Rolling up to a stoplight in this 2009 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew 4x2, we come to rest next to a high school kid in a jacked-up late-model Ford pickup. The sign that hangs in the rear window says, "For Sale."
Ford is hoping that this kid (or, more likely, his dad) will be selling this older mount in order to trade up to a newer F-150, perhaps a Lariat SuperCrew truck like ours. As recently as a year ago this would have been a safe bet.
But the current reality suggests he's probably downsizing and moving out of the truck market entirely. After all, not everyone who wants to own a pickup truck really needs one. And this market is fast evolving into one of needs rather than wants.
Back to the Core
Ford is under no illusions about this shift in the character and priorities of truck buyers. Its most recent market research shows the general decline in truck sales is most dramatic among casual truck buyers, while the segment of sales devoted to work trucks is populated by "core truckers." And, Ford figures, these are the kind of owners who will once again assert the sales appeal of the F-150.
Still, certain design elements of the all-new 2009 Ford F-150 indicate that the Blue Oval's crystal ball wasn't sufficiently polished to see this development coming when it started the design process some three or four years ago. Many improvements to our 2009 F-150 seem intended for the waning poseur contingent, not Joe the Plumber.
A More Habitable Crew Cab
This crew-cab truck's 144.5-inch wheelbase represents a full 6-inch stretch over 2008, and this allows the enlarged SuperCrew cab to finally live up to its name with 43.5 inches of leg-crossing room in the rear seat, a full 4.5 inches more than last year. And instead of offering only a sliver of cargo space behind the rear seatback, the Ford's rear-seat bottoms fold up and latch against the backrests, revealing a perfectly flat floor with no driveline hump and no jutting seat supports to confound loading.
Compared to the previous F-150, aerodynamic improvements reduce wind noise in the cabin, steering system improvements reduce the levels of road vibration transmitted to the driver and even the engine sounds less thrashy than before.
The overall level of interior fit and finish is also much improved. Center stack controls now feature convenient knobs for the audio and climate control systems. There's Microsoft Sync, inputs for USB and iPod, and Bluetooth even comes gratis. The $795 Lariat Plus package brings a rearview camera and an in-dash six-disc CD changer.
As far as style goes, the 2009 Ford F-150 expresses the tough-truck theme that Ford loves, but it's still a tad over the top for us, especially in Lariat trim. Our biggest interior complaint is actually related to the driving position, as only Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has arms long enough to comfortably reach the non-telescopic steering wheel, and the power-adjustable pedals don't make much of a difference in improving this.
Of course a half-foot of extra wheelbase will improve the highway ride of any truck, but this stretch is equally important because it affords room to use rear springs that are 6 inches longer, a strategy used to great effect for the 2008 Ford F-450.
First, a longer leaf pack allows a softer initial spring rate for ride comfort when the bed is unloaded, and yet still provides the beef to accommodate a decent payload. And to a lesser extent, the greater span between the spring eyes also reduces unwanted toe changes in the alignment of the rear wheels.
This combination of a stretched wheelbase and longer leaf springs works very well when you compare this truck's ride quality with a 2008 F-150, but we would have been a lot more impressed if we hadn't recently sampled the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 and its five-link rear axle with coil springs. There's still friction between the leaves in the Ford's suspension, so an unloaded 2009 F-150 inevitably feels a bit more nervous than a Ram when one rear wheel encounters a bump, especially in corners.
The longer wheelbase also exacts a price in maneuverability. The SuperCrew's overall length of 231.7 inches -- some 7.9 inches longer than 2008 -- exceeds all other trucks of this configuration, and it swells the turning radius from 45.1 to 47 feet. In comparison, the corresponding Tundra turns in 44 feet. As a result, U-turn attempts in this F-150 usually turn into three-point turns.
Trucks on Course
None of this puts the 2009 Ford F-150 at a disadvantage when it comes to speed, however, as the F-150 slaloms the cones at 56.5 mph and grips the skid pad at 0.72g -- about average for a full-size pickup.
Thanks to vented disc brakes at every corner, electronic stability control is standard, and the system features software algorithms that will apply selected brakes to mitigate rollover situations and trailer sway. The F-150's brakes stop the big truck from 60 mph in just 128 feet -- near the top of its class.
Jabbing the throttle, however, produces below-average acceleration. Our 2009 F-150 4x2 takes 7.8 seconds (7.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) to reach 60 mph and it covers the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 88 mph. These times lag behind our test results for the Ram, Silverado, Titan and Tundra pickups, and all of those trucks were 4x4 variants that are heavier than this 4x2 F-150.
Engine and Transmission
This performance gap shouldn't be surprising, as the F-150's 5.4-liter Triton V8 is little changed from the SOHC three-valve engine sold in the last generation pickup.
The 5.4-liter V8's horsepower has been nudged to 310 horsepower at 5,000 rpm from the former 300-hp mark, while torque slumps to 360 pound-feet at 3,500 revs from 365 lb-ft. Both these figures are less than the power output of the top-level V8s offered by the F-150's competitors. Sure this Ford V8 will make some more power and torque on E85 fuel (320 hp and 390 lb-ft, respectively), but since few of us can buy the stuff readily, we're not attaching much significance to it.
The new six-speed automatic transmission certainly helps fuel consumption, as a short-ratio 1st gear gets the 2009 F-150 moving from rest more easily and two overdrive gears keep the revs down low while cruising for good fuel economy. Drivability is very good, especially with the tow-haul mode engaged, but many of us feel that the large gap between 1st and 2nd gear indicates that 1st gear is now a bit too short.
Even so, EPA-rated fuel economy rises from the 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway recorded by the previous F-150 with its four-speed transmission to 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway with the new gearbox. For the record, fuel economy with E85 ethanol is rated at 10 mpg city/14 mpg highway.
The 2009 Ford F-150's impressive fuel-economy ratings were earned by the 5.4-liter V8 paired with the standard 3.15:1 axle ratio, but this truck's Lariat trim includes a shorter 3.55:1 rear end.
The EPA doesn't require re-certification for each axle ratio, so this truck has an impressive EPA rating, but the 3.55 ratio accounts for our middling 14.4-mpg observed fuel economy. The axle ratio's benefit lies in our truck's 9,800-pound tow rating instead of the 8,500-pound limit that comes with the 3.15 rear end.
So how does Ford get to a class-leading 11,300-pound tow rating with the weakest V8 in the field? It's because the F-150 is available with yet another rear axle ratio, of course -- a 3.73:1 unit. Expect a further drop in observed fuel consumption, no matter what the window sticker reads.
Yeah, we know. We're already making plans for an in-depth tow test early next year.
If this truck had a more modern V8 with dual overhead cams, variable valve timing and perhaps direct injection, there would be enough horsepower, torque and fuel economy to really leverage the six transmission ratios. The result would be the same spread of performance with fewer optional axle ratios.
Maybe the answer will come from a diesel. Pictures have already surfaced of a 2010 Ford F-150 with a 4.4-liter clean diesel V8 codeveloped with Land Rover. It should make considerably more torque (and perhaps even a bit more horsepower), than the 5.4-liter V8 tested here.
In the meantime, our 2009 Ford F-150 Lariat 4x2 is a better truck than the outgoing model, hands down. The new SuperCrew cab is notably larger inside, and the whole package is more comfortable, quieter and more refined -- all the things casual truck buyers go for. And our example has been kitted with a respectable amount of equipment and still prices out at a reasonable $39,340.
For the workhorse set, the new six-speed automatic expands the performance envelope in both hauling and fuel economy. But Ford is merely catching up its competitors in this respect, and the Triton 5.4 V8 is keeping the company from making the best of its overall truck package.
Whichever way the pickup market goes from here, the F-150 needs an efficient new engine, a signature effort to complete the package. Maybe if the diesel makes its appearance in 2010 as forecasted, Ford will really have something for the "core truckers" of America.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Lead Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I never thought much of the current F-150. When it came out in 2004, it was hailed as some kind of breakthrough. Sure, it looked good and was comfortable over the road, but its drivetrain was average and the interior bland. Truck buyers paid no attention to my rants, though, as the F-150 sold in huge numbers until rising gas prices took their toll.
This time around Ford has taken a slightly different tack and once again I'm not sure I agree with the idea. Instead of a softer, easier-to-drive pickup, this F-150 is aimed directly at more hard-core buyers -- you know, people who actually use their truck as a truck. Seems logical enough except for one thing -- it was already plenty capable. I mean the old truck could tow 11,000 pounds. Is the extra 400 pounds that the '09 can tow really going to put it over the top?
Of course not. Instead it's all about bragging rights, and now Ford has them. But does this make the 2009 F-150 any better than the new Dodge Ram? Hardly. In fact, I prefer the ride quality of the Ram and the power of its Hemi V8. It's a wash as far as interiors go, as they both feature plenty of storage and all the latest technology. And as far as the exterior styling goes, Ford didn't move the needle much while the Ram took a big step up.
I know which truck I would buy.