Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Over the last several decades, Ford's F-Series truck has gone from farm implement to fashionably hip, bringing home numerous sales records and big profits in the process. With total sales last year approaching one million units, it's hardly a stretch to call Ford's big pickup the single most important model it makes, and when it comes time for a redesign there's little room for error.
In years past, maintaining the F-150's top sales spot was largely a matter of fending off the Chevrolet/GMC twins from General Motors, but a revitalized Dodge and full-size entries from Nissan and Toyota have turned up the heat considerably. To keep these competitors at bay, Ford gathered its best engineers, cranked up the focus groups and set out to design the most advanced F-Series ever built.
The result is a 2004 F-150 with a cleaner burning and more powerful V8, increased passenger and cargo room and broad-shouldered bodywork that looks the part of an all-American pickup. But is it good enough to maintain Ford's long-standing dominance in the category?
After our introduction to the new F-150 in the steamy hill country of Central Texas, there's little doubt that this truck sets new standards for full-size pickups when it comes to cabin design, ride and handling and load-carrying capacity. But we also noted a few significant weak spots, and in a segment that thrives on continual one-upmanship and bragging rights, such shortcomings could hamper its ability to fend off the competition in the years ahead.
Since full-size trucks are notoriously complex when it comes to all the various configurations and options packages, we'll try to lay out Ford's new game plan as simply as possible.
The F-150 has been broken down into five distinct models XL, STX, XLT, FX4 and Lariat each catering to a different customer who's looking for varying levels of features and options. The base XL is your standard work truck with a vinyl or cloth interior and minimal amenities. The STX is similarly equipped but adds body-colored bumpers, sportier wheels and a few additional options such as a stepside bed and an upgraded sound system. The volume leader in the lineup is expected to be the midgrade XLT, as it offers the widest array of available options as well as an upgraded interior.
The top two trim levels are even more specialized. Outdoor enthusiasts are the primary target of the FX4 model as it fortifies the F-150 with underbody skid plates, heavy-duty shocks and retuned springs. Two-tone paint, larger 18-inch wheels and a body-color grille add visual distinction to the outside while metallic accents glitter up the interior.
Top-of-the-line Lariats cater to buyers looking for an upscale look and feel. The interior features brushed aluminum and wood highlights along with optional leather heated seats, satellite steering wheel controls, white-faced gauges and automatic climate control. Exterior details include two-tone paint, chrome bumpers and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Both the FX4 and Lariat offer the segment's first console-mounted floor shifter when you order the optional captain's chairs, along with distinctive gauge clusters to further distance those models from their lower-brow counterparts.
There are still three cab configurations regular, extended and crew but all regular cabs now offer reverse-opening access doors for getting to the storage area behind the front seat. Available bed lengths consist of the standard 6 1/2- and 8-foot sizes along with a new 5 1/2-foot size for extended cab models that makes fitting into a warm garage a more viable option. All boxes are two inches deeper than before giving the F-150 the most cargo capacity in its class, and all feature a new assist mechanism for the tailgate that makes it easier to raise and lower.
Regardless of trim, all F-150s sport a new interior design that looks sharp and works well. There's minimal button clutter, the radio is placed high for easy tuning and all gauges are easily readable. Build quality on our early build test trucks was impressive. Door panels didn't budge an inch when pressed upon and dashboard gaps were straight and of close tolerance. Materials quality is also better than before, with none of the glaringly cheap plastics that detracted from the previous model's interior.
Ford's attempt to differentiate its high-line models paid off as the FX4 and Lariat trim level have a distinct look and feel to their interiors. When it comes to providing an upscale experience, the Lariat has the current competition beat hands down. Between its metallic accents, faux wood trim and clean design, there are few trucks that offer an interior so elegantly trimmed. The industrial style of the FX4 isn't quite so dramatic, but it does manage to provide a unique look without trying too hard.
As much as we liked the interior's overall design, there are a few areas that could use some improvement. Although we logged a relatively modest number of miles, the seats became tiresome regardless of trim level, and we found it strange that even the upgraded leather captain's chairs still use manual adjusters for the seat back angle and lumbar support. The climate control dials look good but feel cheap, same goes for the door handles both being items that we think should have a good, solid feel considering how often you touch them. We also found the turn signal stalk hard to reach, the grab handles too far away and relatively few storage compartments.
The most glaring omission to the F-150's interior, however, is the lack of side-impact airbag protection. Ford claims that the F-150's taller height makes it less vulnerable to such impacts, yet it found them perfectly appropriate for the equally sized Expedition sport-utility. Add in the fact that the Dodge Ram already provides such protection, with the upcoming Nissan Titan set to do the same come December, and it becomes an even more inexcusable omission.
But enough about the interior already, the true test of a truck is how it handles itself on the road. To that end, the F-150 has been upgraded with a fully boxed frame that's nine times stiffer than before, a new rack-and-pinion steering system, larger brakes and a revised suspension design among other things.
The result is exceptional ride quality and sharp handling for a vehicle of its size. There's still the telltale vagueness from the solid rear axle, but as trucks go, you're not going to find a smoother-riding full-size anywhere. The steering is no longer the guessing game that it once was and the brakes have a firm, progressive feel that's reassuring in such a big vehicle.
For power, the F-150 now offers just two options: a carry-over 4.6-liter V8 rated at 231 horsepower and 293 pound-feet of torque and a heavily modified version of the last year's 5.4-liter V8 (the V6 has been dropped but will return in '05). Both engines are mated to four-speed automatic transmissions with the larger 5.4-liter getting a heavier-duty version to handle its extra power.
Now rated at 300 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque, the 5.4-liter engine uses three-valve cylinder heads and variable camshafts to provide more power at lower engine speeds. The extra juice allows the F-150 to claim a maximum tow rating of 9,500 pounds, the highest rating in the half-ton class.
During a towing demonstration in which the F-150 was pitted against its current rivals while pulling a 7,000-pound trailer, the newly invigorated Triton proved to be a smooth and refined hauler. The broad power band enabled the truck to maintain a steady pull on moderate hill climbs, and it did so with less interior noise than a Hemi-equipped Dodge Ram.
Unfortunately, the Triton's impressive towing ability doesn't translate into usable power during normal stop-and-go driving. Acceleration off the line feels soft and even full-throttle downshifts fail to elicit much snap. The apparent sluggishness could be chalked up to increased levels of refinement that mask the actual performance, but we've got a feeling it's something else entirely namely weight. Compared to its predecessor, an '04 extended cab F-150 comes saddled with nearly 800 pounds of additional weight enough extra baggage to cause even its more powerful engine to feel sluggish.
Whether a truck's 0-to-60 performance is something to be concerned about is debatable. After all, the idea of a truck is to buy it for what it can do, not what it can beat at a stoplight. In this regard, the F-150 stacks up well as its capabilities, both in towing and hauling, are now class-leading. Factor in its larger, more appealing interior, top-notch build quality and brawny looks and the F-150 has undeniable appeal.
But even with so much going for it, we can't help but feel that this new F-150 lacks the kind of innovative features that will make it stand out from the crowd. Bigger, faster, stronger may have been enough to impress a decade ago, but these days such improvements are expected. Whether this shortfall will make a serious dent in the F-150's status as the best-selling vehicle in the world is hard to tell, but there's no doubt that it leaves the door wide open for the competition to come storming in.
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