But is that enough to forsake bridesmaid tag?

This morning we told you all about Ford's improved new Ranger, but is this bakkie really up to challenging its nemesis Hilux? Well, today we drove the beast and while I cannot ever vouch for who will beat what when it comes to the top of the sales chart every month, I can tell you that the new Ranger certainly is equipped to pull it off...

There’s not much difference in looks versus the old one — people who know it well may notice the slight changes, but those under the skin improvements are huge, not least those all-new 2-litre turbo and biturbo diesels and Ford’s amazing ten-speed autobox we exclusively drove for the first time today.

The familiar 2.2 and 3.2 TDCi turbodiesels of course continue to prop up the bulk of the range, but today was all about the new tech and impress it did. First up, that stonking 157kW 500Nm biturbo 2-litre four-cylinder diesel built in Port Elizabeth and now exclusively available in the flagship Wildtrak and also soon set to star in the much anticipated Ranger Raptor. 

Packing a variable-geometry high-pressure turbocharger along with a regular low-pressure unit, the two chargers work in tandem for greater torque and responsiveness, with the smaller snail doing duty at lower engine speeds, before the bigger unit ramps up and soon takes over to boost through to the top-end. But it’s how this engine works together with sophisticated new 10-speed automatic transmission that really impresses.

Feather it off the line and the biturbo pulls strong, floor it and it shoves you back in the seat. In normal driving, it is quite pleasing to play the throttle and feel the combined effects of the gearbox seamlessly engaging the ideal cog for your current speed and throttle position. Floor it and the box skips a few cogs down to greet a creamy dollop of creamy biturbo power with precisely the right ratio for quickest acceleration.

Cruising the freeway later on, it pulled along in top, secretly dropping a gear or two as the incline increases against you and shifting back up as the road levels or drops away, but always in almost effortless comfort, sipping in the sevens per hundred, where I know the old 3.2 would struggle to find the nines. That effortlessness is the hallmark of the biturbo though, it brings sophisticated contemporary executive saloon like simplicity to your driving — and this is a bakkie, remember.

Not that the 132kW 420Nm single turbo is a long way off — no sir, in fact I’d say it's closer to the flagship twin turbo than the price discount suggests, making it a most worthwhile hundred grand or so to spare, if that really matters. Of course the single-snail version also comes with that brilliant ten-hooker auto with its wider spread of ratios ­and high-tech, including real-time adaptive shift-scheduling for that optimal gear for performance, efficiency or refinement depending how you drive it.

You would have noticed in our earlier launch notes that Ford promises that the new Ranger also brings significantly improved SUV-like ride quality thanks to a new aft-axle mounted anti-roll bar, for improved roll control, the use of softer front spring rates, lower tyre pressures and four separate damper rates, rather than just one, to suit each manual automatic, 4x2 and 4x4 configuration. 

These improvements not only bring a plusher ride, especially over rougher road surfaces, but Ranger’s directional stability appears to have significantly improved over rutted or corrugated surfaces. Ford promises this is especially when Ranger is heavily laden and towing close to its still market leading 3.5 tonne braked trailer capacity.

I’m not so sure how those enhancements affect Ranger’s extreme 4x4 ability, but that 10-speed box armed with a low range too makes for absolutely effortless 4x4 crawling ability, aided and abetted by rear diff lock, throttle and brake responsive hill descent control, an 800mm water wading depth and 230mm ground clearance.

I won’t bother too much about all the other detail, but you can take a closer look into that by clicking here, but the new Ford ranger certainly does moves up a gear. Or is that four? Will that be enough for it to escape its eternal SA new car market bridesmaid status? Time will tell, but rest assured, it is now fully armed to steal that hallowed number one spot. It’s going to be a most interesting few bakkie months!