A Red Ford Ranger 2.0-litre turbodiesel in the bush

That high-tech 2.0-litre turbodiesel in your Ford Ranger is refined and efficient, but one design feature could lead to heartbreak in the long term. We look into the causes, and present some tips to help you avert disaster.

Let’s make one fact clear before we continue: The new-generation 2.0-litre “EcoBlue” (a.k.a. “Panther”) four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, used in local Fords such as the Transit/Tourneo Custom and T6 Ford Ranger, is one of the best diesels currently available.

The Ford 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine

Especially in its later (Ranger/Everest T6.2) iterations, it offers a splendid blend of performance, efficiency, and refinement, and the latest twin-turbo version with 154 kW/500 Nm is so good that it legitimately calls the need for the high-end 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel into question.

Related: This review ponders the question whether the mid-level XLT BiTurbo is the sweet spot in the new Ford Ranger range.

It also appears to be pretty robust, with no egregious mechanical flaws, adequate reserve turbo capacity, good quality control in production, and no known fuel injection or emission control system issues. Owner’s forums in overseas markets rate this engine family highly in a wide variety of applications, from the new-gen (but not available in SA) Focus and Mondeo to the full-size Transit van.

However, this engine has now reached the age where long-term durability could also accurately be gauged. Because it first appeared in European markets in 2016, many of those early examples have now passed the 150 000 km mark, and their high mileages are starting to highlight the single weakness of the EcoBlue engine: The timing belt.

More accurately, the timing belt’s recommended replacement interval and the engine’s general service requirements could prove problematic. Note that this applies only to the new-generation 2.0-litre turbodiesel, not the 2.2-litre “Puma” engine used in earlier Rangers and Everests - that PSA co-development has its own set of issues, and is not as well-regarded as the new Panther engine overall.

Related: If you want to carry massive loads, a new or pre-owned Ford Transit from CHANGECARS will serve you better than any bakkie!

Damanged timing belts on the Ford 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine

The bad news from England

HallCraft is a respected, privately-owned vehicle repair enterprise in the British West Midlands, which has been operating for almost three decades. They have particularly close ties with Ford UK, being one of the select few workshops capable of working on Ford’s Luton-made commercial vehicles, their diagnostic equipment includes Ford’s own networked IDS (Integrated Diagnostic System), and the company’s activities include fleet- and lease servicing according to stringent OEM requirements.

So, when a company such as this one, with a solid reputation for OEM-standard repairs and servicing, issues a warning of an imminent disaster, it would be wise to pay attention. In a comprehensive entry on their website, HallCraft elaborates on the perils which await the owners of ageing EcoBlue-powered vehicles.

You can read the whole piece here, but here’s the short version: A large number of EcoBlue-engined Transits experience cambelt failure well before their scheduled belt replacements at 144 000 miles (about 230 000 km), leading to catastrophic engine damage when the pistons and valves meet. This is so prevalent that HallCraft itself struggles to find replacement parts and complete engines for affected vehicles, leading to downtime which sometimes extends into months.

It should be noted that Ford UK specifies condition-based servicing for their vehicles, which could stretch the oil change intervals as far apart as 40 000 km or every two years. We’ll explore why this is a bad idea later on, but South African buyers can rest somewhat easier with our fixed oil changes every 15 000 km.

Ford’s wet belts

Thanks to ever-tightening exhaust emission requirements, the engineers at Ford applied a bunch of clever solutions to their cutting-edge diesel engine. The intake manifold is integrated with the cylinder head, its intake port design ensures equal cylinder filling, and the crankshaft is offset by 10 mm to reduce friction between the pistons and the cylinder block.

Clever stuff, but features like these are fairly commonplace in modern engine designs. What really sets the “Panther” engine apart from the herd is the way its camshafts are timed, because it employs a toothed rubber belt running in the engine’s oil. Another such belt drives the oil pump, reducing friction losses in the cam drive system to lower emissions and give quieter operation.

Related: Be it a workhorse or a family adventure vehicle, these new and used Ford Rangers on CHANGECARS will include the best example to suit your needs!

Can a rubber belt survive in oil?

Contaminating a conventional rubber belt with engine oil is a sure-fire way to slash its usable life, because the chemical composition of engine oil degrades the rubber and leads to premature failure. Ford found a route around this by using a special rubber formulation for their wet belts, which make them resistant to engine oil.

The engineers also decided on the appropriate oil specifications, to ensure that unexpected contaminants weren’t accidentally introduced during services or oil top-ups. Provided reasonable operating conditions were maintained, and if servicing is performed on schedule and with the correct oil, the Ford Panther engine’s special timing belt would likely last for its entire design life.

The official cambelt replacement interval is probably too generous, though. Most normal (dry) cambelts need renewal by 120 000 km at the latest, and nobody would have blinked if Ford recommended this interval for their high-tech wet belt as well. But, because they decided to stretch it to more than 230 000 km, and due to the extreme operating conditions inside an engine, the risk of premature failure is greatly increased.

Emission controls come into play

Apart from an over-extended official replacement interval for the timing belt, the emission control system likely also plays its part in this issue. To conform to Euro 6 emission standards, a host of exhaust cleaning equipment had to be installed, as on any other Euro 6-compliant engine. By all accounts, the Ford system works well, and doesn’t give maintenance hassles regarding the hardware or control system itself.

Part of the exhaust cleaning strategy is the use of a diesel particulate filter (DPF), which traps up to 90% of all soot particles exiting the combustion chamber. This technology was introduced decades ago, and is by now developed to the point where the DPF usually only needs attention at very high mileage. However, the technique by which the DPF system keeps itself operational is likely a root cause of timing belt failure with the Ford EcoBlue engine, so this aspect is worth a closer look.

The process is called DPF regeneration, and is necessary to burn off the soot particles which become trapped in the DPF over time. If the engine’s exhaust gas is hot enough, the DPF gets hot enough for the soot to spontaneously burn to ash, and this generally happens on longer trips or under sustained heavy loads.

How does emission control affect the Ford EcoBlue timing belt?

If the vehicle mainly covers short distances or mostly operates under light load conditions, the exhaust gas won’t become hot enough for the soot to burn off, leading to soot building up in the DPF. When the engine’s control unit senses that the DPF is becoming clogged, it initiates a forced burn-off by retarding the injection timing and injecting extra fuel into the engine, thus increasing the exhaust temperature enough for the soot to burn off.

It it likely during this mode of operation where cambelt-damaging oil contaminants are introduced, because the sub-optimal combustion conditions during forced DPF burn-off could cause unburned diesel to leak past the pistons and rings. Any small amount of diesel reaching the engine oil will evaporate soon enough due to heat, but it will still leave some chemical contaminants behind, which will attack the wet cambelt’s special rubber.

After numerous DPF burn-off cycles, enough fuel-induced oil contamination could occur to have a clear effect on the belt’s health. Combine this with the extended oil change intervals on UK- and Euro-based vehicles with this engine, and the timing belt could face enough sustained exposure to contaminants to fail much earlier than expected.

Rear view of a red Ford Ranger 2.0-litre turbodiesel

The impact on South African Rangers

With the Ranger and Everest being simultaneously some of our most popular new vehicles as well as status symbols mostly doing school run duty or urban commutes, the chances are that many examples only ever see light loads and sub-optimal operating temperatures. These are the exact conditions under which forced DPF burn-off would eventually occur, and where the adverse effects discussed above would materialise.

And, even though Ford’s service plan on these vehicles run for five years or 100 000 km, the chances are that these Rangers and Everests would eventually be serviced by non-franchised workshops after their prepaid servicing packages expire. Those workshops may not be clued-in on the special oil specified for these engines, so their sumps could inadvertently be filled with non-compatible oil.

While our oil changes occur more frequently than they do in Europe, the combination of an extended cambelt replacement interval, inappropriate oil specifications, and frequent oil contamination due to DPF regeneration could result in an otherwise-healthy engine meeting a premature demise.

Related: Shopping for a new or pre-owned Ford Everest? This great selection on CHANGECARS will have the ideal SUV for your family!

How can I reduce the risk of a Ford Ranger’s cambelt failing?

The first line of defence is shorter oil change intervals. Ford SA will foot the bill for oil changes every 15 000 km while the service plan is still active, which should be enough to safeguard against excessive oil contamination even for vehicles which mostly cover short distances at light loads. Stick to this schedule with religious fervour and ensure that the correct oil is used after the service plan expires, however, because the prescribed synthetic oil degrades rapidly once it exceeds its specified lifespan.

The next preventative measure would be a freeway cruise of at least 50 km, at least once a week. These conditions should ensure the elevated exhaust gas temperatures needed to initiate spontaneous DPF burn-off, and thus eliminate the need for forced (and potentially harmful) DPF regeneration.

Regardless of operating conditions, owners would also be well-advised to replace the cambelts much earlier than Ford recommends. Based on their experience with these engines, HallCraft recommends replacement every five years or before 100 000 miles (160 000 km). Given local service intervals, the last general service before this mark would be the tenth one at 150 000 km, which should leave a generous safety margin for the cambelt.

Cambelt replacement won’t be an inexpensive exercise, however, and is likely to be quite time-consuming as well. HallCraft reckons that it could cost upwards of 1 100 Pound Sterling (about R 26 000) in the UK and take two days for a Transit, using OEM parts but at private workshop labour rates. This is still small change compared to the expense and time required to replace or rebuild a grenaded engine.

Local cambelt replacement pricing was unfortunately not available at the time of writing, as none of the six Ford dealerships from which we requested quotations for this job responded to our emails. And, because this engine is still very new to our market, no non-OEM workshops were able to furnish quotations, either.

Red Ford Ranger Tremor driving fast on a highway

Is this a design flaw in the Ford EcoBlue engine?

Absolutely not. Many engines with timing chains need attention to their tensioners and guides around the same age, while most rubber-belted engines require new cambelts at the latest every 120 000 km (and often even sooner). In this context, even our recommended shortened replacement interval of 150 000 km is entirely reasonable.

The only possible causes for concern are the officially-recommended cambelt replacement intervals, and the possibility of inexperienced service centres using oil with incorrect specifications. We reached out to Ford SA for input while researching this article, but the company politely declined to comment. If anything changes in this official stance, we’ll be the first to let you know.

Martin Pretorius


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