Saturday, August 23, 2003

F-150 has been macho-fied

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Ford F-150
The 2004 F-150 STX 4x4 pickup proved nimble and responsive, even when flogged an off-road course full of woop-de-doos.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Mix and match - Carlike full-size pickup The Ford F-150 is available in a dizzying number of configurations.

5 trim levels: XL (workhorse), STX (sporty workhorse), XLT (popular family), FX4 (outdoor enthusiast) and Lariat (luxurious).

3 cabs: Regular cab (front-row bench and rearward swinging access doors), SuperCab (two rows of seats and rearward swinging back doors), and SuperCrew (two rows of seats and four forward-swinging full-size doors).

2 bed styles: Styleside and Flareside.

3 bed sizes: 8 feet, 6.5 feet and 5.5 feet.

2 drivetrain configurations: Rear- or four-wheel drive.

2 engines: A new 5.4-liter V8 producing 300 hp and 365 lb-ft torque, or a 4.6-liter V8 producing 231 hp and 293 lb-ft torque.

2 consoles: A center console for vehicles equipped with two captain's chairs and a floor shifter, or a center stack with column shifter for vehicles equipped with front bench seats.

Vital statistics
Base price range: $21,125 to $35,570

Transmission: 4-speed automatic w/ overdrive

Maximum payload capacity: 2,900 lb.

Maximum towing capacity: 9,500 lb.

Weight range: 4,788 - 5,606 lb.

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 15/19 (4x2), 14/18 (4x4)

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; powertrain: 3 years/36,000 miles; roadside assist: 3 years/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Norfolk, Va.; Dearborn, Mich.; Kansas City, Mo.

Safety: Antilock brakes, dual front airbags (w/ occupant position sensing), LATCH child seat system, seatbelt pretensioners and a collapsible steering column.

Cool: Sedanlike ride, family friendly interior, overhead rail system, four doors across the board, Tailgate Assist, 300-hp 5.4-liter engine, handsome exterior

Uncool: No side-impact or curtain airbags offered

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The best-selling vehicle in America isn't the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Ford Taurus. The best-selling vehicle in America is a pickup truck - the Ford F-150. Introduced in 1948, the Ford F-150 has been America's top-selling vehicle for 21 years and America's best-selling truck for 26 years.

The F-150 accounts for one quarter of Ford's annual sales in the United States. Needless to say, the F-150 is as important to Ford's bottom line as the Model T once was. Now Ford is staking its future on a totally redesigned F-150.

When the No. 1 vehicle in the country undergoes a total redesign, it's big news.

So in June, I (along with hordes of other journalists) traveled to the heart of truck country - San Antonio, Texas - to put Ford's all-new bread-and-butter vehicle to the test. After driving previous-generation F-150s, we piloted new 2004 F-150s on highways and twisty rural roads (paved and unpaved), and pitted them against competitive pickups in autocross, off-road and trailer-towing exercises. But before I get into that, here's an overview.

The redesigned 2004 Ford F-150 features crisper styling, a more powerful engine, more cargo and interior space, greater towing capacity, and more refined steering and handling than the outgoing model.

So the big question isn't whether the nation's No. 1 pickup has been improved - because it has - but whether these improvements will be enough for Ford to retain its supremacy in the full-size pickup market - where Dodge and General Motors have begun nipping at the F-150's heels with redesigned Rams, Silverados and Sierras. The Japanese have launched their own assaults on the full-size market, Toyota with its award-winning (7/8-size) Tundra in 2000, and Nissan with its soon-to-be-introduced full-size Titan.

One thing's for certain. No competitor can match the F-150's breadth of mix-and-match choices. For 2004, the F-150 is available in 46 - count 'em, 46 - different configurations. There are five trim levels: XL (base), STX (sporty), XLT (family), FX4 (off-road), and Lariat (premium). Beds are offered in two styles - Styleside (straight) and Flareside (curvy) - and three lengths - 8, 6.5 or 5.5 feet. Cabs come in three flavors: Regular, SuperCab and SuperCrew. There are two engine choices and two available drivetrains - rear- and four-wheel drive.

Let's start with the styling. According to my truck-magazine friends, the previous F-150's droopy nose and soft body style gave it a "wimpy" image. For 2004, Ford has macho-fied the F-150, giving it a more assertive nose, a more muscular hoodline, a higher beltline, a wider stance and a taller bed.

Every cab now has four doors, even the Regular cab, which has rear-hinged back doors to provide easier access to the foot-deep storage area behind the bench seat. Both the Regular cab and SuperCab are 6 inches longer than before, giving the SuperCab more passenger and cargo room and the Regular cab 9 cubic feet of storage space behind the front bench.

Ford is the first pickup maker to offer three bed lengths, and has raised the walls of each bed 2 inches to add 10 more cubic feet of cargo-hauling space. Acknowledging that not every truck user is a brawny cowboy, Ford fitted each bed with "Tailgate Assist," a torsion bar in the tailgate that makes lifting and lowering the tailgate "so easy a kid can do it!"

Underneath is a full-box frame that is nine times stiffer than the previous F-150 and twice as strong as its competitors. What this amounts to is a bouncier ride off-road but better handling on pavement, which is where cowboys and suburbanites spend most of their time.

Two powerplants are offered: a new 300-horsepower, 5.4-liter Triton V8 with 365 pound-feet of torque and a smaller 4.6-liter Triton V8 rated at 231 horsepower and 293 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, which has been beefed up to handled the bigger V8's increased torque.

In an effort to attract more family users into the F-150 fold, Ford has upgraded its cabins to a luxury SUV level. I was partnered with Sport Truck writer Bruce Caldwell in a SuperCrew Lariat 4x4 - a model so plushly equipped I couldn't imagine a cowboy driving it in mud-encrusted boots.

We had power-adjustable and heated leather captain's chairs, adjustable pedals, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, nooks and crannies galore, and a new powered overhead rail system - two aluminum rails extending from the front to behind the second row of seats. The system lets owners customize their cabs by snapping in storage bins, cell-phone holders, first-aid kits, toolboxes, and a rear-seat DVD system.

One outstanding feature that we couldn't see was the new "occupant position sensing" system, the first of its kind in a pickup. A sensor in the front passenger seat detects the passenger's weight and determines the force of airbag deployment accordingly. If a child is in the seat or the seat is empty, the airbag won't deploy. Curiously, side airbags aren't offered.

The 5.4-liter V8 hummed sweetly during our drive through the San Antonio countryside; throttle response great, the shifts were silky smooth. For a while I rode in the back seat. The second-row seatbacks, which are tilted back 21 degrees, were Cadillac comfortable, even on dirt roads.

The cabin was so quiet, Bruce and I could converse using our "indoor" voices. Trouble was, we yakked so much we got lost on our way to the off-road course.

Once there, we tested the F-150 FX4's off-road prowess against that of the Toyota Tundra, Dodge Ram and Chevrolet Silverado. The off-road course consisted of steep hills, railroad ties and woop-de-doos. The F-150, while bouncier than some, felt more controlled when ascending and descending the steep grades in 4-Lo.

On the autocross course, the F-150's steering proved the best in the bunch (well, actually it tied with the Toyota Tundra). Interestingly, Ford engineers say they benchmarked not other pickups, but the Ford Focus, a compact car known for its quick and responsive steering. The F-150's nimbleness came in handy later when I had to swerve to avoid an armadillo.

For some truck users, a pickup is only as good as its hauling and towing capability. In the towing test, we used each vehicle to haul a 7,000-pound trailer up and down a long, curvy stretch of road. The F-150 - with its best-in-class 9,500-pound maximum tow rating - pulled the trailer easily; the transmission didn't hunt badly on uphill grades and the steering felt steady and composed.

The 2004 Ford F-150s, arriving in showrooms now, are priced a few hundred dollars above comparably equipped '03 models. Base prices start at $21,125 (for the Regular cab XL) and top out at $35,570 (for the SuperCrew Lariat 4x4 Styleside).

As we drove to the airport, Bruce and I agreed the new F-150's exceptional ride and handling, passenger comfort and hauling ability will make it a hit with families and work users alike. Whether all this goodness enables Ford to maintain its No. 1 status in a field of competent competitors remains to be seen. After all, the Nissan Titan arrives this winter.

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