The Short Version: Nimble as a Wrangler. A real T-case shift lever. Minimal cargo capacity
Ford Ranger FX4 Level II
Actually, not much is new on the FX4 Level II for '03. But since we didn't get one in time for testing last year, it was eligible for this year's competition. What is new, and a bit confusing, is the name change. Last year the same Ranger was simply called the FX4. However, since this particular off-road package consists of a lot more than the FX4 package as applied to the other 4x4 trucks in Ford's line, the company decided to change its name to FX4 Level II. So what does the FX4 Level II package on the Ranger consist of? First comes a sweet tire-and-wheel combination of 31-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain KOs on a set of Alcoa aluminum wheels. Next is a Bilstein shock at every corner. Out back is found Ford's 8.8-inch axle--other Rangers come with Ford's 8-incher--with 31-spline shafts, and stuffed with 4.10 gears and a Torsen limited-slip. Skidplates, tow hooks front and rear and fender flares also help to make up the package.
What we liked
The Ranger FX4 Level II was definitely the trail king of the group. Its Bilstein shocks did an excellent job of sucking up the bumps, whether at speed or crawling along in low range. And its spring rates seemed spot-on. Also, a decent amount of flex at the rear helped make up for a lack of articulation up front, which is what we've come to expect from IFS. The BFG tires provided excellent grip, while the Torsen limited-slip rear helped provide traction when those 31-inch tires started to spin. Also of great importance was this truck's small size, which helped out on the trail, making the Ranger FX4 Level II nimble and easy to maneuver.
We also were impressed by the Ranger's highway ride, as the suspension and shocks absorbed all types of bumps without jarring. The Ranger's crisp, precise steering also received praise and helped to give the Ranger the ability to handle twisty pavement with relative ease, and helped us place the Ranger with precision on the trail. More praise was lavished onto the Ranger's smooth-shifting five-speed transmission, which always seemed to have the appropriate ratio.
What we didn't like
While saying we didn't like the 4.0L V-6 would be unfair, it was out of its league when compared to the bigger and more powerful V-8s in the test. It also didn't have much low-end power and felt like--at least when mated to the five-speed trans that came in our test truck--it needed a heavier flywheel. This gave the Ranger a propensity to stall often during launches. Other gripes included the small and somewhat plain interior. Every one of our judges appreciated the fact that the Ranger uses a manual transfer-case shifter, but every one of them wished the shifter knob didn't hit them in the leg when they shifted into low range. Finally, the Torsen limited-slip seemed to allow a bit too much wheelspin before it started transferring power. For our tastes, it needs to be tighter.
If you are looking for a compact pickup truck in which you can hit the trails, the Ranger FX4 Level II is for you.
Check It Out If:
You're looking for a terrific trail rig that has cargo capacity.
Avoid It If:
You insist on a manual transmission, or if you want some interior room in your rig.