I get this question frequently as I’m at the gas pumps with the Airstream, and I know a few readers of this blog have been wondering as well. Having reached the one-year anniversary of towing with our 2019 Ford Ranger, I feel like I’ve gathered enough experience to offer a report.
The Ranger freaks people out because it’s a “compact” truck and it offers only 4 cylinders. Never mind that it’s as big as trucks used to be in the 1980s and that it has much more power output—it’s very common these days that people expect trucks for towing to be huge and massively over-powered. If you look beyond the physical size and lack of a “V10” emblem, the specs are undeniably impressive.
Our travel trailer is not particularly heavy or difficult to tow. It’s a 2020 Airstream Globetrotter 23FB which weighs 5,460 pounds empty, and about 6,000 to 6,200 fully loaded for travel. (The maximum weight, or GVWR, is 6,300 pounds.)
The 2019 and later Ford Ranger has a manufacturer’s tow rating of 7,500 pounds. Although I don’t generally put a lot of stock in manufacturer tow ratings, as they are heavily influenced by marketing needs, in this case I consider Ford’s rating pretty realistic.
The diminutive 2.3 liter “Ecoboost” engine is an astonishing feat of modern engineering. By comparison, my first Ford Ranger back in 1998, boasted a 3 liter V6 but it was truly the most gutless and slow thing I ever drove (and that includes my 1967 VW Bug). It was suitable for towing a pop-up camper at most—and then only if you could avoid steep hills.
Three decades of engineering advances have made an enormous difference. The 2019 and later Rangers bear no resemblance to the earlier ones whatsoever. Hard-working engineers and scientists have figured out how to extract an astonishing 270 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque out of those four little cylinders. That’s more than enough to pull our Airstream up a steep (8%) grade without slowing down.
Part of the trick is turbocharging, and another contribution comes from the 10-speed auto transmission. But without going into a piston-head dissertation, suffice it to say I’ve been satisfied with the power. So there goes the question, “Can that little truck pull that Airstream?”
Yes, it can. Read on for more …
We chose the SuperCrew variant of Ranger because we have a dog who rides in the back, and we don’t carry a huge amount of stuff. This seems to be the popular version judging from the other Rangers we have seen on the road. The only downside is the short 5-foot bed, which requires removing at least one wheel from a bicycle if you want it to fit entirely in the bed. We’re going to put a hitch receiver on the back of the Airstream for a bike rack later.
We also went with a tonneau cover to keep stuff in the back dry and protected. If you’re tight on storage, consider a full pickup cap instead.
I do have mixed feelings about getting 2WD instead of 4WD. We would use four-wheel drive rarely and it does add a fair bit of weight to the vehicle, but when you need it you really need it. We bypassed a few interesting side trips in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park last year because 2WD just wouldn’t cut it on the deep sand.
Fuel economy is pretty typical for a gas truck pulling an Airstream—nothing to write home about. We get about 13 MPG towing with no wind at 65 MPH. If we push to 70 MPH on the wide open western highways, fuel economy drops precipitously. With a strong headwind we can see <10 MPG and at that point I usually slow down a bit to compensate.
Up to now this might sound like a Ford Ranger commercial, so let me give you a bit of the downside. Obviously it’s a smaller truck, so if you travel heavy you’ll probably find it to be lacking for cargo-hauling space. And of course if you’ve got a 28-foot or longer Airstream it’s probably not for you.
For me, the big disappointment of the Ranger has been the handling and ride. Now keep in mind that my previous tow vehicles were Mercedes GL’s (two of them, a 2009 and a 2015). Despite being a large SUV with capacity to seat 7 people, towing with the Mercedes GL is a sublime experience, calm and lulling to the point that I seriously worried about falling asleep at the wheel.
The Mercedes GL tracks so straight and easily that you can drive across the USA with a single finger at the wheel. It has an all-wheel drive system that is really good, to the point that I never hesitated to take it off-roading. The handling is precise enough to challenge smaller cars at the track, and the ride is beautifully smooth thanks to an air suspension that is designed to cruise the Autobahn.
After that, the Ranger is a huge letdown. “Hey, it’s a truck” is what everyone says when I enumerate its shortcomings in handling. What they mean is that it bounces over uneven pavement, wanders like a butterfly when there are ruts in the road, and exhibits understeer that can be quite alarming on a curvy road.
From what I understand, this is partly the result of decades on non-engineering on the suspension. Like virtually every other pickup truck on the road it has a crude solid rear axle spring suspension that has barely progressed in sophistication since Eisenhower was president. What it needs is a decent fully-independent suspension designed to keep the wheels on the road, but don’t get me started on that rant.
The dinosaur-era suspension is made worse by an apparently deliberate choice by Ford to tune the steering to have a slight understeer. This is what they think truck owners like, I guess. When towing, the understeer becomes quite apparent.
The bottom line here is: It’s a truck, and probably not even among the better handling trucks available today. But if you didn’t just transition from a Mercedes GL, you may not notice.
I’ll be the first to admit the comparison between a $30k Ford Ranger and a $70k Mercedes GL is not fair. For the money, the Ranger is a much better value. I switched out of the Mercedes family after 10 years of ownership because the maintenance costs of the GL were ridiculous. Routine service, every 30K miles, was approaching $2,000.
To put it another way, I sold the 2015 Mercedes with enough residual value to buy the 2019 Ranger for cash, lightly used, with a 7-year extended warranty. It hasn’t needed any service since beyond an inexpensive oil change. Considering that, I can’t complain about the downgrade in handling too much.
If you have or buy one of these Rangers for towing, I have a couple of tips.
First off, always use the Tow/Haul mode. I was so entranced by the engine power that I thought, “No need for Tow/Haul”—and that was a mistake. It turns out that the Tow/Haul mode does more than just adjust the transmission’s shift points. Without it, a fault was triggered when we hit long 8% grades. We got a Powertrain Malfunction Light (which is a yellow wrench in the cluster) and a Check Engine Light, and the engine immediately went into limp mode. These lights eventually reset themselves, usually after turning off the engine.
This happened three times on a particularly hilly trip through Utah before I clued in and started using Tow/Haul mode. Surprise, surprise, no more problems after that.
Second, the fuel tank of the Ranger is sadly undersized for towing. A meager 18 gallons goes pretty quickly at 13 MPG, when allowing for a reasonable reserve. We stop for fuel about every 150-170 miles, but fortunately that jibes with our need for doggie breaks, bathroom breaks, and driver swaps. Plan accordingly.
The other thing that’s often overlooked in tow vehicle reviews is how the vehicle behaves when not towing. The Ranger’s small size works in its favor here, being reasonably easy to drive and park, and offering good fuel economy (for us) of about 22 City and 30 Highway. The handling, however is still truck-like.
Would I buy it again? Probably yes. For our needs, a small truck is fine, and it’s a decent around-town vehicle when we need it. But also, we can’t fit a full size truck in our carport at home and so our options are limited. I’ve thought about whether we’d go to a full-size truck if we didn’t have the carport limitation, and I don’t think we would. The Ranger does the job.