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Ford ups the FX4 tech

The Ford FX4 Special Edition is the manufacturer’s latest addition to its Ranger line of trucks. SEAN BACHER tries it out to see what makes the vehcile – and the tech – tick.

When 4×4 vehicles first hit South Africa’s roads they really stood out. But as good as they looked, they came with quite a few disadvantages.

The technology they used was somewhat basic so, although the increased ride height made the driver feel superior, it also meant a high centre of gravity, making them very easy to roll and difficult to stop in emergencies.

Secondly, many of them were simply rear-wheel bakkies with an increased suspension and a diff-lock system strapped to them. Although this was great for off-road, it made them downright lethal in the wet, as they would lose traction very easily.

However, decades later and with a lot of money invested in research, most of these problems have been ironed out. The perfect example of a safe, easy to drive 4X4 is Ford’s new Ranger FX4 Special Edition.

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The FX4 is available as a 3.2 turbo diesel double cab with a 6 speed manual gear box or 6 speed automatic and is based on the Ford XLT 3.2 litre double cab model. However, it includes a range of design tweaks both inside and out that turn it from a bakkie into a luxury, go-anywhere truck.

On the outside

A quick glance at the FX4 and one would recognise it immediately as part of the Ford Ranger family. However, upon closer inspection, little bits and extras make it stand out from the rest.

For instance, the front grill is borrowed from the Ford Raptor, making the car’s front end look monstrous. The side boards, or skirtings, add to the rugged look but also become a necessity when climbing in and out of the car due to its high ground clearance.

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At the rear, the FX4 comes standard with a tonneau and rubberised inlay to protect the exposed chassis from rust, sand, stones and other materials that may be loaded into it. The car also includes a tow bar.

The FX4’s large 17 inch wheels with black rims also make it stand miles apart from the standard Ford Ranger and many other 4X4s currently on the road.

On the inside

Many would think the inside of the car would bear the similar ruggedness that the car sports on the outside. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The FX4 cab oozes luxury, making it feel like one is sitting in a German sedan instead of a truck.

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For instance, the leather seats are electrically controlled, the steering column is height- and distance-adjustable, and just about every aspect of the car can be managed via the controls on the steering wheel.

The FX4 uses Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system that allows the user to control the climate, navigation, Bluetooth, audio and various third-party services all from the centrally-placed, easy-to-reach and -read 8” touchscreen. If you can’t be bothered with using buttons to control the system, the voice control option comes in very handy.

Two permanently lit USB outlets are located just below infotainment system for charging phones and tablets.

Driving, or should I rather say parking, such a big car can be a daunting task for many. Admittedly, you don’t have to worry about scuffing the rims as the tires  will just drive over any pavements you may scrape along. Although you can probably reverse into another car without doing too much damage to the Ford, it’s not such a good idea – you know, insurance premiums and all that. Thankfully, a camera is fitted just below the Ford badge at the rear, with parking sensors making parking as simple as following the lines drawn out on the screen and listening to the beeps. A long beep with red bands on the camera outlining the car behind you probably means you are about to, or have already hit the car, and it’s time to haul out your cheque book. Unfortunately the FX4 doesn’t come with front parking sensors.

The heads-up display is standard in the FX4, with a speedometer in the centre, compass to the left and multi-display to the right showing fuel consumption, range, engine temperature and other vital statistics.

So how does it drive?

To see how well the Ford Ranger FX4 handled both tar and dirt roads, my sister and I decided to go camping in the Pilanesberg. That way we could get a good feel for how it handles the roads at speed, and at the same time do a little off-road in the game reserve. And, of course, get away from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg and back in touch with the great out doors.

The first thing I noticed when driving on the roads was how high you sit. At first I was a bit skittish as it felt like the car was too detached from the road. I felt I didn’t have as much control as I would in a normal sedan. But I soon got over this as the car hugs the road just like any other modern vehicle. The powerful 3,2 litre turbo diesel engine made overtaking a breeze. The more I drove, the more my confidence grew. In fact, pushing the car over the speed limit just to get past the car or truck in front of me was as easy a punching the accelerator and knowing that there is more than enough power to get me past the cars safely.  Many other road users regularly moved out of my way, especially when they saw the menacing front grill in their rearview mirror. It almost felt like I was in command of a tank instead of a 4X4.

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The second thing I enjoyed were the potholes. Well, more to the point, they weren’t a problem, as the oversized wheels simply glided over them like they were little dimples on the road’s surface.

When the traffic cleared I was effortlessly able to get the car up to the speed limit and keep it there with cruise control – all managed via the buttons on the steering wheel. Simply push the set button and use the speed up and down buttons to adjust the car’s speed.

Overall, driving the car at speed on tarred roads was a pleasure. In fact, it was rather luxurious, thanks to the soft suspension. it was also fun, as I had time to play around with all the cruise controls, climate control and maps – all the time keeping my eyes on the road.

Although navigation via Sync 3 was very accurate, I found it quite finicky. Firstly, the maps that come with the FX4 don’t have many points of interest. For instance, Pilanesberg could not be found but Sun City could. Once the destination was found, I could only scroll to a certain point in the instructions menu to get a general idea as to where we would need to turn. And, even though there are turn-by-turn instructions, none of them were announced, meaning we had to keep our eyes on the display to make sure we didn’t miss any turns. That said, at the Mobile World Congress held earlier this year, Ford announced that all owners using the Sync 3 navigation system would be able to upgrade to the superior Waze traffic app. (Read the full article on Gadget here.)

In the Pilanesberg

Although most of the roads in the Pilansberg are tarred, the heavy rains made some of them only accessible via 4X4 – perfect for the FX4. Shrubbery and grass was also taller than usual, so where most visitors would be looking through grass to spot animals, the high ride of the FX4 afforded us the opportunity to see over the grass – and able to spot animals in the distance.

Making our way through the Pilansberg was plain sailing, even over muddy patches that most drivers would try their best to avoid. I did have a problem with the cruise control in that it will only activate at speeds over 40Km/h. Although this isn’t fast and is the park’s speed limit, it was far too fast for spotting animals.

The park offers a few look-out points that are marked as off-road and not suitable for any low vehicles. Although the hills are just over a 15 degree incline, they are over a kilometre long with several twists and bends. The incline, combined with the rain, meant that the hill was a combination of mud, water patches and smooth, slippery stones ranging in size from golf balls to mini basketballs – perfect for testing the FX4 without worrying about denting or breaking it.

Driving up in standard 2-wheel drive was impossible, as the car would go forward a few inches and then lose grip, with the rear wheels spinning madly and sliding back down.

Once in 4-wheel drive with the differential locked, the FX4 became a completely different beast. It trudged up the hill at its own pace with the rear wheels spitting stones and mud out trying to find additional grip, all the while the front wheels pulling the car up the hill. Admittedly, activating the diff-lock was overkill, making the Ford sound more like a tractor, but it just showed how much more the car could do.

At the end of the climb, the view was worth it and I thought the way down would be twice as interesting. However, on the centre console just next to the diff-lock button is Ford’s Hill Descent Control option. Simply push this and, once again, technology takes over, leaving the driver only having to steer the car. Once activated, it uses the ABS system to assign a different amount of brake pressure to each wheel, keeping the rear from swinging around and preventing the car from taking off in an uncontrollable descent.

Conclusion

The Ford Ranger FX4 is a 4X4, SUV and bakkie wrapped up in one luxury car. Its high ride height gives the driver a sense of authority on the road and its powerful diesel engine, coupled with Ford’s attention to detail both inside and outside, really reinforces that authority.

The sensors, camera and infotainment system are easy to use and, despite its size, the FX4 is easy to drive and park.

That authority and ease of use comes at price of R609 000 for the automatic and R594 000 for the manual version. On paper, those prices are rather high, but when you compare the FX4’s looks and price to its competitors, you will be surprised at how much more you are getting for that price.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

Cars

Two-thirds of adults ready for cars that drive themselves

The latest Looking Further with Ford Trends Report reveals that behaviour is changing across key areas of our lives

Self-driving cars are a hot topic today, but if you had to choose, would you rather your children ride in an autonomous vehicle or drive with a stranger? You may be surprised to learn that 67 per cent of adults globally would opt for the self-driving car.

That insight is one of many revealed in the 2019 Looking Further with Ford Trend Report, released last week. The report takes a deep look into the drivers of behavioural change, specifically uncovering the dynamic relationships consumers have with the shifting landscape of technology.

Change is not always easy, particularly when it is driven by forces beyond our control. In a global survey of 14 countries, Ford’s research revealed that 87 per cent of adults believe technology is the biggest driver of change. And while 79 per cent of adults maintain that technology is a force for good, there are large segments of the population that have significant concerns. Some are afraid of artificial intelligence (AI). Others fear the impact of technology on our emotional wellbeing.

“Individually and collectively, these behavioural changes can take us from feeling helpless to feeling empowered, and unleash a world of wonder, hope and progress,” says Kuda Takura, smart mobility specialist at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “At Ford we are deeply focused on human-centric design and are committed to finding mobility solutions that help improve the lives of consumers and their communities. In the context of change, we have to protect what we consider most valuable – having a trusted relationship with our customers. So, we are always deliberate and thoughtful about how we navigate change.”

Key insights from Ford’s 7th annual Trends Report:

Almost half of people around the world believe that fear drives change
Seven in 10 say that they are energised by change
87 per cent agree that technology is the biggest driver of today’s change
Eight in 10 citizens believe that technology is a force for good
45 per cent of adults globally report that they envy people who can disconnect from their devices
Seven out of 10 consumers agree that we should have a mandatory time-out from our devices

Click here to read more about the seven trends for 2019.

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At last, cars talk to traffic lights to catch ‘green wave’

By ANDRE HAINZLMAIER, head of development of apps, connected services and smart city at Audi.

Stop-and-go traffic in cities is annoying. By contrast, we are pleased when we have a “green wave” – but we catch them far too seldom, unfortunately. With the Traffic Light Information function, drivers are more in control. They drive more efficiently and are more relaxed because they know 250 meters ahead of a traffic light whether they will catch it on green. In the future, anonymized data from our cars can help to switch traffic lights in cities to better phases and to optimise the traffic flow.

In the USA, Audi customers have been using the “Time-to-Green” function for two years: if the driver will reach the lights on red, a countdown in the Audi virtual cockpit or head-up display counts the seconds to the next green phase. This service is now available at more than 5,000 intersections in the USA, for example in cities like Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland and Washington D.C. In the US capital alone, about 1,000 intersections are linked to the Traffic Light Information function.

Since February, Audi has offered a further function in North America. The purpose of this is especially to enable driving on the “green wave”. “Green Light Optimized Speed Advisory” (GLOSA) shows to the driver in the ideal speed for reaching the next traffic light on green.

Both Time-to-Green and GLOSA will be activated for the start of operation in Ingolstadt in selected Audi models. These include all Audi e-tron models and the A4, A6, A7, A8, Q3, Q7 and Q8 to be produced from mid-July (“model year 2020”). The prerequisite is the “Audi connect Navigation & Infotainment” package and the optional “camera-based traffic sign recognition”.

Why is this function becoming available in Europe two years later than in the USA? 

The challenges for the serial introduction of the service are much greater here than, for example, in the USA, where urban traffic light systems were planned over a large area and uniformly. In Europe, by contrast, the traffic infrastructure has developed more locally and decentrally – with a great variety of traffic technology. How quickly other cities are connected to this technology depends above all on whether data standards and interfaces get established and cities digitalise their traffic lights.

On this project, Audi is working with Traffic Technology Services (TTS). TTS prepares the raw data from city traffic management centres and transmits them to the Audi servers. From here, the information reaches the car via a fast Internet connection.

Audi is working to offer Traffic Light Information in further cities in Germany, Europe, Canada and the USA in the coming years. In the large east Chinese city of Wuxi, Audi and partners are testing networks between cars and traffic light systems in the context of a development project.

In future, Audi customers may be able to benefit from additional functions, for example when “green waves” are incorporated into the ideal route planning. It is also conceivable that Audi e-tron models, when cruising up to a red traffic light, will make increased used of braking energy in order to charge their batteries. Coupled with predictive adaptive cruise control (pACC), the cars could even brake automatically at red lights.

In the long term, urban traffic will benefit. When cars send anonymised data to the city, for example, traffic signals could operate more flexibly. Every driver knows the following situation: in the evening you wait at a red light – while no other car is to be seen far and wide. Networked traffic lights would then react according to demand. Drivers of other automotive brands will also profit from the development work that Audi is carrying out with Traffic Light Information – good news for cities, which are dependent on the anonymised data of large fleets to achieve the most efficient traffic management.

In future, V2I technologies like Traffic Light Information will facilitate automated driving. 

A city is one of the most complex environments for an autonomous car. Nevertheless, the vehicle has to be able to handle the situation, even in rain and snow. Data exchange with the traffic infrastructure can be highly relevant here. 

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