HOWDY, PARTNER! Ford will be reintroducing the Ranger bakkie in America. Image: Lance Branquinho
Cape Town - Freezing air drifts in from Lake Michigan, scurrying show-goers into the Cobo centre’s heated relief.
January’s bitterly cold in Detroit, but four-wheeled enthusiasts from across the world brave its icy temperatures to attend the industry’s first show-and-tell event of 2017: the North American International Auto Show. A gathering which, as the first amongst equals, sets the tone for any automotive year.
It was a disastrous show in 2009, a few months after the sub-prime crisis and collapse of the American auto industry. Detroit’s fortunes wax and wane with those of the automotive industry and the dark moon which had risen after the 1967 riots, has never really set. It’s a city in decay, with abandoned industrial buildings carrying the names of once successful brands such as Packard.
One should never let a host or venue bias the quality of an experience and beyond the autonomous driving technology, an enormous SUV from Audi and Mercedes-Benz stating the obvious (AMG’s turning 50 – we know), there were two North American Auto Show announcements of particular interest to South African Ford – and by implication - Toyota owners.
‘F-Series is going to do a Mustang and return to South Africa in RHD?’ Not quite.
The crucial declaration at this year’s North American Auto Show was Ford’s commitment to reintroduce Ranger bakkies to a market they haven’t been available in since 2011 – bizarrely the same year its excellent T6-generation Ranger was launched globally.
We look with great jealousy upon the American bakkie market, in awe of their enormous V8- and V10 turbodiesel dually rigs. Of late, the jealousy’s been reciprocal. Americans ponder the sense of an Amarok, Hilux - but particularly, of Ranger.
Twinned with the reintroduction of Ranger to America – datelined for 2020 – is the revival of Bronco. It’s nameplate which kindles a glint of reminiscence in the eyes of people who always have a Leatherman fastened to their belt and winching gloves tucked in the rear pocket.
Ford’s Jeep Wrangler rival was discontinued in 1996 and since then the Blue Oval hasn’t really had a rock-crawler of note – if you dismiss F-Series Raptor as a privately licensed off-road racing vehicle, instead of an extreme technical terrain 4x4.
What does it mean for SA?
Ford’s timing of the announcement, confirming Ranger’s reintroduction to America and Bronco’s revival, appeared to confirm suspicions that Ford’s Wrangler rival will be an evolved Everest. But no. Raj Nair, Ford’s executive-president (ridiculous title, we know) was adamant new Bronco will be an entirely new frame with unique hard-points. That could mean solid axles and all manner of lockable axle functionality.
I know what you’re thinking. ‘That’s America, this means nothing to me in Mzansi.’ But it does. So very much, in fact.
The American mid-size bakkie market (which corresponds to South African specification bakkies: Hilux, Ranger, Amarok, KB and the like...), had a volume of 450 000 last year. And that’s off a very limited model offering; without Hilux, Ranger, BT-50, Amarok or Triton.
Astounding, those numbers: Americans, with very limited choice, bought a number of ‘compact bakkies’ equal the entire South African car market in 2016. And this is why the American destiny of the successor to T6 Ranger (in all probability codenamed T7) matters terrifically much to us here in South Africa.
American customers will have specific demands for Ranger, tailing on decades of F-Series legacy experience. These should scale more powerful engines, cleverer infotainment and comfier cabins. The desire we’ve always had for contemporary F-150s could finally be satisfied by next-generation Ranger, which will truly evolve into the two-thirds Ranger we’ve always supposed it could be.
Imagine a Ranger with F-150’s current 242kW, 2.7-litre turbocharged V6 Ecoboost? It would be quite a thing.
Unintended consequences of all this could be a commensurate product initiative from Toyota. Ranger and Everest forced an escalation of excellence from Hilux and Fortuner in South Africa and an Americanised T7 Ranger bakkie could enact a similar progression in engineering and features witnessed between seventh- and eight-generation Hilux.
Phenomenal off-road traction features – including a self-rescue sand crawl control function - are available on Toyota’s American ‘mid-size’ bakkie, the Tacoma. Wouldn’t it be great to see those bolstering the already formidable Hilux?
And Bronco? Doubt we’ll see that in RHD, regrettably. But some of its rock-crawl and extreme traction mechantronic hardware could assist a future Everest to become more of the Prado rival Ford SA markets it as.
South Africa is debilitatingly warm and mostly scorched by drought this January, as opposed to Michigan, layered in snow and surrounded by freezing water.
But the news of a more Americanised Ranger in our shared future, is a contentment to displace the ghost of your grandfather’s faded image in the family album – that one of him standing next to his F150 straight-six in the Kalahari.
Detroit’s a dismal place in January. Sure. But this year, it was the source of bakkie news to get our year into the right gear.