AMERICA loves pick-ups. Drivers buy more than a million of ‘em every year and sales have grown in inverse proportion to traditional sedans.

Trucks have been a source of consolation for America’s ‘Big Three’ for several years. Under siege in every area of passenger car sales, Ford, GM and Chrysler have successfully fended off interest from Japanese and European companies after a slice of the pick-up cake.

Of the Japanese, only the legendary Toyota Hi-Lux has made real in-roads in the US.

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Unsurprisingly, Ford offers a full range of pick-ups in its domestic market but we only get the crumbs from the cousins’ table.

That means the Ranger - a very sensible pick-up in America but a giant of the road when it gets here.

Last year, the Ranger was the most popular pick-up in Europe but competition in the market is hotting up. With a new Hi-Lux, the Renault Alaskan and the Fiat Fullback (a pickup which sounds like a footballer) about to hit the market can Ford hold onto its lead?

ON THE ROAD:

This is a mid-life refresh of the third gen Ranger launched in 2011.

Ford has given the design a bit of a nip ‘n’ tuck and the big new corporate grille certainly looks at home on the front of a pick-up.

With its square-jawed face, chunky tyres, impressive ride height, ‘4x4’ decals and squared off flatbed, the Ranger looks as though it could feast on a forest. And it probably can.

Whereas today’s SUVs place a premium on driving comfort, the Ranger is a proper off-roader with bags of ground clearance, hefty bash plates and a pukka low-range gearbox for serious rock crawling.

In Europe Ford offers the Ranger with a choice of diesel engines  (a 2.2 four-cylinder and a 3.2 V6) and both of them are excellent for off-road work. The 3.2 is a bit faster but the 2.2 is nearly as quick. It’s also cheaper to buy and more economical to run.  

On the road the Ranger feels like an old-school 4x4. The ride has that old-school bouncy springs/poorly damped feel you used to get with something like an Isuzu Trooper or a Daihatsu Fourtrak. It’s not as good as an equivalent SUV (a Land Rover Discovery Sport murders it) but compared to its pick-up peers the Ranger is as good as it gets.

The 2.2 diesel picks up quickly (even with the test vehicle’s automatic gearbox) and cruises quietly. There’s a bit of wind noise from the big mirrors and more tyre rumble than you’d expect in an SUV but long distances aren’t out of the question in a Ranger. Be aware, however, that it has the turning circle of a supertanker so nifty three-point turns are out of the question in narrow back lanes.

It’s when you swing off the road and onto a muddy forest track that the Ranger comes into its own - romping away from SUVs on their road-biased rubber. I’d rather have a Ranger in really tricky conditions than something with a posher interior and a premium badge.

ON THE INSIDE:

The Ranger is essentially two cars: the bit behind the engine tries to be as much like a car as it possibly can be and the bit behind the cabin aims to be rough ‘n’ tough. They do different things but they sit on the same chassis.

Ford has applied a veneer of passenger car sophistication to the Ranger’s cabin. You get clear instruments, a bit of LCD razz-a-matazz, a touchscreen infotainment centre (with the SYNC 2 interface already seen in the Focus, Edge and Mondeo)  and useful remote controls on the steering. Sadly, Ford’s user-interface is as clunky as ever - doing something as straightforward as finding a DAB radio station is needlessly complicated and there are too many virtual buttons on screen.

The Northern Echo:

As for the rest of it, I suspect pick-up buyers couldn’t care less that the fascia plastics are hard and scratchy and not the soft stuff you find in most cars beyond the bargain basement these days while three adults can sit comfortably in the back if you buy the Double Cab version.

HOW PRACTICAL IS IT?

If you need a pick-up nothing else will do. Whether it’s the Single Cab, the Super Cab or the Double Cab, the flatbed is massive. It’s perfect for all your commercial needs and the 230V inverter socket fitted in the test vehicle’s load bay is a handy thing to have if you need a three-pin mains supply plug for lights, refrigerators or heavy duty pressure washers etc.

The practicality continues into the cabin. All the storage bins and door pockets are absolutely HUGE - even the glove box.

The double cab has a 1,199kg payload capacity and, if that’s not enough, it can tow up to 3,500kg.

WHAT DO YOU GET?

Buying a commercial vehicle doesn’t mean sacrificing creature comforts these days. Depending on the model, you get heated leather seats, Bluetooth voice control for your phone/music streaming, dual-zone automatic temperature control, DAB radio, Ford’s new SYNC 2 infotainment system and a reversing camera (very handy because the long flatbed makes it almost impossible to gauge the Ranger’s distance to anything behind).

The test vehicle came with all this and 17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass for rear seat passengers, a cool box in the centre console, 8-way electrical adjustment for the driver’s seat, rear parking radar, cruise control, tyre pressure monitors, a passive anti-theft alarm and electronic high/low shift selection.

RUNNING COSTS:

The weight, aerodynamics of a fire place and the big old diesel engine adds up to a fairly hefty CO2 figure. During a week of mainly in-town driving (backwards and forwards to the tip) the Ranger average 31.2 mpg - which is closer to the official average consumption than most saloon cars and SUVs.

VERDICT:

If you have a business or just need the versatility of a pick-up then the Ranger is a good bet. It upholds Ford’s reputation for making vehicles that are enjoyable to drive and its ride is among the best in its class (proving that leaf spring rear suspension isn’t hopelessly outdated).  You’ll notice the difference if you’re swapping from an SUV, but if you need a pick-up the Ranger should be on your shopping list.

SPEC:

Engine: 2.2 TDCi.

Power: 160PS.

Torque: 385 Nm.

Top speed: 109mph.

0-62mph: 12.8 seconds.

CO2: 209 g/km.

Fuel consumption: 35.3mpg.