Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
Roughly 18 months ago, a Ford F-150 came in dead last in our four-way pickup comparison test. Trailer towing and overall performance played a big role in the scoring, and the aging 5.4-liter V8 and its lowly 315 horsepower simply couldn't keep up.
Ford wasn't amused. Mike Rowe stopped sending Christmas cards. From their perspective, the 2009 F-150's class-leading tow rating of 11,200 pounds was justified by engine and transmission cooling systems able to reliably survive up long grades. From our perspective, the tepid 5.4-liter engine lagged far behind the others while wrung out at wide-open throttle for extended periods. Our right leg cramped up. We hate that.
Dearborn's engineers undoubtedly gnashed their teeth because they knew what would soon come. While we were tearing the 5.4-liter V8 a new one, they were in the midst of developing not one, but three more powerful new ones. "We know! We know!" they must have spat.
These new engines are finally here, and now the 2011 Ford F-150 has exactly what it needs under the hood, and then some. Think Mustang (5.0-liter V8), EcoBoost (3.5-liter twin-turbo direct-injected V6) and Super-Duty/Raptor (6.2-liter V8). That'll do. A fourth new engine, a 3.7-liter V6, replaces (and eclipses) last year's 4.6-liter entry-level V8.
Bracketing the Lineup
Of the three 5.4 replacements, a truck version of the new 5.0-liter V8 sits at the low end of the scale, while the 6.2-liter V8 that was introduced in the SVT Raptor is now the top power plant.
Low end of the scale is a bit of a misnomer, however, as the 5.0-liter V8 is rated at 360 hp and 380 pound-feet of torque. Most of it is the same as the Mustang version, including the aluminum block and heads, independently variable intake and exhaust cam timing and many internal bits. New intake cams with less duration provide a truckier torque curve, and a reduced 10.5:1 compression ratio (down from 11.0:1) allows a steady diet of 87-octane regular, the fuel on which the rated output is derived. It's also calibrated to run on E85 ethanol, a trick the Mustang's mill can't manage.
Compared to the outgoing 5.4 V8's 315 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque, the 5.0's gains are impressive. We're talking 45 additional horses and a maximum tow rating of 10,000 pounds for this new base V8.
On the road, the 5.0 purrs along serenely and quietly, apparently sipping "up to 20 percent less" gasoline. (Ford isn't saying anything specific until EPA testing is complete.) Boot the throttle and acceleration is strong, as if the truck were hundreds of pounds lighter (it isn't). Forward progress is accompanied by a powerful V8 exhaust note that's a well-tuned blend of throaty intake honk and exhaust growl.
At the top end of the lineup we find the same 6.2-liter V8 we're enjoying in our long-term SVT Raptor. It still makes 411 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel. Nothing is different except for its expanded use in the 2011 F-150 Harley-Davidson, in a special-edition Lariat Limited and as an option on the Lariat and Platinum. All told, Ford expects the 6.2-liter V8 to make up about 5 percent of the total F-150 mix.
Six Is the New Eight
Between these impressive efforts sits the new marquee engine that Ford considers the "volume" top-level choice. But it's no V8. No, this is the EcoBoost twin-turbo V6 we've been hearing about, and it's for real.
Like the Ford Flex's EcoBoost engine, it displaces 3.5 liters, has direct fuel injection and is pressurized by two turbochargers. But in turning it 90 degrees, from front-drive sidewinder to a rear-drive north-south orientation, most major pieces had to be redesigned. The basic architecture is the same -- bore centers, deck height, 60-degree vee angle -- but the block, heads, valve covers, intake manifold and other big chunks are all-new.
And there are specific performance-oriented differences. The Flex/SHO EcoBoost has intake-only variable valve timing, but this trucked-out version can vary exhaust valve timing, too. Its twin turbochargers are made by Borg-Warner instead of Honeywell and boost pressure has been raised from 10 to 13 psi. A large air-to-air intercooler sits behind a gaping slit in the chrome bumper, with the front license-plate bracket moved off to the driver side.
What kind of output does all this new hardware generate? Try 365 hp at 5,000 rpm. Peak torque is up there -- 420 lb-ft at 2,500 revs, with 90 percent of that available from 1,700-5,000 rpm. Meanwhile, the same 3.5 liters of Flex EcoBoost makes 355 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel. Displacement aside, please don't confuse these two motors.
Hauling and Trailering
In a corner of the vast parking lot at Texas Motor Speedway, Ford turns us loose on an ersatz drag strip of unspecified length, complete with timers, a 5.3-liter Chevy Silverado and a 5.7-liter Hemi-powered Dodge Ram. It isn't clear what axle ratios are in play, but the 2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost runs consistently quicker than the others. This is far from a definitive test in controlled conditions, but it's clear the EcoBoost V6 is absolutely in the game with the established V8s.
Turns out an EcoBoost-powered F-150 is very good at big, smoky burnouts, too, if you're into that sort of thing.
But we came into this with a towing chip on our shoulder. How does it pull a load, we wondered? For starters, Ford's maximum tow rating for the 2011 F-150 EcoBoost is 11,300 pounds, the highest in the lineup. But that's only 100 pounds more than our overworked 2009 5.4-liter test truck's rating, so this latest claim is much more believable with 50 more hp and 55 more lb-ft of torque on tap.
Ford has more competitive trucks and a brace of identical enclosed trailers standing by and ready. But let's face it -- this part of Texas is flat. Nothing approaching Jacumba grade, our test slope, exists within hundreds of miles. Still, our burdened EcoBoost F-150 pulls away from stoplights and executes freeway merges with apparent ease. Between this brief experience, the essentially unchanged tow rating and the healthy horsepower and torque increases, there's no reason to think this turbocharged V6 won't run with the V8s on the steep grades we have back home.
Apart from the engines, little else is different for the 2011 Ford F-150. But a couple of important tweaks do stand out.
Take electric power steering, the mere mention of which can make the blood run cold. Truckers never feared it much because conventional wisdom said the weight of a pickup combined with the limited juice available in a 12-volt electrical system made it impossible. Well, Ford figured it out, and all F-150s now use EPS, save for the 6.2-liter variants. Their big V8 is shared with the F-250 and F-350, which really are too front-axle heavy for EPS.
Fear not. Ford also figured out how to put natural steering feel into its EPS software. In fact, the F-150s we drove felt better than a nearby Chevy Silverado, which was vague, over-light and somewhat nervous in comparison. Ford's version of EPS allows for drift/pull and crosswind compensation, which proved useful in a back-to-back with a Dodge Ram that needed much more attention while towing in a stiff crosswind.
Furthermore, all F-150 engines are mated to the 6R80 six-speed automatic transmission. The ratios are unchanged from last year, but a greatly improved shifter now supports push-button manual shifting and what Ford calls Progressive Range Select. First introduced on the F-Series Super Duty truck last year, PRS uses the plus-minus buttons with the shifter in "D." Each tap of the minus button locks out the highest gear, turning the six-speed into a five-speed or, with another tap, a five-speed into a four-speed, etc.
It's all clearly displayed on a new color LCD screen that sits between the tach and speedo. Lots of other detailed display pages are here, from elaborate trip computers to trailer brake settings (with memory for multiple trailers) to four-wheel-drive information screens to real-time graphical MPG feedback for driver coaching.
Other Things We Still Don't Know
We played with the MPG screen in our EcoBoost F-150 on one long uninterrupted stretch of two-lane and managed 26.9 mpg over 28 miles. This is far from a real mpg measurement, but the potential for Ford's vague promise of "up to 20 percent less" fuel consumption seems like more than hot air.
Another thing Ford isn't talking about is pricing, but it did hint that base trucks with the 3.7-liter V6 might cost about the same as last year's 4.6-liter V8, which won't be missed with 50 fewer horses. And it seems likely that the 5.0-liter V8 will be priced close to last year's 5.4-liter V8. Also, we know from current Raptor prices that the 6.2-liter V8 will set you back about $3,000 more than the 5.4-liter V8.
It's hard to say where this leaves the new 2011 Ford F-150 with the EcoBoost V6 because there is no past basis for comparison. Our best guess is about $800 more than a 5.0-liter V8, give or take a couple of hundred.
It'll be some months before we know if we're right, because the EcoBoost engine won't hit dealer showrooms until "early next year."
"First quarter or second quarter?" we pressed.
"Early next year," came the poker-face reply. These Ford guys are playing it close to the vest.
But at least we know the 2011 Ford F-150 engine lineup is strong and their corresponding tow ratings are much more in line with their rated power output. We know the EcoBoost V6 feels like much more than pure hype. And we know that we want to tow a trailer up our favorite hill with one of these suckers, pronto. We're betting its performance will get us back on Mike Rowe's Christmas card list.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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