Recent rains have changed the trail. Runoff from the nearby peaks combined with gusty winds have increased the severity of the terrain since the last time we drove a truck through here. The ruts are larger, the sandy sections are deeper, and new rocks, some the size of beanbag chairs, have found their way into our path. As Mike Tyson said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," and the Mojave Desert just landed an uppercut.
If we were driving a standard-issue 2020 Ford Ranger with the FX4 off-road package, we'd undoubtedly spit some blood on the canvas and grow a set of wings. But this Ranger is fitted with the Level 3 Off-Road package, which not only increases its ground clearance but adds power, a set of 32-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires, and a front-end battering ram, which Ford prefers to call a powder-coated steel front bumper. Until Ford decides to sell the Ranger Raptor in the United States and really take on the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, and Jeep Gladiator Mojave, this is as off-road capable as its mid-size Ford pickup gets.
This is a sequel of sorts. A few weeks ago, we reviewed the 2020 Ford Ranger Level 1, which is available now, along with the also cleverly named Level 2 Off Road package. Ford says the Level 3 package will be available next summer and will include everything you get in the Level 1 and 2 packages (essentially, the lift and extra power) plus a winch-capable bumper supplied by ARB, a Ford Performance chase rack that bolts to the top of the bed, a Rigid 40-inch LED lightbar, and a Ford Performance exhaust. The additional hardware not only adds function but also greatly increases the pickup's intimidation factor. Sedan drivers skedaddle like frightened children when this Ranger fills their mirrors.
All three packages include suspension hardware that lifts the Ranger's front end by about two inches, leveling off its stance and increasing ground clearance. New stiffer-than-FX4 front springs are paired with Fox Racing dampers. But don't confuse these 2.0-inch monotube dampers with the beefier units fitted to the F-150 Raptor, Ranger Raptor, Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, or the Jeep Gladiator Mojave. Those 2.5-inchers feature an internal bypass and remote reservoirs for even more control. Level 2 and 3 Rangers also include a butch set of dark-gray wheels shod with knobby BFGs that measure 265/70R-17. Up front, ground clearance improves to 11.8 inches, and rear clearance climbs from 8.9 inches to 9.8.
Mark Wilson, Ford's vehicle personalization manager, is quick to point out that the shock tuning is the work of Ford Performance, not Fox. It isn't exactly their best work. The ride is firm on the highway and over most trails, and the rear suspension, which retains its factory leaf springs, kicks you up out of the seat. Big shots and landings are handled well, but it doesn't soak up the terrain as much as beat it into submission, bludgeoning you and your passengers along the way. Basically, it's bouncy and doesn't deliver the supple ride of a Raptor.
You can pound your way through high-speed fire roads at a respectable 30-35 mph, but the Ranger's aging chassis and cab structure, which date to 2011, quiver like they've been put in a paint shaker. Over rough, whooped-up sections, your pace is limited to just 10 mph as the front end pogos violently. Any faster and you risk damage as it begins to crash down on its bump stops.
The modded Ranger is a capable climber, though. Even with the transfer case in two-wheel drive, you can lock the rear end and make your way up grades that would require four-wheel drive in some other trucks. Although its wheel travel and suspension articulation lag most of its rivals, that locking rear differential (part of the FX4 package) and additional ground clearance save its bacon. Compared to a stock Ranger, the Level 3's approach angle improves from 28.7 degrees to 34.8 degrees—improving on the Ranger Raptor's 32.5 degrees—and its breakover angle goes from 21.5 degrees to a very respectable 23.8 degrees, besting the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon on that metric. Although it's still without a locking front differential, which is standard on a Colorado ZR2 and Gladiator Rubicon, Level 3 scrambles its way up almost any hill when you drop it into low-range four-wheel drive.
While the Ranger's terrain-management system lacks a dedicated rock-crawling mode (oddly, it includes one for grass), that bulldog front bumper radically improves its ability to navigate a rock garden. Fabricated from 0.2-inch plate, it only adds about 20 pounds to the nose of the truck, and its angled corners help expose the front tires so they can climb up and over large obstacles.
Be careful, though: The skid plate beneath that bumper is weak sauce compared to the thick aluminum piece Toyota bolts to the front of a Tacoma TRD Pro. The thin steel plate does cover most of the Ford's front end, and there's another that protects the transfer case, but the rear differential is naked and vulnerable. We scraped it on rocks and dragged it along the ground more than once without issue, but regular trail runners will want some aftermarket armor. We also skillfully dinged up those Dyno Gray wheels. Their angled spokes look great, but they protrude proud of the tire sidewall and easily kiss rocks. Alloy grinding over granite is not a pleasant sound.
When we hit a sandy wash, however, the upgraded Ranger felt most at home. The ride is rough here as well, but the Ranger is agile, its quick steering facilitating easy control of high-speed slides. The Level 2 and Level 3 packages also recalibrate the pickup's turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four, increasing boost from 19.5 psi to 24.2 psi and horsepower from 270 to 315. Torque climbs from 310 pound-feet to 370. What's more, the usable power is moved lower in the rpm range, with the EcoBoost's power peak arriving 1000 rpm sooner and its torque peak 500 rpm lower. You will need to use premium fuel, 91 octane or higher, to unlock that extra boost.
There's still some turbo lag off idle, which is most noticeable in the slowest crawling maneuvers. In the paved world, the 2.3-liter always supplies enough thrust and the 10-speed transmission is ready with the right gear, especially in Sport mode, which holds lower ratios longer. The exhaust system isn't going to win any Grammys, but it doesn't drone on the highway like Toyota's TRD system.
The last Ranger four-by-four we tested hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 15.0 seconds. This truck should come close to matching those numbers. Ford says fuel economy also shouldn't be affected. "I had less than a 0.5-mpg drop over 8000 miles in my personal truck," Wilson said. "And I wasn't babying it, I was enjoying it."
Most buyers are expected to have their Ford dealer or a local four-by-four shop do the dirty work, but you can save quite a bit of scratch and install all the parts yourself. They fit any 2019 or 2020 Ranger four-wheeler. The kit even supplies DIYers with a tool to rejigger the speedometer and odometer to work with the taller tires.
Despite its imperfect suspension tuning, the Level 3 Off-Road package does improve the performance of the Ranger. The truck may have beaten us up a bit along the way, but it scraped and clawed its way through a seriously nasty trail that a standard Ranger FX4 could not have tackled. It's disappointing that the Level 3 kit doesn't include a locker for the front differential. "We thought," Wilson explained, "that might take it beyond what the normal customer could install in his driveway with simple hand tools."
It would have also driven up the price, which already blows up the piggy bank. At $8995 not including installation, the Level 3 package costs twice as much as the Level 2 package, which is the best value of the three. And it cranked up the price of this Lariat-spec truck to $55,905. That's F-150 Raptor money.
Which one do you think Iron Mike would choose?
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