Payne: Rugged Ford Ranger Tremor hits the slopes

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 11, 2021

So you enjoy off-roading. Done it in the snow?

It is beautiful, challenging and dangerous. And the perfect habitat for the 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor — my four-wheeled snowmobile for a recent trip to wintry Holly Oaks ORV park.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor is the most rugged Ranger on offer. The off-road package is available on XLT and Lariat trims.>

My last foray into Holly Oaks’ twisted canyons was last November in the Ford Bronco Sport, my 2020 Detroit News Vehicle of the Year. Bronco Sport is a superb all-around package of utility, design and fun. Not content to just haul stuff (like two bikes upright under its rear hatch), the unibody-based, $34,000 Bronco Sport Badlands edition features the twin rear clutch pack off a Ford Focus R hot hatch to make for serious off-road capability. I whipped the little stallion around Holly Oaks so hard I popped a tire bead.

But when the going gets really tough, you’ll want a ladder frame under you like the Ranger Tremor. And even then, you’ll still want bead locks as (ahem) I once again torqued a bead off a rim. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Tremor is the most capable Ranger pickup on offer. And the mid-sizer is a worthwhile daily driver even if you don’t plan on tearing up off-road parks. Tows 7,500 pounds with 2,080 payload. My pal John bought a Ranger because he couldn’t fit an F-150 into his Manistee condo’s garage.

Time for bead locks. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor loves to play off-road — and News auto critic Henry Payne managed to separate the tire bead from the rim on a particularly woolly piece of Holly Oaks Park. Good thing there is a spare tire under the bed.>

I can’t fit an F-150 into my two-car garage, either. It’s a technical marvel with six engine options, tablet display with state-of-thee-art SYNC 4 infotainment, zone lighting, self-park-assist, onboard generator, wireless phone apps and a rear seat big enough to fit the Detroit Pistons front court.

Ranger is a generation behind big brother (waiting for hand-me-downs) when it comes to tech. Its cabin has small screens, SYNC 3, no hybrid option, and adaptive cruise control that doesn’t work under 10 mph.

Whoa, Nelly! It’s been a while since I drove ACC that didn’t come to a full stop behind another vehicle.

But throw on the Ranger’s $4,290 Tremor package and the wee pickup comes alive with all-road capability. No, this isn’t a Baby Raptor with Baja suspension and twin-turbo V-6 engine that can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Ranger still gets upgraded Fox shocks with Ranger’s standard, snarly 2.3-liter engine turbo-4 with class-best 310 pound feet of torque. Heck, it’s shared with the aforementioned Focus RS pocket rocket (oh, I miss that little hellion in North America) and Mustang HiPo. Tremor starts a whopping $30,000 south of Raptor.

And size matters off-road. Small size.

Where F-150 Raptor’s capabilities can only fully be realized by ingesting sand dunes in SoCal’s Borrego Desert at 100 mph, you can satisfy Tremor’s appetite at Holly Oaks (or The Mounds in Flint) just 30 minutes up I-75.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor at play. It's rear-wheel-drive layout and 4x4 traction makes it fun in the snow.>

North Oakland County is pickup country, and I drove in a herd of F-150, F-250, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra and Ram 1500 elephants up the interstate. But Holly Oaks’ confines (carved out of an old cement quarry) are more amenable to compact bruisers like the Ranger Tremor.

This is Jeep Wrangler (and soon-to-arrive) Ford Bronco country, with narrow trails and narrow crevices not unlike what you’ll find on rocky Moab terrain in Utah. Mid-size pickups have piggy-backed on the explosion in SUV interest, bringing pickup bed utility to the game. Tremor is joined by the Jeep Gladiator, Chevy Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD.Get the COVID-19 Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Tremor goodies are a nice value as they sit on top of the already tough FX-4 off-road package — and can be coupled with XLT and Lariat trims starting at $41,000.

The Ranger’s torquey, 270-horse mill and Fox shocks make it a blast around Holly Oaks high-speed bits just like cousin Bronco Sport. But blanket the 235-acre landscape in 6 inches of snow, and the desire for a ladder-frame chassis suddenly become paramount.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor climbs Mt. Magna at Holly Oaks in the snow. The rocks make for slick going, but with 4-wheel-low selected and the locking rear differential on, the Tremor made it to the top.>

Under the powder lurk potholes and ridges and debris that would bend a unibody chassis. The Ranger box-frame absorbed the punishment with steely determination. Add Tremor’s four underbody skid plates, 32-inch tires, 9.7-inch ground clearance and 31-inch approach angle, and my Cyber Orange Ranger was a rhino in tennis shoes.

Whump!

I buried the truck’s nose into a ditch hiding under the snow as I slid sideways around a downhill embankment. Tremor’s skid plate and shocks absorbed the impact (sparing my head from the ceiling), but the shock twisted the tire bead off the rim. Good thing Tremor carries a spare under its belly. Better yet, put bead locks on the rims if you want to explore the limits.

Back in action, I charged up the park’s “Twin Tetons,” all four wheels churning snow to make it to the top. “Maintaining momentum is key to getting through snow,” Holly Oaks designer Tom Zielinski had advised me earlier in the day.

At the top of Teton II, I hesitated. Pondering the steep decline below, I toggled Ranger Tremor’s “Trail Control” feature — low-speed cruise control that I’d first experienced on the Raptor to navigate rocky western terrain. Pedal-free, I inched down the slope at 5 mph — too slow as it turned out.

The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor features upgrades over the FX-4 off-road trim like Fox shocks, increased ride height and approach angle, and six auxiliary plugs for extra hardware.>

The 4,571-pound truck began to slew sideways, a bad sign in slippery conditions that can — in the worst case — pitch the truck sideways, flipping it into a barrel roll. When in doubt, throttle out! is the off-roaders’ mantra. I overrode Trail Assist with throttle, and the Tremor straightened out, barreling downhill true as an arrow.

The Tremor trim builds on Ranger’s FX4 package (skid plates, 4WD drive modes, tow hooks) by adding signature red grille nostrils, Fox shocks and 32-inch, Continental General Grabber tires. The combination is magic off-road, lifting the truck nearly 10-inches off the ground (four hoop side steps are added to help climb into the cabin) and absorbing sub-snow frozen moguls.

Saucy. The 2021 Ford Ranger Tremor can be had with a special Tremor graphics package.>

Where regular shocks might shake a tooth loose, the Foxes cushion the blows while the Grabbers, well, grab. As it turned out, the pair have a civilized side, too. Daily commuting is quite smooth, with the Grabber quieter than your average off-road claws.

For those who want to bring a dirt bike along, Ranger’s bed offers good utility, though I can’t say the same for the tight rear seats. If your family has long legs, get an F-150.

I miss Ford’s hot hatch sedans. But Ford still offers a stable of affordable vehicles — Bronco, Bronco Sport, Mustang, Escape — with lots of personality. Add Tremor to the list.

2021 Ford Ranger Tremor

Vehicle type: Four-wheel-drive, four-door, midsize pickup

Price: $42,545, including $1,195 destination charge ($47,805 Tremor Lariat as tested)

Powerplant: 2.3-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 270 horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 7,500 pounds; payload, 1,430 pounds

Weight: 4,565 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/19 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Off-road brute; 32-inch tires

Lows: Dated interior tech; tight back seat

Overall: 3 stars

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