'04 Ford Ranger
The folks at Ford say the Ranger has been the best-selling compact pickup for the last 16 years running. OK, but what have they done for you lately? Well, for '04, they say they've given the Ranger new interior styling and freshened the exterior styling.

Under the hood, the '04 Ranger offers three engine choices: a 2.3L I-4 and two V-6 engines. The 2.3L I-4 produces 143 hp at 5,200 rpm and 154 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. Next is the 3.0L V-6 engine, a flexible-fuel capable unit that produces 154 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque; it's the standard engine on all 4x2 SuperCab models equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Finally, the Ranger is also available with a 4.0L SOHC V-6 that produces 207 hp at 5,250 rpm and 238 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. All three engines are available with a five-speed automatic transmission or a heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission.

The '04 Ranger is available in XL, Edge, XLT, Tremor, and FX4 trims in both 4x2 and 4x4 offerings. Cab configurations include Regular Cab and SuperCab, in both Styleside and Flareside versions. A long-wheelbase option is available on Regular Cab Styleside models.

One of the cooler options in the Ranger lineup is the new Pioneer stereo system, featuring an AM/FM CD/MP3 player with 290 watts of peak power through nine speakers and an integrated power subwoofer - yikes! If that's not enough, you can super-size your stereo option with the Pioneer system in the Tremor. It delivers 510 watts of power through a new in-dash CD/MP3 player and is offered with a 4x4 drivetrain, in addition to the 4x2 offered in previous years.

Driving it
The '04 Ford Ranger FX4/Level II SuperCab 4x4 we drove came equipped with the 4.0L SOHC V-6 backed by a five-speed manual trans and 4.10 limited-slip differential. The 4.0L SOHC V-6 produces 207 hp at 5,250 rpm and 238 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm, and when coupled with the low rearend gearing and the five-speed manual, provided passable performance. The engine is tuned to make low- and mid-range power, which is great for a work truck, but we'd like to see a broader powerband. It'd make it more fun to drive, especially with the five-speed stick. But if you're going to work, haul, and tow with this package, the Ford engine guys have done you right.

Ford says it retuned the Ranger's suspension bushings, springs, tires, and shocks for improved ride comfort. The FX4/Level II we drove was fitted with the retuned Bilstein shocks, BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires, and Alcoa forged-aluminum wheels. The upgraded components sparked up the ride and handling of this 4x4. It responded to our twisted mountain test loop with grace and balance that we didn't expect from a compact sport truck with a differential under the nose. Sure, the nose plowed when we went in too hot in the corners, but to get to that point, you had to push it really hard.

Our tester had a firm but not harsh freeway ride quality. It had the typical expansion joint chop, but the spring rates and shocks did a good job of keeping the bumps and grinds to a noticeable but not unpleasant level. We were more than happy to trade that ride quality for the handling prowess the suspension gave us on our test loop.

Stuff we Like
* Good ride and handling from the Level II package with retuned Bilstein shocks, BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires, and Alcoa forged-aluminum wheels.
* Best interior of the bunch. The optional leather seating is a must-have, as is the Pioneer sound package with 290-watt seven-speaker system with in-dash six-disc MP3 player.
* Good low- and mid-range torque from the SOHC 4.0L V-6. We'd like it better if it revved a little freer, though.

Stuff We Don't
* The exterior styling, in spite of its freshening, is showing its age. It's a classic truck shape, but the Ranger will face stiff competition next year from several new models in this segment.
* Not available as a crew cab
* Slow-revving 4.0L V-6; made it feel too much like a work truck instead of a sport truck

'04 Ford Ranger Base price: $15,195 (MSRP)
Vehicle type: 1/2-ton midsize construction: body on hydroformed frame
Body style: Regular Cab, SuperCab, Styleside, Flareside; 4x2, 4x4
Standard engine: 2.3L DOHC I-4, aluminum block, aluminum head, 4 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic. Opt. 1: 3.0L OHV V-6, iron block, iron heads, 2 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic. Opt. 2: 4.0L SOHC V-6, iron block, aluminum heads, 2 valves per cylinder, sequential multiport electronic
Horsepower: std.: 143 hp @ 5,200 rpm; opt. 1: 154 hp @ 5,200 rpm; opt. 2: 207 hp @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: std.:154 lb-ft @ 3,750 rpm; opt. 1: 180 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm; opt. 2: 238 lb-ft 3,000 rpm
Fuel: 87-octane unleaded (all)
Transmission: base: 5-speed manual; opt.: 5-speed auto