The redesigned 2009 Ford F-150 comes to market later this month amid an unprecedented slowdown in the pickup truck market fueled by this year's higher gasoline prices and the economic crisis that has affected not only the auto industry, but just about every other sector of the economy as well.
Despite this year's decline in pickup sales, the F-150 remains an important part of Ford Motor Co.'s long-term business plan.
But the new truck will need to find its way in a significantly changed market - one that has lost most of the so-called casual truckers who in the past have bought pickups just because they wanted them, not because they needed them.
The F-150's success will depend on keeping and expanding its market share among those who use pickups as a way of life - ranging from ranchers and farmers to construction and oilfield workers.
Fuel economy isn't as important to these true truckers as it is to those who would use their pickups as an alternative to cars for everyday city commuting and family hauling, but it is a factor nonetheless.
Those who use pickups in their jobs often don't have other, more fuel-efficient vehicles to drive while away from work, and to them, fuel economy is a real issue.
So while the new F-150, for now, comes only with V-8 power, Ford has boosted fuel economy by about 8 percent across the entire line, and has added special SFE models - that stands for "superior fuel economy" - that have EPA ratings of 21 miles per gallon on the highway.
Coming later - but probably still a year or more away - is Ford's new EcoBoost line of turbocharged V-6 engines designed to offer V-8 power with the fuel economy of a six-cylinder. No mileage ratings have been announced yet for these engines.
The first, a 3.5-liter with 340 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque, is expected to be introduced next year on the new Lincoln MKS sedan. No timetable has been given for adding the EcoBoost to other Ford and Lincoln models, but the automaker says this engine eventually will replace most of the V-8s in its current models.
But the redesigned F-150 benefits from improvements to its V-8 engines, including a 2 mpg increase in highway fuel economy on the SFE models. They will be equipped with a revised 4.6-liter V-8 that Ford promises will have "unsurpassed" fuel economy of 15 mpg city/21 highway - while still providing up to 7,500 pounds of towing capacity.
Other F-150 models will be able to tow up to 11,300 pounds, and will have hauling capacity of 3,030 pounds, Ford said. They will come with a 5.4-liter V-8.
"Ford has committed to have the best or equal to the best fuel economy with every new product we introduce, and we are delivering with the new F-150," Matt O'Leary, chief engineer for the F-150, said in an announcement about the SFE models.
"Fuel economy has moved from 10th to third place among pickup buyers'top purchase considerations - right behind durability and value," he said. "The new F-150 delivers on all three as the industry leader."
The SFE package will be available on the SuperCrew XL and XLT two-wheel-drive models with 5.5-foot beds, Ford said.
Besides the 4.6-liter engine, these trucks will have a new six-speed automatic transmission, a 3.15:1 rear axle, and 18-inch chrome clad aluminum wheels with low-rolling-resistance P265/60R18 all-season tires, the automaker said.
The six-speed transmission is mostly responsible for the better highway mileage. It replaces a less-efficient four-speed automatic.
The 2008 F-150 with the 4.6-liter V-8 and four-speed automatic is EPA rated at 14 mpg city/19 highway. The 4.2-liter V-6 engine in the 2008 F-150 has the same mileage rating (with the four-speed automatic).
Ford said the SFE package will be a no-cost option on XLT SuperCrew models that have the "chrome package," and will cost $1,095 on XL SuperCrew models with the "decor package."
As for the improved fuel efficiency throughout the new F-150 line, Ford attributes that to such changes as the use of lightweight ultra-high-strength steel, which takes up to 100 pounds off the vehicle's overall weight when compared with the 2008 model.
Also helping are some "aerodynamic refinements," which give the truck less wind resistance. Ford says the new F-150 has best-in-class aerodynamics, with a coefficient of drag of 0.403 for the SuperCrew two-wheel-drive model with the 5.5-foot box - a 6 percent improvement from the 2008 model.
Ford says the new model is designed to continue the F-150's dominance as the best-selling truck brand. Launched originally in 1948, the F-series has accounted for nearly 33 million sales, and has been the top truck brand for the past 31 years. GM actually sells more full-size pickups, but its offerings are divided into two brands, Chevrolet and GMC.
The 2009 model has lots of new features, along with edgier styling.
One clever new feature is a retractable metal step on each side of the truck near the front of the bed that allows someone to step up easily to reach into the bed for loading and unloading. It opens and retracts with a push of foot-operated button. The step is 11 inches wide and can hold up to 500 pounds.
Also useful is the new flat load floor in the back seat of the extended-cab model, created by folding up the seat. It creates an inside cargo area that can hold a huge box, such as one holding a giant HDTV.
There is a new stowable bed extender that can secure extra-long cargo beyond the end of the tailgate. When it's not needed, it separates and folds into the sides of the cargo box, completely out of the way. It replaces a cage-type bed extender that was removable, but could not be stowed.
Another innovation is the "midbox," an enclosed storage system at the front of the cargo box, just behind the cab. It's offered on the regular-cab models with a 145-inch wheelbase and Super Cab versions with a 163-inch wheelbase, and gives 26.3 cubic feet of protected storage space for tools and such.
Another innovation is a new capless fuel tank that automatically closes when the gas-pump nozzle is removed.
Advance Trac electronic stability control is standard on all models. Borrowed from the Super Duty models is Ford's Integrated Trailer Brake Controller, which operates a trailer's electronic brakes automatically in conjunction with the stability-control system.
Other new features include a reverse camera below the Ford badge in the center of the tailgate, giving the driver a view behind the vehicle on a dash screen when backing up. It can be used to help connect the truck to a trailer by giving the driver a bird's-eye view of the hitch on the dash screen.
The 2009 Ford F-150 begins at $21,320 for the XL regular-cab model, and $29,160 for the SuperCab.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@ star-telegram.com.
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