Ford has completely redesigned its Ranger. It's the most popular compact pickup on the market today and this new one is arguably the best. The 1998 Ford Ranger offers responsive handling on the highway, impressive suspension performance off road and a comfortable ride everywhere.
The Ranger has always been a capable truck in the dirt, but the new one is even better, a benefit of a redesigned chassis based on the Ford Explorer. We drove a Ranger 4x4 in the Hungry Valley off-road park northwest of Los Angeles. Rough, sandy roads failed to upset this truck even when it was driven quickly through rutted corners. But what was really surprising was its impressive handling and steering response on paved mountain roads. After spending a few hours in the new Ranger, we were lulled into thinking we'd climbed into a sports sedan.
A more rigid chassis, a new front suspension, a redesigned interior, improved engines, new styling and, on 4x4 models, a clever new four-wheel-drive system are elements that add up to a great truck.
Fresh styling may be the most visible change to the Ranger, but the most beneficial improvement comes from its new chassis. The front third of the frame now features fully boxed side frame rails for a significant increase in torsional rigidity. A rigid frame reduces unwanted vibration and allows the engineers to design a suspension that more precisely controls wheel movement for improved ride and handling.
As a result, they developed a new front suspension with short- and long-arms that works with a rack-and-pinion steering system borrowed from the Ford Explorer for sharp steering response and improved cornering stability. Two-wheel-drive Rangers use coil springs in the front suspension, two-stage leaf springs in the rear, while 4x4 models employ torsion bars up front, single-stage leafs in the rear.
A new vacuum-assisted hub lock system provides nearly instantaneous shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive at any speed. When disengaged, all front driveline components are disconnected at the wheels, so fuel economy is improved and noise and vibration are reduced.
The Ranger's functional changes are wrapped in a tough new look. New sheet metal from the A-pillars forward lowers the hood line for improved visibility, high-speed stability and fuel efficiency. Ford redesigned the grille, bumpers, head lamps and parking lamps. The hood is aluminum to reduce weight. New, larger wheels with exposed lug nuts and color-keyed door handles on higher series models give the Ranger a sportier look.
Ranger 4x4 models come with new contoured wheel lip moldings, integrated mud flaps and front and rear steel tow hooks. Ford has narrowed the price gap between 4x2 and 4x4 models, making four-wheel drive a more attractive option.
Rangers come with a choice of three engines. Ranger's base 119-horsepower 2.5-liter inline-4 offers a 10 percent increase in torque over last year, better idle quality and reduced noise and vibration. It is best suited for those who value fuel economy and low emissions. When equipped with the automatic transmission, it allows the Ranger to qualify for California's Low Emissions Vehicle standard.
Choose one of two V6 engines for serious pulling or hauling power. A 3.0-liter V6 comes with a revised intake manifold that helps increase torque to 178 pound-feet and 147 horsepower.
A 4.0-liter V6 generates 223 pound-feet of torque and 158 horsepower; an optional five-speed automatic transmission is available with this engine that we highly recommend.
All engines are kept cooler by bigger radiators. A new rear-wheel antilock braking system reduces braking distances over the previous system and offers improved control on all surfaces.
A huge selection of models and trim levels is available. Regular cab wheelbases have been stretched to 111.6 or 117.5 inches, depending on body style. Extended cab (SuperCab) versions maintain a 125.9-inch wheelbase.
New Splash models with chrome wheels are available for the fashion conscious in both 4x2 and 4x4 configuration.
Prices start at $11,895. A well-equipped two-wheel-drive SuperCab XLT with a V6 is available for $16,000-$17,000.
Our truck was a $19,290 Ranger 4x4 SuperCab trimmed in cloth with a $2,745 XLT package. The 4.0-liter V6 added $450, the 5-speed automatic added $1,105. Options added another $665, but discounts totaled $1,445, resulting in a $22,810 bottom line for a top-of-the-line model.
Regular cab Rangers have been lengthened three inches. That's a big improvement as last year's regular cab models offered insufficient legroom for tall drivers and restricted rake for the seat backs. This year, there's more interior space, increased seat travel, and the seat can be reclined farther. There's also more space available behind the seat for storing stuff and a storage tray has been added to make this more convenient.
We still recommend the roomy SuperCab models for all but the most serious of work trucks. The big benefits of the SuperCab are the increased cabin space and convenient storage for gear.
The Ranger shares the Explorer's dash and easy to use switchgear and instrument panel. Attractive new seating offers more comfort and support, particularly for off-road driving. Dual airbags come standard with a passenger-side deactivation switch.
New stereos provide improved audio performance, including the one that came on our truck outfitted with in-dash compact disc and cassette players matched with 80 watts of power and four speakers, all tuned to the Ranger's interior.
The new Ranger does not drive like a traditional truck. Steering response and handling in transient maneuvers could almost be described in sports car terms. Winding over narrow mountain roads north of Los Angeles, we found the Ranger to be a vehicle that inspires confidence in the driver. Before long we were rounding curves with bravado usually reserved for sports sedans.
It rides nice, too. Only the slightest choppiness on the four-wheel-drive versions betrays their off-road suspensions with front torsion bars and multi-leaf rear springs. The standard two-wheel-drive versions ride even better than the four-wheel-drive models, a benefit of their front coil springs and two-stage rear leaf springs. The harshest ride is found in the Splash models with suspensions tuned for improved handling. A load improves the ride quality of all of these trucks as the rear tires hop around over bumps when the bed is empty.
While the ride quality of the two-wheel-drive trucks provides a compelling case, it seems a shame to pass up the superb four-wheel-drive system. The vacuum-assisted hublock system works seamlessly, allowing the driver to shift in and out of four-wheel drive at any speed. Shift out of four-wheel drive, and the 4x4 model rides only slightly rougher than the two-wheel-drive model. The ride quality is still surprisingly good and handles twisty roads with amazing prowess for a four-wheel-drive pickup.
Our 4x4 SuperCab came with the 4.0-liter V6, which really shined with the optional five-speed automatic transmission. This five-speed automatic shifts as smoothly as a Lexus and always keeps the V6 in its primary torque range and its efficiency matches that of the 5-speed manual. It's a great combination.
The new Ranger may be the best compact pickup truck on the market. Its driving qualities leave the other trucks in the dust, yet it offers plenty of power and hauling capacity to get the work done. Handling is superb for a pickup and the optional five-speed automatic offers impressive response, making this truck a good companion for everyday driving.
Mazda is selling mechanically identical models, the B-2500, B-3000 and B-4000, each named for engine displacement. The styling is completely different, however, giving each a distinctive appearance. While the Ford looks tough, the Mazda looks sporty. They are both good-looking trucks and a debate rages as to which is more attractive. Mazda B-Series trucks offer a compelling alternative to the Toyota Tacoma, with the Mazda delivering more truck per dollar.
Model as tested
4x4 XLT SuperCab
3 years/50,000 miles
Louisville, Kentucky; Twin Cities, Minnesota; Edison, New Jersey
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
XLT trim with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, door locks and mirrors, aluminum wheels and sliding rear window; 4.0-liter V6, 5-speed automatic, AM/FM/CD/cassette, flip-out quarter windows, leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps, two-tone paint
Model Line Overview
Safety equipment (standard)
Safety equipment (optional)
4.0-liter ohv V6
Specifications as Tested
ABS, AM/FM/cassette stereo, intermittent wipers
Engine & Transmission
4.0-liter ohv V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
160 @ 4200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear
125.9 (SuperCab 4x4)