Ford's F-150 Makeover
You've got to hand it to Ford, the company is definitely trying. The redesigned F-150 is an all-new truck but there is little else that's totally new from the Blue Oval for 2004. Ford may have a new minivan and plenty of new cars coming in the next few years, but right now there isn't a whole lot to get excited about. Perhaps this was all orchestrated so that the new F-150 would debut without distraction. Frankly, the F-150 redesign is much more important than any future Tauruses, Mustangs and all Mercurys combined.
Ford has been building trucks for more than 85 years, but the nature of those trucks and of those who buy them has changed dramatically in just the past 10 years. As new car buyers gradually turn into new truck buyers, the battle to build the best and most popular full-size pickup has cranked up considerably. Dodge upped the ante in the mid-1990s and again in 2002 with the bold-looking Ram, and GM has been continually improving its Silverado and Sierra. By comparison, the previous F-150 looked boring and lacked the grunt of the V8-powered GM trucks. So Ford has answered the call with an all-new truck, and as we said in our First Drive, there is little room for error.
Right away the surface improvements are obvious. Ford recently pledged to spend more money on its interiors and this new truck pays dividends on that promise. Sporting a more contemporary look and a cleaner design, the exterior now shares styling cues with the recently restyled Expedition. In our recent comparison test of three full-size SUVs, we called the Expedition's styling modern but at the same time classy the F-150 shares these attributes and wears the look well.
The interior deserves the same praise, our XLT tester may look a little bland inside, but the uncluttered design and simple, easy-to-use controls are a noticeable upgrade from the previous pickup. But it's not just the look that's improved; the quality of the interior materials is vastly improved as well. Knobs and switches lack the cheap feel they previously had and the plastics used on the steering wheel, door panels and the center stack of the dash all have a nice texture as well.
Our XLT came with cloth seats in a durable woven material and a handy center armrest/storage box that proved very useful. The storage container is large and deep enough to hold items such as a wallet, a cell phone, CDs and other miscellaneous stuff. The seats are wide and accommodating and feel rather firm at first, but on a long trip, they proved to be supportive and soft enough to elicit no complaints from three editors who all took turns driving and riding. We're not sure we'd want to spend a long stint in the backseat of the SuperCab, but it is reasonable for an adult to ride back there for short trips. Of course, if you need more people space than cargo capacity the SuperCrew is probably what you want.
Like other extended cabs, the SuperCab offers a compromise between a four-door family truck and a standard cab work truck. To make the back area more user-friendly, the seats can fold out of the way in a 60/40-split to allow for more configurations. As on most "extra cab" trucks, the F-150's reverse-hinged rear doors only open to 90 degrees or about halfway. When parked in a lot with cars on both sides, having the front and rear doors open creates an area that sort of traps you. If you have a shopping cart full of stuff, you'll have to continue to open and close one of the doors to gain access to the cargo you want to load into the truck. Nissan's Titan solves this problem by allowing the rear doors to open 180 degrees or all the way until they're flush with the bed. We expect to see more trucks incorporate this feature in the near future, but for now Nissan has the only implementation of the fully opening clamshell rear doors and not having that feature makes the Ford a little more cumbersome in some cases.
Sure, interior features and exterior styling are fine, but real truck buyers want a vehicle that performs. Making an impressive 300 horsepower, the new 5.4-liter Triton motor is much improved in terms of refinement and power over the previous version. The extra power is noticeable, but it still feels somewhat lacking compared to GM's Vortec engines even though the Ford motor does make more horsepower. It's not that the F-150 feels underpowered or slow, it's just that the Silverado with a 5.3-liter V8 feels so much more energetic. Off the line, the F-150 feels fine, but as the rpm climb, the engine seems to get short of breath. Remember, this is the bigger 5.4-liter Triton engine we're talking about if you were thinking of purchasing an F-150 with the smaller 4.6-liter unit, we suggest you stay with the bigger motor.
But power is just one factor; weight is also a key factor when discussing performance. At more than 5,400 pounds, the F-150 weighs between 500 and 800 pounds more than it did last year. By comparison, the Silverado is about 400 pounds lighter depending on options, and that alone could account for the peppier performance. On paper, the new F-150 outclasses the competition by offering more power and more towing capacity than the competition. It is notable to mention that our experience varied between vehicles. More than one editor mentioned the fact that our preproduction SuperCab short-term test truck felt much slower than our regular production long-term SuperCrew. However, we also noted that the preproduction SuperCab felt better built and more solid on the road.
Still, in terms of ride, handling and power, the new F-150 is a vast improvement. On the road, the F-150 remains composed and quiet dare we say, almost sedanlike. Even at speeds of 70 or 80 mph, the truck is a pleasant place to spend time. There is some wind noise from the outside mirrors, but road noise is well controlled.
Handling is also improved. The suspension feels tighter, and overall the truck has a solid feel that was lacking in previous Ford trucks. As it is a truck, the F-150 does exhibit some body roll when cornering, but the handling in fairly predictable at the limit. Occasionally, the ride will feel too harsh or unforgiving. This is especially true when traveling at highway speed where the road has little ripples in the pavement. More forgiving than the Dodge Ram, but not quite as plush as the Silverado, the F-150's ride is fine most of the time. Editor in Chief Karl Brauer also noted during track testing that a little more steering feel would be appreciated.
With regard to safety, we see the F-150 as a mixed bag. It has been designed with collapsible front frame rails, a front passenger-sensing system and has earned five stars for both front-seat occupant protection in side impacts in the past, but the lack of available side airbags seems odd. Not to beat a dead horse, but both the new Nissan Titan and the Dodge Ram offer side-impact airbags. It's not as if Ford didn't give safety any consideration, it's just that the new truck is lacking the one feature that has become quite common in new cars and it seems more important now that many families are buying vehicles like the F-150 as family haulers.
Ultimately, a truck is for hauling stuff, or at least a combination of stuff and people. We found the F-150 to be just as capable as any other truck in terms of what you can fit in the bed. A trip to the city dump showed that Ford's claim of a bed that's two inches deeper was not just PR hype. Some pickups seem to have a long shallow bed; not so with this new Ford truck. We're not sure if the extra depth is due to higher side rails or a lower bed floor thanks to reworked suspension. Either way, there is plenty of usable space and we made great use of it by piling various amounts of bricks, old galvanized pipes and rotting fence posts in the back. Accessing that bed is made much easier by the lightweight tailgate. It doesn't sound like much, but having a tailgate that can easily be opened or closed with just one hand is a huge help. As an odd side note, we noticed that the small tailgate on the Subaru Baja's baby-sized bed was much heavier and felt like it was lined with lead compared to the full-size F-150's.
Ford's new truck has much to offer anyone considering the purchase of a full-size pickup. There are plenty of thoughtful touches like the lightweight tailgate, the much improved interior and the more masculine exterior styling. The engine is more refined and more powerful but there's still room for improvement bottom line is we feel it could use a little more grunt.
While it's not perfect, the F-150 is now a much more serious contender in the full-size pickup segment. With the recent introduction of the Hemi-powered Ram, the all-new Nissan Titan and Ford's complete reworking of the stalwart F-150, the competition is really heating up we can't wait to do a full-size truck comparison test to see who comes out on top. But for now, know that the new F-150 is a vast improvement over the old but still leaves a little room for future upgrades.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The six-disc changer is pretty straightforward, but there was some initial confusion about the buttons that control the "track up" and the button that controls the "change disc" feature. Once you get used to it, it's no big deal. The CDs load right into the dash and the volume knob is nice and big. The menu button is well placed and makes it easy to access certain functions like bass, treble and balance.
Performance: The stereo provides adequate performance. It's nothing special but it is not disappointing either. The sound quality is fine there's no real separation or anything distinct about it, but the bass response is actually quite nice. The sound does maintain its relative quality as the volume goes up and never really distorts too terribly. We're not sure people are buying F-150s for the stereo, but for $30,000 there should be a little something extra.
Best Feature: Bass response.
Worst Feature: Lack of sound separation
Conclusion: Neither good nor bad, the F-150's stereo is just average. Better than the stereo in some passenger cars, but not as good as most systems that are offered in $30,000 vehicles. Brian Moody
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Anyone who settles into the driver seat of an F-150 SuperCab on a dealership lot will be hard-pressed to find fault with it. The cab is roomy, the seats are comfortable, there are six cupholders in the front seat alone (along with plenty of storage areas) and the grain patterns on most of the hard plastics match. Although I still prefer the accommodations in the Dodge Ram, it doesn't get much better than this in full-size trucks.
Unfortunately, these good feelings are apt to go out the window when you actually start up the F-150. The 5.4-liter V8 has never felt weaker regardless of the tow ratings Ford is claiming and offers nowhere near the torque of Dodge's Hemi, GM's 5.3-liter or Nissan's 5.6-liter. I was the only one in our otherwise empty test truck, and acceleration felt no more than adequate for merging and passing on the highway, or climbing modest hills in the canyons. Moreover, pressing the accelerator pedal didn't yield the authoritative grunts and growls you usually get with a V8. If you've already made the decision to give up gas mileage to get some decent hauling power, you want to feel the sacrifice is worth it and Ford's 5.4-liter wouldn't do that for me.
Besides that, I wasn't all that impressed with our test truck's ride and handling characteristics. Sure, the F-150 was better behaved than any Silverado or Sierra, but neither the suspension nor steering provided the level of control and feedback you get with the Ram or Titan. There's no question that full-size pickups are still some of the least domesticated vehicles on the road, but Dodge, Nissan and Toyota have raised expectations for their manners on pavement.
If the F-150 manages to hold onto the best-selling pickup crown in 2004, it won't be because Ford built the best full-size pickup. Serious truck buyers would be ill-advised to buy this truck on name value alone.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The F-150 has a lot of Ford's hopes pinned to it. It's the longest-running, best-selling Ford vehicle out there. So basically, this is the company's bread-and-butter vehicle. Having said that, I had a lot of expectations going into my drive around town in the F-150.
I was first impressed by the styling of both the exterior and interior. It has chiseled features that are a touch plain, but I think for a work truck like this they work very well. The interior has a very symmetrical layout that I found especially pleasing in comparison to its competitors. In my opinion, the interior for GM trucks are ugly, the Dodge trucks are way too basic in design while Toyota's are a mix between the GM and Dodge. This Ford, like its competitors, has a ton of semi cheap-looking plastic covering the interior which really detracts from its aesthetic appearance. I do, however, have to give it kudos for the matching grain which downplayed that cheap plastic look a little bit.
I couldn't believe I was driving a truck with a 5.4-liter V8. After one good pedal stomp on the freeway, I was stunned. Where had all that power gone to? It really got me thinking that in comparison to its competition, it's going to feel pretty pathetic, and especially so for the extra money a V8 would command. Trucks hang their hat on towing capacity and Ford claims a 1,600-pound advantage over the Chevrolet Silverado. I really hope that is the case and the anemic power feeling is deceiving.
I'm a little worried for Ford. The F-150 is nice, but it doesn't seem like it's a huge improvement over the previous generation. Looks can only carry you so far. With so many hopes pinned to it, I fear it may not deliver as expected.
"I was very pleased and impressed from the first test-drive. The ride quality is as good as or better than most 'luxury' cars. It handles the road very well and the steering feedback gives the driver an increased level of confidence in all types of road and weather conditions." CNASH, Sept. 28, 2003
"I could not have asked for a better-looking, more comfortable, rugged truck. By far the smoothest truck I've ever had the good fortune to set foot in." jsetapart, Sept. 27, 2003