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Expert Reviews 1 of 8
By Joe Wiesenfelder
July 1, 2003
The automotive industry trade papers are awash with stories of cost-cutting and platform and parts sharing by manufacturers Ford Motor Co. among them who are desperate to prop up their bottom line during troubled economic times. A recent key example of what you might call a "worst practice" was the parallel development of the new-generation 2003 Ford Expedition full-size sport utility vehicle and the 2004 F-150 full-size pickup truck, the latter of which has begun production and will hit dealerships in August. Never again will vehicles as similar as these two undergo as separate a development process as they did. But what's done is done, and what's been done with the 2004 F-150 seems to have been done very, very well.
It's clear from bumper to bumper that Ford spent a fortune in both cash and intellectual currency in molding this truck. Its key competitors, the Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram, have both been redesigned at least once since the F-150 last was, so it's a testament to the truck and the loyalty it breeds that it remained the best seller, which it has been for 26 years. It is also the best-selling vehicle of any type in this country after 21 years.
Ford chose San Antonio for the model's national media introduction partly because an F-Series pickup is sold in Texas every minute, according to the company. Nationwide, Ford calculates, someone buys one of the trucks every five minutes. The location allowed journalists to pilot the F-150 on winding country roads and on a modest offroad course, and to tow trailers as well.
The five trim levels are the same as in the previous generation: XL, STX, XLT, FX4 and Lariat. The previous-generation version of the F-150, called the 2004 F-150 Heritage, will be built until the middle of 2004, in part to allow a production ramp-up at Ford plants in Norfolk, Va., Kansas City, Mo., and the historic Rouge Center in the automaker's hometown of Dearborn, Mich. The F-250 and higher F-Series pickups have no significant upgrades scheduled. Ford introduced a concept version of the SVT F-150 Lightning based on the new platform at the 2003 North American International Auto Show (see coverage), but for now, the production Lightning based on the 2003 platform is what's available. Exterior & Styling The new F-150 is a clear descendant of the current F-150, and its front end recalls the recently redesigned Expedition, with multireflector headlights but an even larger grille. The front of the hood is almost 3 inches higher than the current model's, which lends a more imposing look but diminishes front visibility for the driver. Sonar-based park assist is an option, but it's on the rear bumper only.
A characteristic borrowed from Ford's Super Duty lineup is the stepped belt line, which rises aft of the side mirrors. Behind that point, the belt line which establishes the height of the cargo box is higher than in the current model. The 2004 is larger in almost all dimensions. For example, a 2004 XL regular cab is 5.7 inches longer in wheelbase, 4.3 inches longer overall and has 1.6 inches more distance, or track, between the left and right wheels. The overall width is actually 0.5 inch narrower, and the height of this particular body style and trim level is down 0.2 inch.
Regular-cab, SuperCab (extended-cab) and SuperCrew (crew-cab) body styles are offered. All body styles, even the regular cabs, feature four doors as standard equipment. On the regular cabs and SuperCabs, they're rearward-swinging access doors, where the SuperCrew's are full forward-opening doors. As always, SuperCrews come with 5.5-foot cargo beds, and regular cabs and SuperCabs come with 6.5- and 8-foot cargo beds. For the first time, the 2004 SuperCab also will offer a 5.5-foot bed, making it the only F-150 body style to offer three bed lengths. Styleside (flat) and Flareside (with fenders and integrated steps) box styles are available on the STX, XLT and FX4 trim levels, depending on the cab style. Exterior differences include:
XL: The "work truck" of the F-150 lineup, the XL comes as a regular-cab or SuperCab body style with a chrome bumper and a segmented black grille with a chrome surround. The standard steel wheels are 17 inches in diameter.
STX: The sportier STX comes in regular-cab and SuperCab styles and has aluminum wheels, body-colored rather than chrome bumpers and the XL's segmented black grille. A Flareside box is optional on the regular cab. The SuperCab is eligible for the 5.5-foot box, Styleside only.
XLT: Considered the family choice, the XLT is available in all cab styles and box lengths, some of which are eligible for the Flareside box. The XLT has two-tone paint, chrome bumpers, a black honeycomb grille and standard 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels.
FX4: Available in all cab styles but not with an 8-foot bed, the FX4 is another sporty choice but with an emphasis on offroad use and appearance. It has body-colored bumpers, a segmented black grille with a body-colored surround, and 18-inch machined-aluminum wheels.
Lariat: The luxury Lariat trim level is two-tone, with bumpers to match. Its grille is silver with a chrome surround.
Ride & Handling The F-150's ride and handling have improved dramatically. For all the criticism Toyota's full-size Tundra has received among pickup-truck purists, few have disputed that its ride quality and quiet interior are best in class. The F-150 is now comparable in terms of ride quality and interior noise, and probably better in terms of handling, thanks to a complete structural and suspension overhaul.
The truck's ladder-style steel frame now uses fully boxed rails where the earlier generation's are C-shaped in cross section. With this and other improvements, engineers say, the frame increases roughly 900 percent in torsional rigidity and 50 percent in bending stiffness over the previous generation. Additionally, the body is 100 percent more rigid. Evident though these improvements are in many ways, I did feel a little vibration in the floorboards when traversing bumps in the road.
The wheels and tires are now larger, with a 17-inch diameter as standard equipment and 18-inchers optional. Ford replaced the recirculating-ball steering with a rack-and-pinion system that's much more precise. Though 4x4 versions of the earlier generation employ torsion bars in their front suspension, all new models have coil-spring double-wishbone front suspensions with cast-aluminum lower control arms for lower unsprung weight. The coil-over shock absorbers are now closer to the wheels. Perhaps the most significant change in the whole truck, though, is the rear suspension. Unlike the Expedition, which went to an independent rear suspension with coil springs, the F-150 retains the solid rear axle and leaf springs for the benefits they provide in a truck designed to do real work. But Ford increased the width of the rear leaf springs by about 20 percent to 3 inches wide and moved the shock absorbers outboard of the frame practically next to the wheels.
The shocks were formerly located midway between either wheel and the rear axle's differential, as they are on most trucks. Because of leverage, shock absorbers that are farther inboard must be firmer to control the wheel's motion. This serves to control body roll but results in a stiff ride overall. The new geometry places the shocks close to the wheels, reducing leverage and allowing them to be softer for comfortable vertical damping without sacrificing roll damping.
In actual use, I often forgot I was driving a pickup, as opposed to a large SUV, because only in extreme circumstances did I feel any of the hallmarks of a pickup's rear end specifically, some minor axle hop on rough pavement.
The comments above represent SuperCab and SuperCrew trucks with the standard suspension tuning. The FX4 trim level has firmer shocks, skid plates, a standard 3.73:1 limited-slip differential and optional tires all optimized for offroad use. It is this truck that I drove on a modest offroad course involving a sprint through a shallow creek and a couple of steep ascents and descents, including a hill embedded with railroad ties and rocks. Equipped with part-time four-wheel drive, the truck handled it all fine, and the suspension tamed the "frame twister" well. On this stretch of dirt road, one front and the opposite rear wheel would simultaneously encounter holes that set the truck teetering diagonally. The truck made the transitions with no undue bouncing, the shock absorbers quieting the body motion quickly after one jounce or rebound.
The FX4 is more impressive on the road, if only because its offroad capability doesn't translate to exaggerated tautness. It doesn't provide the comfort of the softer suspension, but neither would most truck owners blink an eye if this were the standard tuning. Going & Stopping The 4.6-liter Triton V-8 that currently serves as the midlevel engine is now the standard base engine, offering 231 horsepower and 293 pounds-feet of torque. A V-6 engine is no longer in the picture, nor is a manual transmission, which is already causing a stir among F-150 purists. The upgrade engine is an "all-new" version of the 5.4-liter Triton V-8. The aluminum heads now feature three rather than two valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust) and 50 degrees of phasing on the overhead intake and exhaust camshafts. The result is an increase from 260 hp at 4,500 rpm and 350 pounds-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm to 300 hp at 5,000 rpm and 365 pounds-feet of torque at 3,750 rpm.
All the F-150s at this event had the 5.4-liter V-8. Despite the numbers, one of few complaints among journalists attending the introduction was that the engine's increased output doesn't yield a marked increase in acceleration. My driving partner, Jason Stein, of the cars.com-affiliated Fort Wayne, Ind., Journal Gazette, and I suspected the culprit was weight. The specifications seem to bear this out. We logged the most miles in a 2004 Lariat SuperCab 4x2, which has a curb weight of 5,244 pounds. A 2003 version, which also features a 5.4-liter Triton V-8 and an automatic transmission, weighs 4,613 pounds, according to Ford's specs. This is no small weight gain. Also note exactly how the power output has changed between 2003 and 2004:
4.6-liter Triton V-8
5.4-liter Triton V-8
5.4-liter Triton V-8
231 @ 4,750 rpm
260 @ 4,500 rpm
300 @ 5,000 rpm
293 @ 3,500 rpm
350 @ 2,500 rpm
365 @ 3,750 rpm
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
Though horsepower is significantly higher, torque the twisting force that really matters in the plain old stop-and-go is up only 15 pounds-feet. According to Ford's torque curves, the new 5.4-liter's torque output is greater at low rpm and its curve more broad across the rpm range. The new engine is definitely better and more well rounded, but its torque characteristics probably aren't helping perceptions. Though even torque delivery is preferred, it's easy to see how the new engine would underwhelm compared to one that peaks at 2,500 rpm rather than 3,750 rpm. The surge from a sharp torque peak tends to impress, even if the overall performance is inferior. Ford says the new Triton achieves 80 percent of its peak torque at 1,000 rpm.
The improvements come from a host of changes seemingly in all parts of the engine, but the additional valves and continuously variable valve timing are among the most significant in terms of power, efficiency and emissions. (Though EPA fuel-economy estimates for the vehicle itself are not yet available, engineers say the 5.4-liter engine is 5 percent more efficient than the earlier version, and cleaner, despite its higher output. Considering that the V-6 is gone and the whole truck is heavier, I daresay mileage improvements are unlikely.)
Also aiding efficiency are Charge Motion Control Valves in the intake runners. At low engine speeds, these electrically controlled butterfly valves close partially to impart a swirl effect on the intake air/fuel mixture as it enters the combustion chambers, which ensures more complete combustion. At high engine speeds, the valves open fully, allowing a peak airflow of 350 cubic feet per minute to pass through the two intake valves, compared with roughly 250 cubic feet per minute through the older V-8's single intake valve. The engine draws the intake air through a new air cleaner conveniently mounted atop the engine and featuring an easily removed filter tray.
The 4.6-liter remains coupled to a version of Ford's current 4R70E four-speed automatic upgraded with a new torque converter, improved electronic control that limits gear "hunting" and maintenance-free lifetime transmission fluid, among other changes. The larger engine mates to a new 4R75E four-speed-automatic transmission designed to handle the increased torque. I was pleased with the transmission in that it reacted reasonably quickly, without much kickdown lag, a chronic problem Ford seems to be curing in many of its automatics. I was especially relieved at the accelerator response knowing the F-150 now has a "by-wire" throttle, which in too many vehicles is marketed as an advancement but introduces a lag not experienced with the old-style cable throttle. This system is claimed to provide consistent acceleration regardless of gear, load and altitude, and it automatically enables a more gradual throttle progression when a 4x4 version's transfer case is switched to low gear, for finer control. This is one advantage of by-wire technology that tangibly benefits the driver. I found it helpful that the pedal ignores minute changes in pedal position when in low gear. It prevents unintended lurching and bucking that sometimes result as the driver bounces about in the cabin.
The four-wheel drive, as before, is a part-time system with a dual-range transfer case. Manual shift-on-the-fly capability is standard, but my test vehicles had the optional dashboard-mounted electronic control with 2H (rear-wheel drive high), 4H (four-wheel drive high) and 4L (four-wheel drive with the transfer case low gear engaged) settings.
All 2004 F-150s feature standard four-wheel disc brakes with four-wheel ABS and electronic brake-force distribution. The front twin-piston and rear single-piston calipers are larger and 60-percent stiffer than in the previous generation. The front brake rotors have grown 7 percent in diameter to 13 inches, and the rear discs are a fraction of an inch larger at 13.7 inches. Ford says stopping distances on loose surfaces are down 13 percent. In normal driving, the brakes impressed me with their linearity and pedal feel. I don't know that it proves anything regarding their performance, but somewhere in Texas there's a kitten who's glad ABS is standard on the F-150. I was turning off of a fast rural two-lane when I was lucky to see the gray kitten in the middle of the gray road. I stood on the brakes, triggering the ABS, and the tires dug in. I lost sight of him below the hood and feared the worst until I saw a driver in the opposite lane looking more worried than nauseated. I jumped out, scooped the little sprite up and tossed him in Jason's lap. He was just a few weeks old and fit easily inside one hand. (We brought him to the hotel where a softy on the security staff said it was customary for them to deliver strays to a veterinarian who places them in decent homes.) The Inside Changes in the exterior styling make the cabin wider and front seat roomier, designed to accommodate everyone from a 25th-percentile woman (approximately 4 feet 10 inches tall) to a 99th-percentile male (approximately 6 feet 4 inches tall). Provisions include a standard tilt steering wheel and optional power-adjustable pedals.
The F-150's developers also added 6 inches to the length of the passenger compartment, a dimension where inches make a huge difference in overall volume. In regular cabs, Ford says, there's now 13 inches of cargo space behind the seats, so the access doors aren't just for show. In the SuperCab, the rear seat's backrest now angles back a more comfortable 21 degrees, increased from 18 degrees in the 2003 truck. Though it's an improvement, the 21 degrees in this and the SuperCrew's backseat isn't what I consider a comfortable angle. With the redesign, backseat legroom is greater by 2.2 inches in the SuperCrew but just 0.5 inch in the SuperCab. Kudos to Ford for the design of the rear access door handles: Though the front doors must be opened first, passengers can at least reach the back door's handle from inside the truck more easily than in most trucks with access doors (see photo).
Perhaps the most appreciable improvement in the F-150 is its interior design. Ford Motor Co. has made interiors a priority, and the results are already clear on the 2003 Expedition and Lincoln's Navigator (see the First Drive) and Aviator. There's more of the same here, with the masculine form vocabulary desired in a truck, and improved materials quality. The base XL trim level doesn't compare to the higher ones, but even it has a two-tone instrument panel. Quality comes from design as well as materials, and elements like the stereo controls are much more pleasing. Gone are the Chiclets-like buttons familiar to today's Ford owners.
The dashboard's center control stack is different on F-150s with the 40/20/40-split front bench seat so the center passenger has more legroom. FX4 and Lariat buyers can opt for front captain's chairs that come with a "flow-through" console and floor-mounted shifter another feature that has caused an uproar among purists.
In addition to an optional power-sliding rear window, the SuperCab is the first truck in the class to offer power windows in the rear access doors, on the XLT, FX4 and Lariat trim levels.
There are a few outright boners in the interior design. Two appeared in the Lariat, the light-tan dashboard of which reflected too much sunlight onto the windshield. Also, no one seemed to like the faux-wood trim on the Lariat's center control stack. Ford representatives suggested it might disappear in the future. Across the line, "grab" handles on the A- and B-pillars just aren't as useful for climbing in or trying to brace oneself as are the type mounted above the door. Where some automakers have done away with this handle location to accommodate side curtain-type airbags, Ford offers neither these nor seat-mounted side-impact airbags, which have begun to appear in competing trucks. Ford claims the cabin structure is designed to provide more-than-adequate side-impact protection. Safety Ford portends excellent crash-test results in government and insurance-industry tests, but until we have those third-party results, we'll focus on the safety features. The 2004 F-150 includes the Ford Personal Safety System (PSS) seen on other vehicles with a new, high-tech twist: occupant sensing.
As in other Ford products with PSS, the frontal airbags deploy at one of two intensities based on crash intensity, driver's safety belt use and seat position. In the F-150, a silicone bladder in the front passenger's seat actually determines the weight of whatever rests on it. This "occupant classification sensor" deduces that any weight below 75 pounds is either a child too small for an airbag, or an object, and disables the bag. Because a child-safety seat with a well-cinched seat belt may register as more weight than it is, the system is smart enough to detect seat belt tension, a giveaway that the airbag should remain off. Regular-cab F-150s still include a keyswitch override for the front passenger's airbag.
The backseat, when present, is always the safest for a child, and the center position is the safest of the three. For this, Ford supplies three sets of LATCH universal lower child-seat anchors in the backseat of SuperCab and SuperCrew models. (Many cars offer LATCH only in the outboard seats.) In regular-cab models, LATCH is on the front passenger seat. Cargo & Towing The cargo box's walls are taller by more than 2 inches, which increases the box volume by as much as 12 percent over the current model, depending on bed length. The increased height would have made the tailgate too heavy to raise and lower. Rather than build it of plastic, Ford incorporated a torsion-bar spring that makes the tailgate easy to open and close. Without the spring, the gate would require 30 pounds of force to swing up; with the assist feature, it requires 18 pounds of force. (Engineers say they could have made it lighter, but some weight is desirable when driving with the tailgate down and/or loaded.) The hidden torsion bar becomes tensioned only as the gate lowers, so the tailgate is removable in the same manner as most pickups. I removed it myself and concluded that it's not too heavy for one person to carry. As proven by the kitten incident above, I'm no one's idea of a he-man.
As a class, light trucks have casual users and wannabes to thank for the current craze, but that doesn't explain the F-150's dominance of this category starting a full 26 years ago. Some pickup buyers really need their trucks to work, and Ford promises not to leave these folks behind. Maximum trailer weights for regular-cab 4x2 models are 7,000 pounds for the standard 4.6-liter V-8 and 9,500 pounds for the 5.4-liter V-8. These maxima are for trucks with optional equipment, such as the Payload Group and a 3.73:1 rear axle in place of the standard 3.31:1 or 3.55:1 version. (A 4.10:1 rear axle also is offered in the model line, and limited-slip differentials are available on all but the 3.31:1.)
The larger cab styles and four-wheel drive tend to decrease the maximum trailer weight and payload. For trucks equipped with the 4.6-liter engine, payload ranges from 1,400 pounds in the SuperCrew 4x4 to 1,850 pounds in the regular-cab 4x2. With the 5.4-liter, the same trucks' standard payload ranges from 1,550 pounds to 1,700 pounds (6-foot bed) or 2,000 pounds (8-foot bed). The latter's payload can increase to 3,000 pounds with the payload package.
I towed a 20-foot 7,000-pound trailer in two SuperCab 4x4 versions of the F-150 optimized for towing. It was uneventful, which is what you want. The trucks did the job, but they weren't overwhelmingly powerful considering the trailer weight was well short of the maximum. The engines were relatively quiet under load, however, and though the side mirrors don't currently extend as they do on Super Duty trucks, I appreciated their size. Features For the details on the F-150's many body styles, wheelbases, and standard and optional features 26 configurations! check out the Buying Guides, which group the regular cab and SuperCab report separate from the SuperCrew and the previous-generation Heritage report.
I'll comment on one innovation that stands out. I've often puzzled over vehicles whose overhead consoles have three flip-down sunglass holders. The F-150 promises you'll have what you need up there, and nothing more, thanks to modular overhead components. Standard on the XLT, FX4, and Lariat SuperCab and SuperCrew are a pair of brushed-aluminum rails that span the ceiling from the windshield to the rear window. A wide variety of modular storage compartments and gizmos snap onto these rails, including a first-aid kit, toolbox, power inverter, flashlights and more. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is also optional, though it requires more involved installation than the basic modules, which tap the rails' built-in power supply as soon as they're snapped into place. The rails support three or four modules, maximum, depending on the size of each. F-150 in the Market For Ford, this redesign had to be a home run. Having the best-selling vehicle in the country isn't just about bragging rights. It's about profit, especially in the category of full-size trucks. I always hesitate to draw conclusions based on a day or two of exposure to a new product, especially at an event designed to dazzle. But there's a lot to like here. Ford has adopted some of the things for which Toyota has been praised namely, ride quality and quietness. Now Nissan is threatening with its upcoming 2004 Titan pickup. But the Japanese competitors lack two things they'd need truly to threaten Ford: street cred and variety, in the area of wheelbases, box lengths and engine choices.
The F-150's interior designs are a masterstroke in a market in which luxury is in heavy demand. The acceleration may seem modest, but all of the specs tell a different story a story of a highly capable truck that's more refined and livable than most people expect in this segment. Time and more exposure will tell, but at first blush, Ford seems to have designed the complete full-size pickup.