It finally happened. Anyone remotely in tune with the state of vehicle sales in America could have seen it coming and, now, it's official: Total truck sales have surpassed total car sales. This means that Americans can officially call themselves truck people, with all the connotations of rugged individualism and adventuresome spirit that go with it. Of course, if you were to analyze these numbers closely, you'd see that the recent surge that put trucks ahead of cars comes in large part from SUV sales to young singles. Young singles who rarely leave the safety and security of paved jungles like Lower Manhattan and West L.A.
But that's beside the point! If it's trucks you people want then, trucks you shall have. These latest two models come from Ford and boast four-wheel drive and four-door cabs, which means you can practice rugged off-road driving as well as adventuresome people-moving.
New for '99 are smoother, more powerful engines that give the F-Series trucks a refined feel compared to earlier models. Our two test vehicles were equipped with the optional 5.4-liter, 260-horsepower Triton V8. While in no way anemic, this engine doesn't make as much horsepower or torque as a comparably equipped Silverado from GM. There's a confidence-inspiring roar from under the hood when mashing down the throttle, and our F250 did manage a 9.6-second zero-to-60 time. However, with GM raising the horsepower ante, Ford's smooth power delivery and impressive roar aren't enough to keep pace.
Peak horsepower aside, the F-Series trucks are easy to live with on a daily basis. Strong mid-range power and a well-calibrated automatic made city driving a delight. Downshifts were completely intuitive, which meant no "chugging" up hills in high gear, and upshifts were positive without being harsh. Add to this the trucks' towering ride height and excellent visibility and what you've got are vehicles that can haul the mail without being a handful in congested areas.
Open-road driving in the F-Series trucks was equally pleasant due to their precise steering, competent braking and forgiving suspension. A certain amount of "truck-like" handling is unavoidable when discussing a...well, truck, but, for something designed to carry cargo and not carve canyons, Ford has created an extremely user-friendly rig. An unexpected bonus was the solid, rattle-free ride we experienced throughout our test period. The loss of a B-pillar in these four-door trucks can potentially lead to excessive body flex and clattering when traversing bumpy or uneven terrain. Thankfully, both vehicles were as tight as Carmen Electra's spandex.
For hauling duty, we put our F250 to use moving an editor out of his puny West L.A. apartment and into a slightly less-puny West L.A. townhouse. The truck proved easy to load, and the exterior light on the back of the cab, which we didn't even notice in the daylight, was a godsend once the sun had set and it was time to make a final run. Unfortunately, that additional run was necessary because the truck's bed filled up so quickly. It wasn't until a friend showed up in a 1967 Dodge Crew Cab that we realized the usefulness of a large truck bed for major freight moving. We're not saying that the Ford is woefully incapable of carrying a load. For the average truck-person's needs, an F-Series will suffice (though an extra run or two might be required when helping people move) but for serious cargo carrying, you'll want to go with something larger (like a 30-year-old Dodge?).
One area our Ford had it all over the '67 Dodge was appearance. Its flowing lines, honeycomb grill, chrome wheels and bright red paint gave it a presence on the streets of West L.A. and caused a considerable amount of double takes. The black side steps on both models contributed to the trucks' good looks (plus made it much easier to get in and out of them). Vintage Ford truck fans have suggested that the current F-Series looks too watered down, but none of us could deny the positive reaction they generated from other drivers.
While the exterior design met with approval among Edmund's staffers, the reaction to Ford's interior was almost universal: we didn't like it. Our gripes centered on a number of ergonomic mishaps as well as the overall look which tries to be progressive but ends up looking goofy. The round, "aero" styling, small radio knobs, and overall gauge placement just doesn't work, especially in a truck.
Even worse were ergonomic problems like the mismatched height between the gas and brake pedal (Ford's Explorer, Chevy's Suburban and the GMC Denali suffer from this as well). What are these manufacturers thinking? Nobody wants to have to reposition his or her entire body when going between the gas and brake pedal.
One editor also noticed a problem with the left-side bolster of the driver's seat in the F150. A lack of firmness meant that during right turns the driver would "roll" to the left without enough support to keep him steady. Also, after an hour or so behind the wheel, this same bolster flattened and created an uneven seating position. Combined with a center, flip down console that required contortionist-like maneuvers to open and large, non-adjusable cup holders that promise spillage after your first hard stop, and it's apparent Ford needs to address the F-Series' interior design. (It should be noted, however, that none of these seating concerns showed up in the F250's buckets, which were supportive and comfortable.)
Finally, the fuel-door indicator, which is located near the gas gauge and is supposed to indicate which side the exterior fuel door is on (a fine idea on Ford's part), pointed directly at the "fasten seatbelt" light. This placement suggests that the two are somehow connected which, obviously, they aren't...are they?
Our only other problem had to do with leaking coolant from the F150. It didn't gush but it constantly dripped and though the truck's temperature gauge never left the safe operating zone, over the course of our test period it dumped quite a mess in front of one editor's house and kept him from trying an off-road excursion for fear of being stranded.
Ford gets credit for using excellent interior materials that have a plush feel, but the 1999 Sierra and Silverado offer superior control and gauge placement. Seating accommodations are also better in the new GM trucks with the rear seats, in particular, much better suited to carrying full-sized adults than Ford's cramped rear quarters.
GM, Ford and Chrysler don't need headlines to know the crucial role trucks play in today's automotive environment. With both prestige and profit margins hanging in the balance, each company is scrambling to offer consumers the best truck for their buck. As it stands, Ford has a solid product in the current F-Series. It's got great road manners, stylish looks, and a "Built Ford Tough" feel that proves four-door trucks don't have to be clunky.
However, with new offerings from GM (not to mention the ever-threatening Dodge boys), Ford cannot rely on "eclectic" interiors and brand loyalty to capture market share. It needs to further increase horsepower while improving the interiors roominess and design in order to compete with the otherwise excellent F-Series line.