pavement. Most small trucks ride a bit firm and
choppy, a result of payload needs and wheelbase considerations, among other things, but the
Ranger is no worse than any other. Features of the FX4 package include Bilstein shock
absorbers, Alcoa aluminum wheels and BFGoodrich tires, so the truck handles the bumps as
well as it looks. The tires are an all-terrain-style tread, but they’re acceptably quiet on
the pavement. It’s always a tradeoff between traction and pavement ride and handling when
choosing an aggressive tire for a 4WD vehicle, and the BFGs on the Ranger are a fine
compromise. A standard Torsen limited-slip differential helps avoid rear-wheel spin under
serious poor-surface driving conditions. Our Ranger test truck was fitted with a Blue Ox
part no. BX2157 baseplate; (888) 425-5382, aemfg.com. It was expertly installed by the
technicians at Bill’s RV Service in Ventura, California; (805) 339-0882. The truck was
connected to the motorhome by a Blue Ox Aventa II tow bar, an easy-to- use and effective
towing product. We hauled the Ranger behind the Country Coach First Avenue (the test
appeared in the January issue) and found it a stable and reliable dinghy. We had no
problems with accurate tracking around corners or with freeway-speed stability. In short,
the Ranger behaved as a dinghy should. When an SUV won’t cut it and an automobile
definitely won’t do the job, a small truck like the Ranger may be a terrific alternative
for dinghy-towing and driving fun.

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