Buyers of full-sized pickup trucks represent perhaps the most conservative, resistant-to-change customers in the automotive world. So asking truck buyers, who equate big V-8 engines with premium pickups, to pay extra for the smallest engine in the Ford F-150 lineup is, to understate, a marketing challenge.

The F-150, for years not only the best-selling truck but the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., received some big changes for the 2011 model year, almost all of them under the hood: There’s a choice of four different engines, all of them new. The base engine is a 3.7-liter V-6, and the base V-8 engine is a 5.0-liter. For gotta-have-a-big-V-8 customers, there’s a 6.2-liter V-8.

Unconventionally, though, the premium engine is a 3.5-liter V-6, which added $750 to the price of our already pricey test truck, a loaded Lariat SuperCrew two-wheel-drive model that listed for a sobering $45,965. But this little engine, called the EcoBoost, pumps out a potent 365 horsepower. Perhaps more important for truck customers is the torque rating of 420 pound-feet, as torque is a better measure of pulling power than horsepower is. Towing capacity of the test truck is a staggering 11,300 pounds – the same as with the 6.2-liter V-8.

How does the EcoBoost V-6 manage this? It’s mostly due to the twin turbochargers. A turbo uses recycled exhaust gas to turn a fan that forces the fuel mixture into the engine under pressure, but only when extra power is needed. Otherwise, the EcoBoost is pretty much just a 3.5-liter V-6, with fuel mileage to prove it: An EPA-rated 16 mpg in the city, and 22 mpg on the highway. The 6.2-liter V-8 is rated at 13/18. All four of Ford’s new engines run on regular gasoline.

It all works quite well, due in part to the competent six-speed automatic transmission, which is the only transmission offered in the F-150, regardless of engine choice – no manual transmission is available. This automatic downshifts as soon as you need to accelerate, and upshifts quickly to maximize mileage. The EcoBoost engine is smooth and quiet, and even in a 5,300-poundpickup, there’s all the power you need.

As for the rest of the truck, this SuperCrew Lariat is as upscale as they come – leather-trimmed, heated and cooled front bucket seats, a power sunroof, a $1,495 “chrome” package and an upgraded Sony sound system with navigation that costs $2,495. There’s also a heavy-duty towing package and a rear-view camera that makes backing up to a trailer a breeze – you can even zoom the camera. Rear-seat room on the SuperCrew is great for two adults, acceptable for three, and it’s easy to get in and out.

The ride is very good, but you feel the bumps on particularly rough pavement, especially from the rear of the truck, and especially when compared to the smoother-riding Dodge Ram. New electric power steering adds to fuel economy, but needs more road feel – it’s too light, too numb. This is an undeniably handsome truck, especially with the 18-inch chromed wheels and the “white platinum metallic tri-coat” paint, with “pale adobe accents,” a $495 option.

Bottom line: Ford has indeed raised the bar with the engines and transmission offered – even the entry-level 3.7-liter V-6 (which isn’t turbocharged) has an impressive 302 horsepower, and gets a rated 23 mpg on the highway. At the lower end of the model lineup – the base-model XL starts at $22,790, which includes air conditioning and that six-speed automatic transmission, plus plenty of safety features – the F-150 has a lot of content, and even at almost $46,000, the test Lariat SuperCrew was as well-appointed as any luxury car. The rest of the F-150 isn’t as advanced as the powertrains, but that’s more of a compliment to the engines and transmission than a criticism of the balance of the pickup.

2011 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew

Base price: $36,470

Price as tested: $45,965

EPA rating: 16 mpg city driving, 22 mpg highway

Powertrain: 3.5-liter, 365-horsepower twin-turbocharged V-6 engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Length: 231.9 inches

Wheelbase: 144.5 inches

Parting shot: Big performance from a smaller engine boosts best-selling truck’s status.