Top truck tussle: Ranger XLT versus Hilux SR5

It’s the battle of the sales heavyweights; Ford Ranger XLT versus the Toyota Hilux SR5, in doublecab diesel auto format.


For: Ranger – smart equipment level, roomy interior, great engine. Hilux – huge improvement over old model, refined drivetrain, better interior trim, unbreakable feel.

Against: Ranger – odd low-speed transmission shunt, harsh engine note, fewer airbags than Hilux, dull alloy wheel design; Hilux – deck liner costs extra, limited Bluetooth and sat nav actions on move, driver’s seat lacks lumbar support.

Scores:  Ranger 4.3, Hilux 3.9

WHICH is best? Simple enough question and, yet, so much hangs off it whenever Toyota Hilux meets Ford Ranger.

This test of the Ranger XLT and Hilux SR5 comes with a twist: Farmers, contractors, off-roading tough nuts … this one isn’t for you. Obviously you have interest in the latest editions of these essential trayed tools.

While this dual evaluation does not wholly ignore the utility side of things – insofar that both trucks were employed to carry heavy stuff for useful purpose and also went off seal and stuff  – the primary rationale for getting the biggest-selling derivatives together was to gauge how well they really do serve a buyer base that, due to its size, now has to be considered more than just emergent.

The urban interest in utes, at least those in the double cab, high-end auto diesel format presented here, is such that keeping attuned to city tastes has become an essential consideration to achieve sales success.

Weekend warrior preference has increasingly dictated how these rigs are dressed up as style statements and also how they drive.It is the greatest influencer on why these offers are safer, more refined and more comfortable than ever before.

Also why they are more expensive: The profit margins associated with vehicle types is one of the industry’s closest-guarded secrets, but it seems highly logical that utes carry some of the best margins. What else would explain why the no-nonsense entry variants are so much cheaper than the dearest glammed-out equivalents (far more so than occurs in car-dom), why those annual Field Days’ specials carry for such long periods and are so spectacular and why there are $70k kingpin editions in each fleet in the form of Ranger Wildtrak and Hilux SR5 Limited?

No, even though inter-brand competition for hearts and minds is fierce, even though the derivatives here are the smart money picks of their families, even though ute buyers with businesses can claim beneficial tax advantage and even though residual values are pretty good, you still have to spend up big now: $61, 540 buys the XLT, $66,490 the SR5 here.

And that’s even before options are added; another goldmine. Aside from their tow bars, the examples here are bog standard, a rare sight perhaps. It’s estimated 90 percent of wellside Hilux get a tray liner and more than half take some some of additional frontal ‘protection’. Ranger owners already get the liner at XLT level but are also prone to spend extra on body bits and, interestingly, optional wheels.

Anyway, enough of the scene-setting. Time to let battle commence.

Styling, image

Time was – and it lasted for three decades – there was only one ute to be seen in; and, at some point, someone always called you ‘Crumpy’. Has that time passed?

It depends on how you feel about the Blue Oval’s translation of ‘One Ford’: With Ranger and the spin-off Everest, the global styling strategy is different than for cars. Whereas the latter are quite ‘international’, the truck stuff simply seems to have become more ‘Merican, with a bigger, more overt face and lots of chrome.

It’s a big change from the pre-facelift’s simpler styling, but I’m coming around to it; yes, it’s shouty – perhaps a touch too much – but the look reflects Ford’s confidence and, it has to be said, though it’s a bit too shiny, every element looks right. Also, from a practical side of things, the headlights are better.

Hilux has also been to Chrometown too and, as was mentioned euring our test of the SR5 Limited PreRunner, while a closer styling similarity with the North America-only Tacoma doesn’t play to the extent of us getting the Statesider’s big flared wheelarches, it does have a cowboy brawniness about it. If you’re going to hear criticism, it’s going to be about the front end – seen square on, it looks good, but in profile the sharp angle of the jawline, though justified on practical grounds, makes it look a bit weak. It’s nothing a bull bar won’t fix.

Trucks ain’t cars, but they are a lot more like them inside, not just in ergonomic layout but also for luxuries.

Hilux, as a whole new model, presents the bigger step up on its predecessor in terms of presentation and materials - the feature that grabs immediate attention, of course, is that 7.0-inch floating touchscreen, lifted from the Corolla, though your eyes are also attracted to the backlit gauges use the same technology as those favoured by Lexus.

The use of a starter button to fire up the engine is a trick both brands employ to suggest greater sophistication; likewise the provision of reach and rake adjustment, always a welcome addition for taller drivers, and electric seat adjustment on the command seat. Hilux’s LED lights, sat-nav, a handy 220-volt power outlet for charging your laptop, a reversing camera plus a cooled glove box are all nice ‘modern world’ touches but, if you really want to go to the technology edge, then the Ford is the place to be. It pretty much covers all the Toyota angles then ramps up with a smarter infotainment system and is first in the market with adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist – technology that ,a just a year or so ago, would have seemed fantasy fare for any ute.

Does provision of this stuff explain the ‘pumped’ prices of these rigs? Maybe if you compare old XLT Ranger with new; not so when the SR5 is lined up against the Ford. How can it $5000 dearer when it has less smarts? Good question.

Either way, you’re accessing a lot of comfort and convenience in what, after all, is essentially a work truck. Both provide powerful argument about why, if interior refinement is key, there’s never been a better time to buy a dual cab ute. Worth mentioning, always, is how much progress has been made in respect to safety: The updating of utes to almost car-like crash standard is a huge plus given the buyer trend today; those five star crash test scores can be worn proudly. It’s only fair, though, to point that Hilux does the better job in providing seven airbags in total, including a driver’s knee-bag.

What works better for general runabout use will be addressed later, but there’s no harm in admitting now that, in a perfect world, I’d want a Ranger with the Hilux’s plastics and screen resolution (but not the screen itself); or alternately a Hilux with the Ford’s smart Sync II technology.

Having a reversing camera, though, is brilliant for both: It’s a whole lot easier for urban parking situations. A camera and parking radar is the best solution, but the view alone – and the line markings – make all the difference.

In general urban use, the tray dimensions and load capacities are perhaps not as vital as when on the work site, but for the record the Hilux, at 1569mm, has a longer deck but a lighter payload, at 925kg against Ranger’s 952kg.

Toyota’s claim of being widest reflects the wellside maximum but doesn’t take into account the distance between wheel arches – because, at 1109mm, that does undoes the claim. Basically, you slide a pallet onto the Ranger all the way up the back of the deck and cannot perform the same trick with Hilux.

Also, the Ford has a plastic liner factory-fitted – perhaps because it includes a power point at the back the right side wheel arch plus a deck illumination light (an idea picked from VW Amarok). Toyota buyers get a painted deck and must spend $1000 for the plastic protector.

This Hilux’s braked towing capacity is superior to the old model’s but even at 3200kg (or 3500kg with the manual), the auto model is rated to haul 300kg less than Ranger.

Powertrain, performance

This the subject that starts barfights, right? The macho attitude is that ‘more matters’, in which case the mill under the Ranger’s bonnet gains ascendance: 3.2 litres versus 2.8, five cylinders versus four, 147kW against 130, 470Nm versus 450Nm. Both run six-speed automatics but, on the face of it, Blue beats Red.

And yet, when they’re doing their stuff, the gaps that seem so obvious on paper just aren’t as glaring.

It’s no cop-out (though you might think otherwise) to say that both are truly excellent engines. These outputs, and the manner in which they unfurl, are enough to get the toughest jobs done, whether you’re towing, hauling a load in the tray or thumping around rocky river beds and up dizzying ascents off road.

I do like that Ford five cylinder; rhere’s an effortless sense to everything it does, such is the power and torque of the engine and the way in which it is delivered.

However that doesn’t mean the Toyota mill is without credibility.

While this engine’s peak pulling power arrives higher in the rev range and doesn’t sustain as broadly as it did with the 3.0-litre, there’s substantially more torque so it never lacks for muscularity and rarely feels put out.

Plus it’s smooth. The typical clatter associated with diesel powered utes is more evident with Ranger than in the Hilux; until the Toyota unit is revved, you could be forgiven for imagining it’s not even a compression ignition unit. Those big revvy moments are relatively few because low-down torque is particularly abundant; for the most part it’s giving great service while putting less than 2000rpm on the clock. Just like Ranger? Yes, of course. But, more importantly, it feels as strong there, too.

But the standout feature from Toyota’s engine is the refinement. It is smoother in building momentum and impressively smother than not only the previous engine but also the Ford unit. True, the five-pot does contribute a better note – there’s almost a ‘warble’ resultant from that uneven cylinder count – but for noise, vibration and harshness, it’s not quite as good as the Hilux.

Also, the Toyota seems to be more happily married to its automatic. The Japanese set-up shifts gears smoothly and effectively, cleverly and cleanly dropping down gears when you brake, and even blipping the throttle in some situations. The new

throttle mapping for Ranger on the main is also a nice thing, but it’s despoiled on occasion by a hesitation or jerkiness around town at low speed (It was the same with a Mazda BT-50 driven recently).

That aside, it makes good value of the generous torque reserves and perhaps, at 100km, makes Ranger the more mechanically relaxed of the two, even though it is not perhaps the quieter. Does that make sense?

While Ford holds gold for 0-100kmh acceleration, another trait with Hilux is that it offers better rolling response courtesy of snappier gear changes; Ranger clearly has the extra muscle but it can be more languid in flexing it.

There’s obviously some tangible effect on economy because, despite being one up on cylinder count and having a bigger capacity, the test Ranger was the thriftier drive. Timing of the tests – the models were together for one day during their respective trial periods – prohibited direct direct back-to-back, and the Ford ran more distance, though both had similar open road runs. From that the Ranger used a real-world 9.8 litres per 100km, whereas the Hilux reported a 10.8L/100km average.

Driving appeal

While their respective cabins also provide some very smart fittings, their general layout reminds that these are still clearly working trucks, with lots of hard-wearing materials that are tolerant of a work boot or tool belt. Toyota’s plastics are smarter in appearance; even though some of the plastics are very hard, the surfaces are smart enough to meet family fulfilment, moreso than Ford’s.

Either way, the front seating position is a pleasant hybrid of upright commercial utilitarian and SUV comfort but, again, if you could create a best of both world scenario, I’d have Hilux’s seating position but Ranger’s chairs (mainly because of their super lower back support).

With the Toyota, the back bench is where all the good work has been done. Never previously a great spot, the Hilux’s rear seat has improved now from the back rest being at a better angle and also thicker-cushioned. It’s no limo, but has become a feasible proposition for longer drives and there’s room for three adults. Nonetheless, the Ranger is better prepped still, because in addition to matching for seat comfort it has noticeably more rear leg and head room.

The ‘c’ word is also applicable in respect to ride; you don’t expect unladen utes to be limo-like – and that’s just as well, because neither of these are – yet, one is more relaxed than the other when running on empty. And it’s the Ford: You still feel the bumps, but less jarringly, and on corrugated surfaces the tail doesn’t hop around as much.

When they’re weighted up – in both instances, with a load of firewood from my brother-in-law (by the way Ford and Toyota, your tie-down points are second-rate in presentation and location for top-level trucks) – they each settle down noticeably, though again the Ranger just imparts a sense of being a touch more fluent and more planted. There’s little in it, though. It was the same when each was asked to tow a tandem trailer; something they do better with the implementation of anti-sway tech. Both felt secure and confident, but the Ranger just that tad moreso.

So far, so Ford? The story changes for steering. The Hilux’s hydraulic setup consistently imparts a more natural feel than Ranger’s electric-assist setup; on the other hand the Ranger has a tighter turning circle and, in low speed manoeuvres requiring plenty of wheel turning, it asks for less effort. It’s just numb on the open road.

Off-road? Well, like I say, we hardly went there, but the skinny is that the Hilux has the better breakover angle and certainly seems to provide excellent axle articulation and perhaps a more subtle electronic stability control system. It has a proper low range and a hill-descent function that uses the ESC to control your descent speed. But Ranger XLT has a proper lockable rear differential, something that could well make a vital difference in truly sticky circumstances.

How they compare

There are a lot of choices in this sector, but this exercise simply reinforced why these two models together dominate for sales.

Some others are brilliant in certain ways – like Amarok for ride and its transmission tech and Colorado/Dmax for sheer toughness – but no others score so well for overall ability. The Hilux and the Ranger are genuine trailblazers.

The crunch question: Which better fits the remit laid out here? Sorry Toyota, but it has to be the Ranger.

While the SR5 has advanced hugely, it falters here for costing more and providing just that little bit less.

Ranger’s technology advantage alone would seal it for me; not only does Sync offer more but it works smarter. Toyota’s screen is brilliant for display, less useful for functionality: The Ford’s new sat nav is easier to use. Making a phone call on the move is so much easier with Ranger than Hilux, due to Toyota’s overly-nannying prohibitions on basic functions.

But I’m just as impressed that it is, by and large, better detailed, too despite Toyota having the superior interior design. And Ford’s performance and load advantage also speaks, too.

But this is no trouncing. The Toyota is s-o-o-o close to be an equal and, given the strength of this brand’s engineering capability, it would not take much for it to close those gaps.