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Ford ups the FX4 tech

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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

Project Bloodhound saved

The British project to break the world landspeed record at a site in the Northern Cape has been saved by a new backer, after it went into bankruptcy proceedings in October.

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Two weeks ago,  and two months after entering voluntary administration, the Bloodhound Programme Limited announced it was shutting down. This week it announced that its assets, including the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), had been acquired by an enthusiastic – and wealthy – supporter.

“We are absolutely delighted that on Monday 17th December, the business and assets were bought, allowing the Project to continue,” the team said in a statement.

“The acquisition was made by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst. Ian is a mechanical engineer by training, with a strong background in managing a highly successful business in the automotive engineering sector, so he will bring a lot of expertise to the Project.”

Warhurst and his family, says the team, have been enthusiastic Bloodhound supporters for many years, and this inspired his new involvement with the Project.

“I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets preventing the project breakup,” he said. “I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths, and I want to ensure Bloodhound can continue doing that into the future.

“It’s clear how much this unique British project means to people and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of thanks I have received in the last few days.”

The record attempt was due to be made late next year at Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, where retired pilot Andy Green planned to beat the 1228km/h land-speed record he set in the United States in 1997. The target is for Bloodhound to become the first car to reach 1000mph (1610km/h). A track 19km long and 500 metres wide has been prepared, with members of the local community hired to clear 16 000 tons of rock and stone to smooth the surface.

The team said in its announcement this week: “Although it has been a frustrating few months for Bloodhound, we are thrilled that Ian has saved Bloodhound SSC from closure for the country and the many supporters around the world who have been inspired by the Project. We now have a lot of planning to do for 2019 and beyond.”

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Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

The futuristic car technology of tomorrow is being built today in both racing cars and
toys, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy unveils DeepRacer

Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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