ROMEO -- There's an automotive adage: The nicer the launch location, the worse the vehicle.
No doubt, Ford Motor Co., which debuted its redesigned 2009 F-150 pickup at its proving grounds in Romeo, is confident in its truck's abilities. Apple pickers aside, Romeo is not where the love affair of pickups started.
Ford has added a new high-end pickup, the Platinum edition, making the premiere King Ranch, with its saddle leather seats, No. 2 in Ford's pickup hierarchy that includes seven trim levels and 35 different configurations, ranging from a 4x2 standard cab to a 4x4 crew cab.
Driving and testing these trucks, the cornerstone of the Glass House, demonstrated their awesome abilities: They can tow 11,300 pounds, get 20 miles per gallon (though not at the same time) and haul more than 3,000 pounds -- making this half-ton really a ton-and-a-half kind of truck. (Ford likes to say its fuel economy is "unsurpassed," which in marketing terms means "tied." There is a SFE model that reaches 21 mpg -- the same as the Chevrolet XFE model.)
Either way, the F-150 will be the biggest tool in many workers' tool box -- a message Ford will repeat ad nauseam.
Changes improve top-seller
So what changes could Ford make to its top-selling pickup to keep it at the top? Tons. Drivability: Enhancements to the F-150's suspension have smoothed out the ride. On a mix of dirt roads and highway driving, the stiffer frame didn't reveal itself in a stiffer ride. It was surprisingly quiet and smooth. Ford uses a mix of sound deadening materials such as laminated steel (known as quiet steel) and a retuned powertrain to keep noise to a minimum. The all-new Platinum edition even includes a noise-reducing laminate in the windshield to keep outside noise outside.
Ford also reduced the truck's idle to 550 rpm, which lowers noise and improves fuel economy.
A longer leaf spring in the back has also helped give the F-150 a polished ride. It's still a truck, mind you. So it feels big in parking lots and at slower speeds, but its still a good ride.
Finally, improvements to the power rack-and-pinion steering provide better feedback and remove that squishy feel in the previous generation.
Power: The F-150's heavy lifting is done by its top-of-the-line 5.4-liter three-valve engine. The V-8 pushes 320 horsepower and 390-pound-feet torque -- the all important number for truckers. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, which is extremely silky even towing serious tonnage.
The mid-engine, a 4.6-liter three-valve V-8 delivers 292-horsepower and 320-pound-feet torque, while the base 4.6-liter two-valve V-8 offers 248 horses and 294-pound-feet torque. The base engine is mated to a four-speed transmission, which was also surprisingly smooth -- though lacks the fuel economy advantages of the bigger six-speed transmission.
Of the three, I liked the biggest V-8 best. When towing, the additional two gears offer an advantage and the refined power feels as if it can pull anything. While the future may bring Ford's much touted EcoBoost engines, offering V-8 power in a turbo-charged direct injection V-6, the new F-150 does not come with any six-cylinder offering. This helps explain why the F-150 base model can beat up on the competition at the base level -- Ford has a two-cylinder advantage.
Details add to interior
The F-150 has always had a good interior. For the 2009 models, it's better.
There are little creature comforts that add to it. There are more than 30 storage areas around the cab. The center console was made slightly bigger to accommodate file folders or hold a laptop. There are also two 12-volt outlets inside every cab to make sure all of those electronics stay charged up.
Each storage location is well placed, keeping the inside of the truck neatly organized. The instrument panel has transformed from a single face with numerous gauges to individual instruments, which gives the truck a more sophisticated look.
More importantly, Ford has redesigned its seats to offer a more bolstered and comfortable seating position. The front door is slightly larger and that pushes the B-pillar back slightly, offering the driver a better view out of the cab.
The F-150 also features the SYNC hands-free phone and music player, the best voice-recognition system available today. At the touch of a button, you can ask your truck to play something by Kenny G, call a client or ask for directions to the closest Home Depot on the optional navigation system.
The Sirius Travel Link system, which requires a monthly subscription, allows you to find the lowest gas prices (and directions to the station), as well as tune into Howard Stern, look up local movie listings, see sports scores and view weather information. While I've always thought a 99-cent map is just as useful as a $2,000 navigation system, but continually updated information forces me to reconsider that assessment.
Truck's cool features a plus
The list of features available on the F-150 is impressive.
Some, such as the tailgate step, stowable bed extender and the integrated trailer brake controller are hand-me downs from Ford's 2008 Super Duty pickups. The step looks a little rickety at first, but once you use it, you'll never have sore knees again.
The trailer brake controller is something you're going to see become standard equipment in the competitors in the coming years.
Ford has included an optional box step, which opens out by pushing on it with your foot. It's another convenient feature that makes you wonder why no one offered this before.
Other features are designed for the working trucker: the bed management system (that can organize a truck's bed), tow haul mode (which uses the transmission wisely to pull heavy loads up or down hills) and a reverse camera (that shows the truck's trailer hitch location to make hooking up easy).
Other features include Ford's capless fuel filler, optional heated and cooled seats and even a new stereo supplier, Sony.
The last feature I like is more of a design change. The spacious second row of the Crew Cab includes a completely flat floor so it's easier to store items with the seats folded up.
Safety: Ford did not skimp on safety features either. The new F-150 includes electronic stability control, trailer sway control, anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags for front passengers and side curtain airbags for both rows.
More importantly, all of the safety features on the new F-150 are standard, whether you buy an XL or a fully loaded Platinum model. Safety items should never be optional.
Ford, of course, has lots to choose from with its new F-150. And there's there a tool for every worker.
While the F-150's capabilities may reach into the obscene levels -- moving into heavy duty truck territory, there's no doubting the improvements will be well received by the people who use pickups to put bread on the table.
And anyone who hops into this new truck won't drive away disappointed.
Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ford Motor Co. has partnered with a number of companies to offer these features with its F-150. These are exclusive to Ford and very cool.
Computer : $1,195 (+ $49.99 a month): A dash mounted, Internet capable computer (with Garmin Navigation) can be used on sites to pull up information. It can also come with a wireless printer to help print and track invoices or other paperwork.
Tool Link : $1,120: Developed with DeWalt tools, this system uses RFID tags to track items in the truck's bed. A display screen in the cab can tell the driver if every item taken to a work site is taken home. It can also set up lists by job, so if a contractor needs different tools for different jobs, he can make sure he's taking everything he needs for the day.
Crew Chief : $380 (+ $19.95 a month per vehicle); Allows you to track all the vehicles in your fleet and monitor key data such as speed, fuel consumption, next service and idle time.
Cable Lock: $120: Developed with Master Lock, the 3/8-inch retractable cable in the can lock items in the truck's bed.
Overall : ****
Exterior : Excellent. Big and straight lines look as powerful as it is. The only cosmetic issue is the big hole under the bumper. While it works as an air intake, the hole makes it look like the front end is missing something.
Interior: Excellent. Comfortable and improved quiet ride make the F-150 a top performer. Added features focus on the work day.
Performance : Excellent. Combine a good ride with excellent power and good fuel economy keep at the head of its class
Safety : Excellent. Standard features include electronic stability control, six airbags and stronger body make this truck very safe.
Pros: Lots of abilities and features. The 35 configurations create an F-150 for nearly everyone.
Cons : May not need this much truck.
2009 Ford F-150
King Ranch: $38,840
4.6-liter 2V V-8
4.6-liter 3V EFI V-8
4.6-liter 2V V-8: 248 horsepower; 294-pound-feet torque
4.6-liter 3V EFI V-8: 292 horsepower; 320-pound-feet torque
5.4-liter V-8: 320 horsepower; 390-pound-feet torque
4.6-liter 2V V-8: Four-speed automatic
4.6-liter 3V EFI V-8: Six-speed automatic
5.4-liter V-8: Six-speed automatic
EPA gas mileage (city/highway)
4.6-liter 2V V-8 (4x2): 14/19
4.6-liter 3V EFI V-8 (4x2): 15/20
5.4-liter V-8 (4x2): 14/20
*Does not include $975 shipping
Source: Ford Motor Co.
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