As the Detroit-based automakers ask for financial help from the federal government, the criticism of the way they have done business is long and loud. Perhaps the loudest: If they made vehicles people wanted to buy, they wouldn't be in this mess!
It's an easy argument, and it's also wrong. Case in point: The Ford F-150 pickup truck, the perennial best-selling vehicle of any kind since November 1991. There was a blip in May, as we approached the height of the gas crisis, where the F-150 fell from the top spot in favor of the Honda Civic, but the Ford quickly regained its footing and remains the No. 1 selling vehicle in America.
When Ford messes with its cash cow, it's always a source of nervousness at the home office in Michigan. Of Detroit's Big Three, Ford is in the best financial shape, but that could change quickly if the redesigned 2009 F-150 isn't a hit.
So far, it's too early to tell: Ford delayed the introduction of the truck by a couple of months to let dealers clear out the remaining 2008 models. Which they still haven't done, so it will be after the first of the year before we get a solid reading on how well the new F-150 is going over with buyers. But early returns suggest it's doing reasonably well -- or as well as can be expected, given the general downturn in sales of every kind of vehicle.
I've driven a few 2009 F-150s, but I've spent the most time in a rear-wheel-drive Lariat SuperCrew, which is not the top of the line model -- that would be the new Platinum -- but it's pretty close to it. Good thing: The test truck started at $34,845, and with options such as a navigation system and upgraded Sony stereo ($2,430), leather-trimmed front seats ($895) and a $1,295 chrome package, the total price was $42,605. And that's without four-wheel-drive.
The 2009 model is a fairly thorough makeover of the new-for-2004 F-150, with the most noticeable changes being a Lincoln-like nose and taillights. The SuperCrew, with four full doors, has been stretched by six inches, and rear seat room is generous. Indeed, the interior of the test truck rivaled anything Lincoln builds, too.
Under the hood, there is no V-6 offered, but you get two versions of the 4.6-liter V-8 -- one with 248 horsepower the other with 292. The test truck came with the biggest, most powerful engine: A redesigned 5.4-liter V-8, which Ford says pumps out 320 horsepower. That is, however, on E85 ethanol. On regular gasoline, it's 310 horsepower. But you can expect 14 mpg city, 20 mpg on the highway with gas, just 10/14 mpg on E85, according to the EPA.
This big V-8 has plenty of power and matched to the new six-speed automatic transmission, it's managed exceedingly well. I've towed a rather heavy trailer with the new F-150 and this 5.4-liter V-8 and six-speed transmission, and I have never driven a half-ton truck that handled a trailer better. Properly equipped, it can tow a staggering 11,200 pounds.
Ford has also done some work on the steering and handling, and they've been improved. Stability control is now standard. On the road, the F-150 is stable and sure-footed, though it doesn't ride as smoothly as the also new-for-2009 Dodge Ram.
This battle between the redesigned Ram and F-150 is shaping up to be a good one. If I had to choose -- and I do, since those two trucks, plus the Mercedes-Benz M-Class diesel sport utility vehicle are the three finalists in the North American Truck of the Year competition, for which I'm one of 50 voters -- I'd have to give the edge to the Dodge Ram. But if you need a pickup truck that works hard, and tows remarkably well, you'd likely prefer the F-150.
Either way, American manufacturers are building vehicles people want to buy. But there just aren't enough buyers right now for most anything, regardless of who's building it and where.
Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com, 407-420-5699 or through his blog at Enginehead.com.
2009 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew
Base price: $34,845 Price as tested: $42,605
EPA rating: 14 miles per gallon city driving, 20 mpg highway
Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-door pickup truck as a 5.4-liter, 320-horsepower V-8 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.
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