Good: chunky good looks, space inside and in the load bed, rugged, reasonable refinement, safe
Not so good: wayward handling, clunky transmission, price tag, stick-on bits
There is, without question, a genuine thrill to be had from hauling oneself up into the lofty cab of a big pickup truck for those of us that don't use them every day. Yes, I know, these are really just heavy-duty builders' tools, but there's an undeniable whiff of American glamour about the whole thing. A man (or woman) with a pickup knows their own mind, hauls their own cargo, owns a pair of cowboy boots and likely has access to a wall full of neatly arrayed DeWalt power tools. Grrrr.
I've long felt that we really ought to follow our American cousins (not the most popular people right now in fairness) down the pickup road. If we're going to have an SUV boom then why not at least be intellectually honest about it? Stop faffing around with school-run Qashqais and Q5s tucked into the car park at Brown Thomas, and instead just get the real deal - a pickup with chunky tyres, a flat-bed and the ability to haul ass across the country line with Smoky Bear on your six and... sorry, someone left my old DVD copy of Smoky and the Bandit lying around and I may (may) have got carried away.
The thing is, so did the Ford people when it came to create the Ranger Wildtrak. The Ranger, which has been with us in its current form since 2012, is a tall and beefy-looking thing at the best of times, but not really all that much more so than a Nissan Navara or Volkswagen Amarok. You can, though, just imagine the phone call made from head office when it came to design this Wildtrak model.
"Lou? Yeah, we've made the final decision on the Ranger Wildtrak. It should look bigger and meaner than the normal car, so give it the big grille from the US-market F-150. Give it 18-inch machined alloy wheels and a big roll-over bar behind the cab. Give it step bars and roof rails. Oh, and every darned square inch of the thing should have the word 'Wildtrak' in big orange-y letters, just so as people don't start to think they're driving some Commie, pinko, libtard Nissan or Toyota or something. Oh, and make sure that the seats are orange too. I really want to ram home the whole orange thing. Get to it, Lou."
Well, success then for Lou. The Ranger looks tall and, well, rangy, and more than a touch aggressive in the black paint and black detailing of our test car. In the cabin, yes there are indeed orange seats and Wildtrak written on everything. Thankfully, there are also some useful things such as a big eight-inch touchscreen with Ford's SYNC infotainment system, a DAB radio, a rear-view camera and some ambient interior lighting. Even taking the cheap and nasty plastic panels and the Transit switchgear into account, it's all rather pleasant and hugely comfortable too, thanks to those American-arse-spec seats.
Fire up the 3.2-litre five-pot diesel and it's remarkably refined, by pickup standards at any rate. There is a big, loud 'vroooooargh' when you accelerate from low rpm, but once you're up to a cruise, the engine is pretty quiet and long motorway runs are not too wearing at all. The transmission isn't great though - the big gear lever stirs the six-speed manual gearbox only with reluctance, and you do occasionally need to give it a good old heave-ho to find a cog. At least you feel manly when doing so.
As with most pickups, steering and handling are included as standard, but you'd struggle to tell. The Ranger isn't the worst thing to drive, not by a long chalk, but there's not much information transmitted to the driver, and you have to judge your cornering speed with care to avoid unseemly lurching and tyre squeal. The ride quality is also a bit too firm and bouncy at times, as the suspension tries to simultaneously keep the mass of the car and its own springs and wheels in check. It's surprisingly manoeuvrable around town though, not least thanks to that reversing camera. You can get it in and out of a tight multi-storey car park, if you take your time.
Obviously, it's also hugely practical. The cabin is big and roomy, and the kids love the view out the back. The load bed's carrying capacity is measured in tonnes, not litres, and it'll tow a 3.5-tonne braked trailer, if you have the appropriate licence. It's rather an appealing car, given all that; something like a mobile Swiss Army Knife, and in some ways (some) it really is the ideal family SUV. After all, are you going to care if you get it dented or dirty, or the kids spill Fanta in the back seats? Actually, I'm not even sure you'd see a Fanta stain against all that orange...
Working against the Ranger, though, is the accountant in me. Now, the whole idea of buying a pickup is that you get the biggest SUV possible for the smallest possible price, but adding the bigger engine and the Wildtrak add-ons means this one clocks in with a price tag of €47k, which is a lot even given its size. True, you'll spend more on the ritzy versions of the Volkswagen Amarok, but that's a much more sophisticated, refined vehicle. The Wildtrak's tax also makes for bad reading. If you can, legally, register it as a commercial vehicle then it'll cost €333 a year, which isn't bad. Tax it as a family car though, and it reverts to the old by-engine-capacity tax system, and will cost you €1,800, which is rather more senior.
Which is a shame. Like others in the segment, the big, hard-working Ranger Wildtrak is immensely appealing, even for a wimpy stay-at-home dad like me. If it cost a bit less to buy and run, I might even go and buy the Stetson and boots to go with it...