There is a common misconception that pickup trucks are judged by their tow ratings, off-road ability, and cargo capacity when, in fact, trucks are usually judged by the number of jealous glances you get on the highway—and the number of times you are given the right of way on single-lane trails. By the latter metric, the 2020 Ford Ranger is a solid performer. It's an eye-catching truck, especially kitted out as our top-spec Lariat test vehicle was, in bright metallic Lightning Blue with the optional FX4 and additional Ford Performance Level 1 off-road packages. We're not sure if it was the butterfly-blue paint or the giant Ford Performance windshield sticker, but we got waved at and thumbs-upped all over the place during our time in the Ranger.
As full-size trucks turn into full-size apartments—and with similarly sizable price tags—mid-size trucks offer a more affordable way to tow a boat or toy hauler without requiring an airplane hangar to park in or a second job to pay for it. When Ford brought the Ranger back to the United States market in 2019, it was a mildly retouched version of the model Ford has been selling in other countries since 2011, which is to say, it was new here but not a new truck. Reviews of its performance were decent, but many focused on its too-soft ride quality, limited options, and dated interior design. This wouldn't be the first time we called its cabin boring and uninspired or declared that the Ranger dives and squats quite a bit under braking and acceleration. Riding in the stock truck is like riding a dolphin. Since the Lariat trim adds leather seating, ambient lighting, and a larger center touchscreen—and the Ranger's Ford Performance package changes out the dampers for specially tuned Fox units front and rear—it's fair to expect big changes in interior and ride quality from this upgraded version of Ford's little pickup. It mostly delivers.
We'll start with mostly. Step up into the cabin, or for those lacking in personal ride height, scramble, crawl, and hoist yourself into the cabin. Luckily for this short reviewer, the Ford Performance package doesn't add any lift to the Ranger, which already offers 8.9 inches of ground clearance with the FX4 option. That's great for going over obstacles but rough for climbing aboard. The Ranger has a grab handle on the passenger-side A-pillar, but it's so high and inset that using it will count as pull-ups for your body-weight workout. Maybe that's a selling point. Yes, this is a $48,895 truck, but you can cancel your gym membership and just do lunges to get in it and bulk up by lifting the undamped tailgate.
Once inside, the Lariat's seats are comfortable and easy to adjust. But aside from the cushy thrones and an 8.0-inch touchscreen, even in the Lariat the Ranger's interior is as basic as a pumpkin-spice latte. If you're looking for flashy woodgrain like in an up-level F-150, trick in-cab storage solutions like a Ram 1500, or even quirky personality like in the Toyota Tacoma, it ain't here, bub. You get well-organized but small climate, entertainment, and drive-mode controls; a big PRNDL shift lever with plus/minus buttons for manually locking out gears for towing and hill climbing; two USB ports; and some cupholders. The Ranger won't win any design awards, but truck purists will say, "It's functional and looks easy to clean. What more do you need?" A better grab handle, that's what.
In the back seat, if you opt for the full four-door SuperCrew over the smaller SuperCab, there's plenty of headroom and decent legroom. High temperatures and rules against in-restaurant dining during our drive meant we were able to test its back seat as an air-conditioned eating area. The Ranger gets high marks for its pull-down center armrest with cupholders and plenty of space to spread out dipping sauces. The back seat is a three-across bench, which flips up for some underseat storage, but it doesn't fold flat, which may be why it's called SuperCrew and not SuperCargo.
If all of this is applicable to any Ranger, what does the Ford Performance Level 1 off-road package bring? Most important, we noticed that the Fox shocks, which are the star component of the kit, eliminate the WaveRunner ride we disliked with the stock setup. You'll give up a touch of comfort but, again returning to truck purism, there's nothing wrong with a truck that rides like a truck. It's firm but not vertebrae shattering. The rest of the package adds an off-road leveling kit to even out the ride height of the nose with the rear of the truck, Ford Performance 17-inch wheels painted Dyno Gray, and the coveted Ford Performance stickers on the windshield and rear bedsides. The leveling kit isn't particularly noticeable, as FX4 Rangers already have good ground clearance. The wheels are an attractive design but look a little small in the Ranger's giant wheel wells. Some knobbier tires than the Hankook Dynapro AT-Ms on our test truck would add a little more rock-crawling cred. Looks aside, both truck and tires did just fine over miles of rutted dirt and even an unexpected sandy hill.
There are no powertrain changes to the Ranger with the Level 1 Ford Performance off-road package. You have to step up to the pricier Level 2 or 3 packages to get a more powerful engine calibration. Under the hood of the Level 1 setup is the same 270-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four and 10-speed automatic that are in all the other variants of this truck. It's a good engine and a great transmission, with ample low-end torque (310 pound-feet) and solid fuel economy (20 mpg city, 24 highway, 22 combined) for a truck, although the throttle response feels a little sluggish just off idle.
Most of the Ranger's off-pavement gear—even with the Ford Performance kit—comes as part of the FX4 package: beefier tires, a steel front bash plate and underbody skid plates; an electronically locking rear differential, Ford's Terrain Management System with Normal, Grass, Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts, and Sand settings; and an off-road display that gives you pitch, roll, and steering-angle readouts. Switching through the drive modes is done with a button in the center of the control knob for the four-wheel-drive transfer case, and information is shown in the instrument cluster. Just forward from those controls is the Trail Control button, which allows you to set a maximum crawl speed to avoid riding the brakes on steep inclines. We'd suggest setting it ahead of time, as reading the small display and making speed adjustments while bouncing over bumps is a bit more challenging than we'd recommend. Although the digital readouts would benefit from better visibility, sightlines around the truck are excellent. We were able to spot and avoid squishing a wandering tarantula on the trail, which made us feel like responsible off-roaders and speaks well to the Ranger's braking and handling abilities.
If you're in the market for a small, off-road capable truck, the Ranger is a nice buy, especially in its more moderate trim levels. The $1295 FX4 add-on is available on any trim level and is well worth the cost for its locking diff and the protective underbody cladding. But spending the additional $2495 for the Ford Performance Level 1 kit is less tempting, even if we do really like the improved ride from the Fox shocks. It really comes down to how much you like that windshield banner.
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