2004 Ford Ranger FX4 Level II 4x4On target for serious off-roading
In today's increasingly crowded world of "active lifestyle" vehicles, one is either a player or a poser. Ford's off-road-oriented additions to its immensely popular Ranger compact-pickup lineup definitely fall into the former category. Using an XLT SuperCab Styleside 4x4 as its foundation, the FX4 package offers both a "base" Off-Road level and a Level II "True Off-Road Enthusiast" options bundle. Both FX4 configurations add arrays of functional and cosmetic touches that give dyed-in-the-dirt adventurers a vehicle with graduated measures of style, comfort and go-just-about-anywhere capability.
Even at first glance, the Ranger FX4 stands apart from the crowd. Distinguishers include blackout moldings on its fender-wells, grille surround, bumper fascias, and bed rails. Dig a bit deeper and underhood you'll find the Ranger's top-line 4.0-liter V-6 that makes a stout 207 horsepower and 238 lb.-ft. of torque. Regardless of transmission choice, the FX4 Level II Ranger also gets a 4.10:1 rear axle with a Torsen limited-slip differential, beefy front/mid/rear skid plates, heavy-duty springs and Bilstein gas-pressure shock absorbers.
Inside, the FX4 signature trim-out continues. The sport bucket seats feature more aggressive side bolsters and bespoke center inserts. In keeping with its avowed mission to press on regardless, the standard carpeted floormats give way to color-keyed rubber "slush mats" in the FX4, and assist grips are found on both A-pillars. Complementing these functional touches is an even longer list of comfort and convenience items, including power windows/locks/mirrors, keyless remote entry, SecuriLock engine immobilizer (now standard on all Rangers), tilt steering column, cruise control with activation buttons on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and manual-sliding rear vent window. A 7-speaker/290-watt premium Pioneer audio system with in-dash/6-disc MP3 player has been added to all Ranger models for 2004.
Like the rest of its Ranger kin, the FX4 feels solidly built and offers controls and switchgear positioned for quick and direct access. Although a height/rake adjuster for the driver's seat cushion would be a most welcome addition to the FX4 package, it's still pretty easy to get comfortable behind the wheel. Being based on a "4-door" version of the SuperCab, rear-hinged mini-doorlets allow the more foolhardy easier entry to the FX4's fold-down, center-facing jump seats. Like most plus-2 perches, these are clearly at their best when securely stowed in a locked and upright position. Adopting that line of thinking provides more space for front-seat passengers and optimal conditions for cargo better stowed in the FX4's temperature-regulated cabin than in its slightly less hospitable 6-foot bed. Note that Ford recommends securing small children in the rear seats, even though front-passenger-side airbag deactivation is standard.
As part of its upgrading efforts to keep the Ranger at the top of its class in sales, Ford improved braking last year with larger front rotors (305mm compared to 286mm last year), new front brake calipers and larger rear-wheel brake cylinders. Suspension refinements were also undertaken when tweaks to the geometry, bushing durometers, and springs/shocks/front stabilizer-bar rates helped improve ride and handling. Like its 4x4 platform-mates, FX4s use upper and lower control arms with torsion bars and an anti-roll bar up front paired with a live axle on leaf springs in the rear. Although clearly designed to be at its best when the going is at its worst, the fitment of bespoke Bilsteins and up-rated springs also serve this rugged off-road warrior well when engaged in normal on-road running.
Make no mistake, you won't confuse an FX4/Level II-spec Ranger with a luxo sedan in the ride department. However, bounce-and-jounce motions are surprisingly well regulated and body roll is minimal. With its overtly off-road-oriented tires, the FX4 enthusiast version does display a clear tendency to push through tighter corners and will wag its tail a tad during trailing-throttle maneuvers in the twisties. However, both of these benignly predictable shortcomings will be taken in stride by those who believe true happiness only begins where the pavement ends. Exposed to a more demanding driving regimen, the FX4/Level II quickly proved capable of taking more punishment without complaint than did those inside.
We can't confirm Ford's claim that this FX4 can successfully navigate a 2-foot-deep stream. However, the Ranger did manage to negotiate deeply rutted dried-dirt hills without breaking a sweat, refusing to bottom out and holding kickback through its power rack-and-pinion steering to near-imperceptible levels. Thanks to Ford's shift-on-the-fly 4x4 system-which requires only the flick of a dash-mounted controller to activate when paired with an automatic transmission-it was a quick and painless procedure to transition from 2WD to 4-Hi to 4-Lo ranges, as conditions became more severe.
Given its primal position in the Ranger lineup, it's only natural to find the premier 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 residing beneath all FX4s' purposefully bulged aluminum hood. Although Ford did massage the 3.0-liter pushrod V-6 that's standard in all other Ranger 4x4s to broaden the torque band and improve fuel economy for 2002, the 4.0-liter V-6 standard on the Ranger FX4 is still a significant cut above. Its more sophisticated design and extra displacement items help bump pony count by 53 and torque output by 58 lb.-ft. That extra muscle is particularly welcome in an automatic 5-speed transmission-equipped FX4 that tips the scales around 3,584 pounds and comes with a 5,600-pound tow rating.
Like its full-size brother, the F-Series, the compact Ranger remains the dominant power in its segment. Despite formidable challenges from a legion of impressive competitors, it has been the undisputed sales leader for the past 16 consecutive years. The addition of the FX4-in either appearance-oriented Off-Road variation or enthusiast-targeted Level II-to its already potent lineup bodes well for the Blue Oval team extending the Ranger's victory skein to another year. (www.fordvehicles.com)
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