Take the Ford Ranger.
A pair of compact Ranger pickups arrived for testing, an XLT 4x4 and a Thunderbolt 4x2.
The XLT was dressed in FX4 trim, which means it was equipped for off-roading with in-dash dial-up four-wheel-drive controls, oversized 31-inch radials and a stance several inches higher than normal to better travel through snow, over boulders and into and out of streams.
The Thunderbolt was dressed with a hood scoop, front air dam, wheel-lip extensions and ground effects plastic trim along the rocker panels. Thanks to 15-inch radial tires and the plastic cosmetics, its stance was lower for more sure-footed travel over the straightaways and into and out of corners and turns at speed.
Different looks and different characters. The XLT FX4 4x4 is function, Thunderbolt is fun. The FX4 isn't meant for the track. Thunderbolt isn't meant for treacherous terrain, unless you opt to view the world from the scoop on that hood while waiting for the tow truck to dig you out of the sand or creek.
If the ground was covered with snow, we probably would have enjoyed the XLT the most. But when the grass is green, Thunderbolt gets the nod--as well as admiring looks from those sharing the pavement.
Thunderbolt is a lean, mean Ranger that looks like it is meant for the track. Though equipped with a 4-liter, 222-horsepower V-6, several who stopped to gawk and spotted the hood scoop and air dam asked, "Got a V-8?"
No, but the exhaust is tuned so the sweet rumble of performance is a welcome companion when kicking the pedal at the light. Good muscle from a standing start or when pulling out to pass an XLT FX4.
The optional handling suspension ($229) with larger stabilizer bars gives the pickup the road manners of a sedan. And you don't suffer the typical road harshness common with trucks. For '03 Thunderbolt will be lowered by 2 inches for even more car-like stability.
Only problem is that the 4-liter, 222-h.p. V-6 with 5-speed automatic is rated at 15 m.p.g. city/18 m.p.g. highway. Based on the movement of the fuel needle, we'd have to say the Environmental Protection Agency chap who came up with those numbers was generous that day.
Thunderbolt is a custom job from SLP Engineering in Troy, Mich., which has dressed up and powered up more than 45,000 Camaros (SS) and Firebirds (Firehawk) for Chevrolet and Pontiac since '91 to give dealers more potent renditions for showroom display.
SLP, however, is about to lose Camaro/Firebird business when those sport coupes are dropped after the '02 model run.
So it has picked up the slack by transforming Ranger into what behaves like a Ford Special Vehicle Team, or SVT, pickup without the cash-strapped automaker having to find funds for the conversion. Ford gets an eye-catching low-volume vehicle (about 10,000 annually) on the cheap so it can devote funds to bringing out much-needed hig h-volume models (100,000 and more), such as the CrossTrainer sedan/sport-utility and Ford Five-Hundred sedan for 2005.
Ford also hopes to use Thunderbolt to lure folks into showrooms to take their minds off the new and larger Colorado replacement for the Chevy S-10 pickup coming for '04. It's Ranger's chief rival.
Thunderbolt is available through any Ford dealer. SLP does the conversion at its plant and ships the product to Ford dealers. Thunderbolt is available only on XLT 4x2 models for now, perhaps on 4x4 models for '03.
To make a Ranger into a Thunderbolt, you add $1,999 to the $20,885 base price to get the non-functional hood scoop, monochromatic grille/bodyside cladding, front and rear fascia extensions and Thunderbolt logos/badging.
To our test vehicle, another $4,989 in options was added to make it act as sporty as it looks. The options include an air induction system to give the V-6 15 more h.p. than the regular 4-liter, handling suspension wit arger stabilizer bars, and a bit more decoration, such as five-spoke aluminum wheels, fog lamps, outside mirrors with built-in turn signals, soft cargo bed cover and Thunderbolt floor mats.
If you have the dough, a hard tonneau cover ($949) allows you to add a decorative rear wing spoiler ($299) for a looks-like-it-will-fly appearance.
By comparison, the XLT with FX4 package we tested is best appreciated when the going gets tough and the tough want to get home in foul weather or to the fishing or hunting retreat or to the camp along the dunes.
The FX4 package on the XLT 4x4 also is going to be available on the midsize Ford Explorer and full-size Ford Expedition sport-utes. Ford hopes that FX4 gets to be known for rugged off-roading with trucks just as GT is known for spirited performance in cars.
The FX4 package on the four-door SuperCab is new for '02 to give Ranger a more rugged-looking off-road performer without requiring the purchase of lots of aftermarket parts, especially parts bought from stores without a Blue Oval on the building.
The FX4 package includes 4WD, 4-liter, 202-h.p. V-6, axles/suspension settings that allow the vehicle to ford up to 24-inch deep streams, choice of manual transmission with manual transfer case or automatic with electronic transfer case, Bilstein off-road shocks/heavy-duty springs, heavier front skid plate, stainless-steel tow hooks in front and a black tow hook in back, forged aluminum wheels with exposed stainless steel lug nuts, 31-inch by 10.5-inch BF Goodrich T/A KO tires, styleside cargo box with FX4 decal, 4x4 floor mats and sport bucket fabric seats.
The XLT also comes with power windows/door locks/mirrors, remote keyless entry, AM/FM stereo, speed control, tilt and leather-wrapped steering wheel and slide-open rear window.
The FX4 has the same shortcoming as Thunderbolt, a 15 m.p.h. city/18 m.p.g. highway rating.
With the 31-inch radials, those who like sitting high in the saddle for a panoramic look down the road will enjoy the view, but with 31-inch radials and 4x4 hardware, the center of gravity is raised to the point you'll want to ease off the pedal entering sharp corners. And those 31-inch radials tend to react a little slower to steering-wheel input in turns than the 15-inch radials do on Thunderbolt.
The XLT 4x4 SuperCab comes with four doors, but the two rear are the side access type that don't offer wide entry or exit. Once inside, a pair of side-facing jump seats don't offer much in the way of room if your seat is wide.
The XLT FX4 SuperCab starts at $24,830. Options included 5-speed automatic at $1,000, hard cargo bed cover at $895 and air conditioning at $650. Add $610 for freight.