Brand identity is a tricky thing to get right. If the third-generation Ranger had a problem, it was that it was just too similar, from the front at least, to Ford’s SYNC. That’s not a bad looking bakkie, no, but if you weren’t confusing many of its other derivatives to the Wildtrak, its (very much similar) sibling, you were probably questioning its softer aesthetics compared to most rival bakkies.
There is, for better or worse, a design language we expect from bakkies. While practicality is king, they also have to look burly and tough; we expect road presence and a sense of invulnerability, too. The original Ranger was odd-looking enough that the conversation instantly shifted to that love-it-or-hate-it appearance, but Ford’s third attempt – and with the XLT Double Cab deriv – was just close enough to a family SUV to be an outlier in its segment. Much like the Everest, or is it the other way around?
Ironically, of course, a family-minded bakkie is just what the Ranger always has been, and what it excels at. Driving one is a reminder that bakkies don’t need to be lumpy and coarse; they don’t need to wallow and flex across pockmarked asphalt. The Ranger’s issue was that it looked a little too much like the SUV it drove like, and so that’s what Ford has changed.
The 2021 Ranger FX4 gets a sporty black mesh grille up front. The grille is beefier and more dominant, with wider, scalloped mesh. It even looks like its more upright, too, between a set of LED daytime running headlamps, while the bonnet bulges to emphasize the standard 2.0l engine.
Other improvements include a set of 18-inch multi-spoke black alloy wheels, plus black mirrors and door handles, and – edging on a little too much for my tastes – various FX4 decals and emblems. Alternatively there are more practically-minded options packs, like the Ranger XL, XLS and XLT.
Pricing starts at R618 900 (4×2) and climbs to R687 900 for the 4×4 version.
The new garb hasn’t diluted the Ranger FX4’s core usability, though, and that’s what stands out most. Bakkies are a playground for automakers looking to throw in some cunning cubbies and tie-downs, but the Ford arguably got that first with its imaginatively usable extras. Like the drop-in bedliner which protects the bin from damage during everyday use, with six cargo tie-down points provided.
In addition there’s a practical 12-volt power socket is provided in the bedliner, which is ideal for powering a portable fridge or other accessories. Two further 12-volt sockets are located in the front of the cabin. It’s one of my favourite bakkie features.
Compared to the AWD systems on rival bakkies, the FX4 is positively space-age. On the road, it contributes significantly to how SUV-like the FX4 feels: planted and steady, with the suspension level and predictable, and none of that unexpected squirming some bakkies can suffer when they’re underloaded and you suddenly turn things up. The 10-speed automatic transmission is dependable and shifts with greater urgency if you tap the shifter into Sport mode.
I’m of a mind that, for the target audience – and, quite frankly, most bakkie drivers were they to buy with their head not their heart – this is more than enough. If your motivation to get a bakkie is for those occasional times you need to haul something, the FX4 will probably be up to the task. The rest of the time you can drive it as comfortably as you would around Hyde Park.
Step inside and you’ll notice, the changes are a little less dramatic. There’s new leather seats on this trim, and new red stitching accents on the dashboard, centre console, and steering wheel. Cubbies and bins aplenty ape the bed practicality, including a huge lidded central box and big door pockets. The second row gets plenty of legroom. Everything feels sturdy and reliable, though that’s not to say it’s uncomfortable or spartan.
The 8-inch SYNC 3 infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard now. The FX4 has a high level of standard specification, including dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless Passive Entry and Passive Start, a rear-view parking camera, and front and rear sensors to aid manoeuvrability in tight parking spaces.
Like in the best makeover shows, you’re rooting from the FX4 from the start. Ford’s bakkies always had most of the practicality required to satisfy everyday drivers. What it lacked wasn’t ability but aesthetic, and don’t let anybody tell you bakkies buyers are any less swayed by that than those shopping for a sports car.
What stands out in the 2021 Ford Ranger FX4 is how comprehensively Ford has addressed that while avoiding diluting any of the bakkie’s underlying charm. It’s eminently drivable, leaves you no more tired when you slip from behind the wheel after a long journey than a Ranger might, and its on-road dynamics are a level above what most rivals bring to the table. Potential bakkie buyers who don’t genuinely consider it are doing themselves a disservice, and now they don’t have looks to excuse that oversight.