SAN ANTONIO, TX – Let’s get this out of the way right up front: the level of attention to detail Ford paid to this new F-150 is nothing short of astonishing. Despite being the most popular pickup – and best-selling vehicle – across the continent, Ford seems loathe to playing it safe when it comes to its replacement.
Ford has been quite public, in broad strokes, about the major efforts it has made – aluminum body leading a drastic 300-kg mass reduction, increasing reliance on smaller turbo engines – but things are much clearer after finally getting to drive one.
Under the skin
Structurally, Ford engineers hit a long list of accomplishments, including a frame that’s not only around 30 kg lighter, but significantly stronger too. The ratio of high-strength steel is now around 80%, there’s an additional eighth cross-member and several gauges of steel in one ‘blank’ that’s then formed to fit.
Every panel in the bed and cab uses aluminum, which accounts for 180 kg of shed mass. Rather than welding sheets together, they now use a combination of rivets and adhesives, an undertaking that required a four-week shutdown to prep the assembly plant for the drastic changes.
The techniques have been proven in aerospace and in luxury vehicles from Audi and Jaguar, but not in anything with the speed and accuracy required for volumes of nearly a million units a year. Besides the weight savings, aluminum is much more resistant to corrosion than steel, which may result in fewer repairs in the long run.
LED headlights, running lights, taillights, brake-lights, and bed-lights are available across the line. Other neat touches include optional LED flood lights on the exterior mirrors that can be adjusted for intensity and direction from inside the cabin and shut off once the truck starts moving.
Bigger cabin with more toys
The cabin isn’t a huge revelation, with many of the components carrying over, but the materials and finishings are significant improvements. The seats in the couple F-150s I spent the most time in – a Lariat with the FX4 off-road package, and an XLT with a sport appearance package – were very supportive, with lots of seat travel.
Accessing the back seat on extended cab models is much easier thanks to rear doors that swing open 170 degrees.
Other new technologies include a refinement of the large information screen buried between the main gauges that not only displays more types of information about things like towing or off-roading, but also allows the driver to customize up to eight readouts from the various subsections on one virtual page.
The F-150 has also made a big step forward in safety with an available suite of technologies previously reserved for six-figure luxury cars. There’s a radar-based active cruise control, blind-spot warning with rear cross traffic alert – very useful when reversing out of driveways or parking spots – and a lane-departure warning system.
Four engine choices
There will still be four engines available, although with some interesting changes. The base V-6 is now 3.5-litres, with 283 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque; those numbers are down slightly from the outgoing truck’s 3.7-litre version, but are more than covered by having fewer kilos of F-150 to move.
However, there’s a new 2.7-litre EcoBoost V-6 that splits the existing ‘sixes’. Using more durable materials for the upper block, and allowing for much closer tolerances for crankshafts and other internals, means it’s theoretically better prepared for pickup work.
Its 325 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque – the latter nearly equalling the V-8's – are more than enough to haul smaller items and boat trailers. The 2.7 EcoBoost also get Ford’s first crack at a non-hybrid stop-start system, which will help improve fuel efficiency figures, once they’re officially released.
Speaking of efficiency, Ford said that the whole line should consume anywhere from five-to-20 per cent less fuel this year over last. And while Ram is making noise with its eight-speed box, for now at least, all F-150s use the same six-speed automatic transmission, with either rear- or four-wheel drive.
On the road – or off
I had the chance to drive both EcoBoost models, the larger 3.5-litre version first, and even with four-up – myself, another journalist and two Ford representatives – it was very obvious that the crash-diet had paid off.
Roads through the hill country around San Antonio, which ranged from tight-turns and sweeping corners to sections of six-lane Interstates, were all handled with equal aplomb. The cabin is much quieter than before – at least for road and wind noise – but some audio trickery is used to help make the hushed turbo-six sound like a throatier V-8.
Torque comes on early and is very strong in nearly any situation, displaying all thet flexibility direct-injection turbos are famous for.
Later in the day, the 2.7-litre's performance proved even more shocking, albeit aided by the absence of those two extra bodies. The smaller engine seemed a little more prone to turbo lag, and slightly more sensitive to the accelerator pedal, but there was nothing to complain about.
The brakes haven’t been changed, but obviously work better than before, while the revised rear suspension now features twin offset shock absorbers on either side of the frame rail, which proved more resistant to sway and bounce.
The off-road course, which was slow and challenging with various types of surfaces and hills – including a soggy mud pit and stream crossing – was dispatched with relative ease, and showed off how able the 2.7-litre is in various conditions.
Ditto for the towing exercise, which used F-150s with the 5.0-litre V-8 and a 3,175-kg enclosed trailer. It proved to be a stable and confidence-inspiring combination.
All four engines provide generally greater maximum tow ratings and payloads. The 3.5 EcoBoost is the towing king, with a 5,533 kg tow rating, while the 5.0-litre is tops for payload with a 1,496 kg rating. But even the base V-6 can impress with 1,910 kg towing or 866 kg payload.
Models and pricing
The F-150 will be offered with five different trim levels: XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum. The old standalone FX4 model is no more, but an FX4-like option package with all the upgraded off-road bits can be added to four-wheel drive models.
Regular Cab short-box rear-drive XL model pricing starts at $21,399 for the 3.5-litre V-6, rising rapidly through to the Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum with Super Crew cabins all the way to $66,999. While the bulk of sales will come from XLT trims, the sheer number of engine, cabin, bed, drive, and trim level is mind boggling, let alone the arms-length options list.
By comparison, the GMC and Chevrolet twins are already feeling past their best-by date, while the Ram 1500 is a much more refined rival. We’re still waiting for those fuel-economy figures and a firm on-sale date but until there’s time for a longer test, it seems fitting to give Ford a round of hearty applause for a good first impression.