For the 1998 model year, Ford has made numerous technical and styling improvements to its Ranger line of compact trucks.

In my view, the Ranger beats anything you'd get from Toyota or Nissan. It offers a better ride, more room and a greater choice of engines. Unfortunately, the Ranger also can come with a very stiff price tag.

The basic Ranger starts at about $12,000, which is a good price for a great truck. But our test vehicle, a SuperCab, long-wheelbase model with the Splash package, is just too expensive. You could get a well-equipped, full-size Ford F-150 for about the same money.

PERFORMANCE, HANDLING

Ford builds the Ranger with a large number of drivetrain combinations. The base Ranger is outfitted with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that develops 117 horsepower. Two V-6s are on the options list, a 3.0-liter unit that is rated at 145 horsepower and a 4.0-liter that makes 158 horsepower.

Buyers can choose from a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic with the 2.5- and 3.0-liter engines. A five-speed automatic transmission - a Ford exclusive - is available with the 4.0-liter V-6. Four-wheel drive is optional on V-6 models.

Our Ranger Splash sported the 4.0-liter V-6 and the five-speed automatic and two-wheel drive. Overall, performance is excellent. The quiet-running V-6 has enough power to spin the rear tires on dry pavement - no easy feat with an automatic transmission.

Acceleration is strong, but the transmission's movement through the gears definitely lets you know you are in a truck. Under hard acceleration, the shifts are crisp. A button on the end of the shifter allows you to lock out fifth gear, so the engine won't strain if you're hauling a trailer or have the bed filled with cargo.

Ford engineers made the '98 Ranger's frame stiffer, and they designed a new front suspension. The brakes have been upgraded, and the rack-and-pinion steering system has been redesigned.All this adds up to a small truck that handles more like a sports car. Light and agile, the Ranger is a breeze to drive. I found the truck particularly enjoyable to fling into a tight corner. The body does not lean and you'll hear no protest from the tires as you shoot through the curve.

The Splash model is supposed to be the sporty version of the Ranger, yet it does not have disc brakes on all corners. Also, for almost $22,000, drivers should expect more than just rear anti-lock brakes. The brakes work well, but I think the Ranger Splash's value would be enhanced with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.

Our test Ranger proved to be a pretty tough customer when driven off-road. The front suspension - consisting of short- and long-arms - and a solid axle in the rear take the sharp edges off hard bumps. I took the Ranger Splash down a very long, very bad dirt road in Lake Mary and found it easy to control.

FIT AND FINISH

However, during my foray of f the paved road, I was disheartened to hear considerable rattling. The noise came from the two inward-facing fold-down rear jump seats.

Those seats, by the way, are not really suitable for adults. They are small and somewhat uncomfortable. I consider the rear of the Splash to be a cargo area for items that need to be locked inside the truck. However, I found it hard to place large items, such as a case of copier paper, back there. The front seats don't slide forward far enough to allow you to place big parcels behind the seats easily.

Despite those minor gripes, the Ranger Splash was a useful and comfortable machine. The front cloth-covered buckets are firm and offer good support. I was no worse for the wear after several long spells behind the wheel.

The Splash comes with a long menu of equipment, including power windows, mirrors and door locks; cruise control; air conditioning; CD player; sliding rear window; and dual air bags with a passenger-side cut-off swi ch.

The Ranger is a great-looking truck. Its scaled-down step-side styling looks terrific. The performance and handling are excellent. But this little truck has a big price. And it left me questioning its value.

Specifications:

1998 Ford Ranger Splash 4X2 SuperCab

FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 39.2 Leg room 42.2

REAR COMPARTMENT Head room N/A Leg room N/A

WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and six-year, 100,000-mile rust protection.

MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transmission, rear-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted front disc, rear drum with ABS on rear wheels. Engine: 158-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Inches unless otherwise specified

Truett's tip: The Ranger Splash is an agile and fun-to-drive truck, but it is expensive for a compact truck.