The Ranger is (nearly) dead, long live the Ranger
And then there was one. All of the Ford Ranger's contemporaries have forsaken the compact segment for the middleweight class. The Ranger is long in the tooth, to say the least, but we love the smaller size and many find it a good blend of truck functionality without the bulk and heft of a full-size. You can buy into a Ranger for $15 grand, which is a reasonable point of entry for a work truck. There used to be F150s outfitted for labor in that price range, but good luck finding a decontented full-sizer now. While the Ranger's platform is now exclusive to the model, it did sire the Explorer, via the Bronco II. Lineage aside, it's typically expensive for an automaker to have a platform that doesn't get shared, but the underpinnings of the Ranger have long been paid for. We suspect that's part of why we're not seeing much action in the trucklet arena from Ford. To engineer a new Ranger would cost money (that's arguably better spent elsewhere right now), and moving the smallest Ford Truck to a new platform raises conflicts with other models.
continued after the jump with photochops to illustrate ideas
One potential move for Ford would be to revisit the familial ties between the Explorer and the Ranger. The Sport Trac is already filling a niche for weekend warriors, and likely swiping some Ranger sales. Shortening the Sport Trac's cab to a two door affair and lengthening the bed would get you 99% of the way there. The IRS under the Sport Trac could be replaced by a leaf-sprung live axle to keep costs down, though it'd require an infusion of cash to engineer the retrofit. Following this recipe would give Ford an offering in the mid-size truck segment that everyone else has fled to. This seems to be the way Ford went in Thailand with the 4-Trac concept. The problem with this scheme, we think, is that a truckier Sport Trac would be an F150 competitor. The size gulf isn't wide between the two, and the optional V8 in the Sport Trac is powerful enough to do some real work.
Another tack may be to develop a unibody "suburban duty" compact pickup off a car platform. Think of the Ridgeline – sure, it's not capable of towing houses like other pickups, but it's a far more pleasant driver, which matters for people who use their trucks mainly to commute. It's a more sensible option for people that will use the truck like a car. While its styling is polarizing, the Ridgeline shows that there's more than one way to build a pickup, and not everyone needs body on frame construction. The C1 platform that the Euro Focus rides on would lend itself well to truckination. Alternatively, think of how good the clean lines of the Flex might look with a bed. Ford's got AWD across their platform range now, which would boost pulling prowess. We would hate to see a car-based Ranger be more of a Ranchero-y type thing, so increased ride height is a must. Of course, the car platforms cost more to build than Ranger (well, what doesn't?), and there's only so much capacity.
Alternatively, an Escape with two thirds of the roof lopped off and no rear doors would make a credible entry, too. The availability of hybrid drivetrain sweetens the pot, too. It's not just passenger cars that can maximize their fuel economy. In fact, we see a hybrid system developed with trucks in mind as a great thing. The low-rpm torque characteristics of electric motors lend themselves to truck work, and a series hybrid layout would ensure that the motors never run out of juice, even if you're towing up the Continental Divide. A more conventional hybrid with a larger engine using cylinder deactivation could also reap efficiency benefits. By recalibrating the cylinder shutoff to keep the "extra" cylinders off until the batteries are depleted or max forza is required, even a truck could be a fuel-sipper.
Of course, all of these alternatives to the current Ford policy of riding out the incumbent Ranger until it has fully withered require money. Executed correctly, however, a re-thought Ranger could create demand, imagine that. We hope that the Ranger continues on and keeps its smallish proportions. There were rumors of a new Ranger dropping in 2010, but we're not sure what the state of that program is. If the compact truck segment is fully vacated when this current Ranger is finally taken out and shot, we think it'll be a loss.