When 4×4 vehicles first hit South Africa’s roads they really stood out. But as good as they looked, they came with quite a few disadvantages.
The technology they used was somewhat basic so, although the increased ride height made the driver feel superior, it also meant a high centre of gravity, making them very easy to roll and difficult to stop in emergencies.
Secondly, many of them were simply rear-wheel bakkies with an increased suspension and a diff-lock system strapped to them. Although this was great for off-road, it made them downright lethal in the wet, as they would lose traction very easily.
However, decades later and with a lot of money invested in research, most of these problems have been ironed out. The perfect example of a safe, easy to drive 4X4 is Ford’s new Ranger FX4 Special Edition.
The FX4 is available as a 3.2 turbo diesel double cab with a 6 speed manual gear box or 6 speed automatic and is based on the Ford XLT 3.2 litre double cab model. However, it includes a range of design tweaks both inside and out that turn it from a bakkie into a luxury, go-anywhere truck.
On the outside
A quick glance at the FX4 and one would recognise it immediately as part of the Ford Ranger family. However, upon closer inspection, little bits and extras make it stand out from the rest.
For instance, the front grill is borrowed from the Ford Raptor, making the car’s front end look monstrous. The side boards, or skirtings, add to the rugged look but also become a necessity when climbing in and out of the car due to its high ground clearance.
At the rear, the FX4 comes standard with a tonneau and rubberised inlay to protect the exposed chassis from rust, sand, stones and other materials that may be loaded into it. The car also includes a tow bar.
The FX4’s large 17 inch wheels with black rims also make it stand miles apart from the standard Ford Ranger and many other 4X4s currently on the road.
On the inside
Many would think the inside of the car would bear the similar ruggedness that the car sports on the outside. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The FX4 cab oozes luxury, making it feel like one is sitting in a German sedan instead of a truck.
For instance, the leather seats are electrically controlled, the steering column is height- and distance-adjustable, and just about every aspect of the car can be managed via the controls on the steering wheel.
The FX4 uses Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system that allows the user to control the climate, navigation, Bluetooth, audio and various third-party services all from the centrally-placed, easy-to-reach and -read 8” touchscreen. If you can’t be bothered with using buttons to control the system, the voice control option comes in very handy.
Two permanently lit USB outlets are located just below infotainment system for charging phones and tablets.
Driving, or should I rather say parking, such a big car can be a daunting task for many. Admittedly, you don’t have to worry about scuffing the rims as the tires will just drive over any pavements you may scrape along. Although you can probably reverse into another car without doing too much damage to the Ford, it’s not such a good idea – you know, insurance premiums and all that. Thankfully, a camera is fitted just below the Ford badge at the rear, with parking sensors making parking as simple as following the lines drawn out on the screen and listening to the beeps. A long beep with red bands on the camera outlining the car behind you probably means you are about to, or have already hit the car, and it’s time to haul out your cheque book. Unfortunately the FX4 doesn’t come with front parking sensors.
The heads-up display is standard in the FX4, with a speedometer in the centre, compass to the left and multi-display to the right showing fuel consumption, range, engine temperature and other vital statistics.
So how does it drive?
To see how well the Ford Ranger FX4 handled both tar and dirt roads, my sister and I decided to go camping in the Pilanesberg. That way we could get a good feel for how it handles the roads at speed, and at the same time do a little off-road in the game reserve. And, of course, get away from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg and back in touch with the great out doors.
The first thing I noticed when driving on the roads was how high you sit. At first I was a bit skittish as it felt like the car was too detached from the road. I felt I didn’t have as much control as I would in a normal sedan. But I soon got over this as the car hugs the road just like any other modern vehicle. The powerful 3,2 litre turbo diesel engine made overtaking a breeze. The more I drove, the more my confidence grew. In fact, pushing the car over the speed limit just to get past the car or truck in front of me was as easy a punching the accelerator and knowing that there is more than enough power to get me past the cars safely. Many other road users regularly moved out of my way, especially when they saw the menacing front grill in their rearview mirror. It almost felt like I was in command of a tank instead of a 4X4.
The second thing I enjoyed were the potholes. Well, more to the point, they weren’t a problem, as the oversized wheels simply glided over them like they were little dimples on the road’s surface.
When the traffic cleared I was effortlessly able to get the car up to the speed limit and keep it there with cruise control – all managed via the buttons on the steering wheel. Simply push the set button and use the speed up and down buttons to adjust the car’s speed.
Overall, driving the car at speed on tarred roads was a pleasure. In fact, it was rather luxurious, thanks to the soft suspension. it was also fun, as I had time to play around with all the cruise controls, climate control and maps – all the time keeping my eyes on the road.
Although navigation via Sync 3 was very accurate, I found it quite finicky. Firstly, the maps that come with the FX4 don’t have many points of interest. For instance, Pilanesberg could not be found but Sun City could. Once the destination was found, I could only scroll to a certain point in the instructions menu to get a general idea as to where we would need to turn. And, even though there are turn-by-turn instructions, none of them were announced, meaning we had to keep our eyes on the display to make sure we didn’t miss any turns. That said, at the Mobile World Congress held earlier this year, Ford announced that all owners using the Sync 3 navigation system would be able to upgrade to the superior Waze traffic app. (Read the full article on Gadget here.)
In the Pilanesberg
Although most of the roads in the Pilansberg are tarred, the heavy rains made some of them only accessible via 4X4 – perfect for the FX4. Shrubbery and grass was also taller than usual, so where most visitors would be looking through grass to spot animals, the high ride of the FX4 afforded us the opportunity to see over the grass – and able to spot animals in the distance.
Making our way through the Pilansberg was plain sailing, even over muddy patches that most drivers would try their best to avoid. I did have a problem with the cruise control in that it will only activate at speeds over 40Km/h. Although this isn’t fast and is the park’s speed limit, it was far too fast for spotting animals.
The park offers a few look-out points that are marked as off-road and not suitable for any low vehicles. Although the hills are just over a 15 degree incline, they are over a kilometre long with several twists and bends. The incline, combined with the rain, meant that the hill was a combination of mud, water patches and smooth, slippery stones ranging in size from golf balls to mini basketballs – perfect for testing the FX4 without worrying about denting or breaking it.
Driving up in standard 2-wheel drive was impossible, as the car would go forward a few inches and then lose grip, with the rear wheels spinning madly and sliding back down.
Once in 4-wheel drive with the differential locked, the FX4 became a completely different beast. It trudged up the hill at its own pace with the rear wheels spitting stones and mud out trying to find additional grip, all the while the front wheels pulling the car up the hill. Admittedly, activating the diff-lock was overkill, making the Ford sound more like a tractor, but it just showed how much more the car could do.
At the end of the climb, the view was worth it and I thought the way down would be twice as interesting. However, on the centre console just next to the diff-lock button is Ford’s Hill Descent Control option. Simply push this and, once again, technology takes over, leaving the driver only having to steer the car. Once activated, it uses the ABS system to assign a different amount of brake pressure to each wheel, keeping the rear from swinging around and preventing the car from taking off in an uncontrollable descent.
The Ford Ranger FX4 is a 4X4, SUV and bakkie wrapped up in one luxury car. Its high ride height gives the driver a sense of authority on the road and its powerful diesel engine, coupled with Ford’s attention to detail both inside and outside, really reinforces that authority.
The sensors, camera and infotainment system are easy to use and, despite its size, the FX4 is easy to drive and park.
That authority and ease of use comes at price of R609 000 for the automatic and R594 000 for the manual version. On paper, those prices are rather high, but when you compare the FX4’s looks and price to its competitors, you will be surprised at how much more you are getting for that price.