Mark Williams contributed to this report.
Watching Ford torture-test its all-new 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 in the lab, on the job and in the Baja 1000, we get it. This six appears to be as tough and capable as an eight, but durability and power are only part of an engine’s story.
What’s it like to live with the EcoBoost? We set out to find the answer during a 2,100-mile trip around the Western U.S.
For our road test, we asked Ford to provide two identical 2011 F-150 EcoBoost trucks that can tow a heavy trailer. Twin Flame Red FX2 SuperCrews were delivered with 3.55 rear axles, two-wheel drive and maximum tow ratings of 9,800 pounds. The trucks were well-broken in, with both having around 7,000 miles on their odometers.
Why duplicate trucks? So we could test performance and fuel economy with an unloaded EcoBoost F-150 and one pulling 9,000 pounds simultaneously in the same driving conditions.
EcoBoost is a gamble for Ford, but with tougher fuel economy regulations just around the corner, it’s the direction other manufacturers are headed, too. The EcoBoost is Ford’s top-of-the-line engine for the F-150. It’s positioned as the high-volume choice above the premium 6.2-liter V-8 even though that engine option costs $1,245 more and is moderately more powerful.
EcoBoost combines gasoline direct injection and twin turbos to shrink engine displacement for improved fuel economy while delivering tons of low-end boost-assisted power. The dual overhead cam 3.5 mill is rated at 365 horsepower and 420 pounds-feet of torque. In high-end configurations with the Max Trailer Tow Package, it can tow up to 11,300 pounds, the same as the single overhead cam 6.2.
The EPA rated its fuel economy at 16/22 mpg city/highway (4×2) and 15/21 mpg (4×4).
Our drive route (download full details in Adobe Acrobat format) covered almost 2,100 miles, from Norco, Calif., just off Interstate 15 east of Los Angeles to Colorado’s Eisenhower Pass on I-70 in the Rocky Mountains — the highest point on the U.S. interstate highway system. In between, we crossed elevations from 200 feet above sea level to 11,000 feet, from the floor of the Mojave Desert to Alpine forests. Driving across terrain this varied, there’s no place for an engine to mask performance gaps. It’s the longest, toughest road test we’ve ever done.
At first glance, the low-slung FX2 might not seem like the ideal towing platform compared with other F-150 models optioned with four-wheel drive or the Max Trailer Tow Package, which includes a towing-friendly 3.73 rear axle, larger mirrors and revised rear bumper. Our FX2s came equipped with power fold-in heated mirrors and the F-150’s standard trailer tow package, which is optional for models below the FX2 (XL, STX and XLT). The standard towing package includes a Class IV hitch receiver, seven-pin wiring harness, upgraded radiator, auxiliary transmission oil cooler and the new SelectShift six-speed automatic transmission. Each truck was also equipped with an integrated factory trailer brake controller.
Doubts about towing comfort started to ease after we hitched up one of the trucks to a car hauler ballasted to 9,000 pounds. We used our Elite Eaz-Lift weight-distributing hitch’s height-adjustable ball and the trailer’s height-adjustable hitch to ensure the truck sat almost level with about 12 percent tongue weight (about 1,100 pounds) pushing down on its rear.
We measured the gross combined weight of the FX2 plus trailer at 14,500 pounds, or 95 percent of its maximum GCW.
With the trailer properly hitched, we headed out in both trucks.
On the Road
As we’ve previously reported, the EcoBoost F-150 is a firecracker when it’s empty. During the first drive of the truck last year, we clocked a zero-to-60 mph time of just 6.82 seconds behind the wheel of a two-wheel-drive FX2 SuperCrew with a 3.73 rear axle. Our unloaded truck felt at least that quick, as we’d find out later in the drive.
But we were most curious about how the EcoBoost would feel pulling a four-and-a-half ton trailer. In short, confident. The V-6 has a flat, mild exhaust note that doesn’t change much unless you’re at wide open throttle, when it sounds like an angry blender. Contrast this with the aggressive, macho sound we heard when we drove the 5.0-liter V-8 several weeks ago. Still, the EcoBoost had remarkably little difficulty pulling the double-axle white brick behind its bumper up to highway speeds on I-15 and felt every bit as strong as the eight-cylinder engine.
We figured we’d learn two things during the first leg of our trip, from Norco to the Nevada border, about 200 miles. The first was how well the EcoBoost would perform climbing a mountain — in this case, the 12-mile Cajon Pass connecting Los Angeles and the high desert. We’d also start to get a feel for the fuel economy.
The F-150 with the trailer had no problem pulling Cajon, finding its sweet spot in 4th gear in tow/haul mode at about 3,000 rpm and 60 mph to provide power as needed to get around slower traffic. The empty truck held 5th but downshifted to 4th or 3rd for passing.
While some might consider the tall 3.55 rear axle to be a handicap while climbing hills, the F-150’s wide-range six-speed transmission made up for this. Fourth gear is 1.14-to-1, making for a fully multiplied ratio of 4.05-to-1. That’s just a bit taller than the 2008 F-150 with a four-speed transmission and mountain-friendly 4.10 rear axle. Its 1.00 ratio in 3rd gear made for a fully multiplied drive ratio of 4.10-to-1.
As soon as we crested the top of Cajon and the highway flattened out, the F-150 quickly shifted into 6th gear to lug at around 1,800 rpm at 60 mph up to 1,950 rpm at 70 mph.
For much of the way to Las Vegas, both trucks cruised at about 67 mph to 70 mph, fast enough to pass slower semis and not become obstacles ourselves to smaller vehicles zipping by. The trailer felt stable at those speeds, too.
About 150 miles into this leg, we learned the hard way about the differences in fuel economy between the trucks.
Towing Efficiency (download full details in Adobe Acrobat format)
The 2011 F-150 adds a new 4.2-inch high-resolution productivity screen in the center of the instrument cluster. It provides info about a wide variety of truck features, including transmission temperature, selected gear, pitch and yaw angles, trailer information and more. We were drawn to the fuel economy data, which is now much easier to access compared with the 2010 F-150’s trip computer.
Nearing Baker, Calif., the empty truck was averaging about 18.5 mpg, according to the truck — good enough to cover a respectable 480 miles of range with its 26-gallon tank. But that tank would be a weak point for the truck towing the trailer.
Baker was 50 miles from our planned refueling stop in Primm, Nev., on the border with California. The truck with the trailer was below a half-tank of fuel, but its trip computer estimated another 80 miles of range. However, we were averaging only about 7.2 mpg, according to the productivity screen. With two more hills to climb between Baker and Primm, we ran into a critical fuel situation that required us to stop just five miles from the exit to tap the extra two-gallon canister of gasoline we kept on hand for such a situation.
Because we paid more attention to the range estimate than the gas gauge and average fuel economy, we pushed the EcoBoost F-150 to its efficiency limit with the trailer — in this case, 190 miles from full to empty.
As the F-150 climbed the last hill, range ticked away in decrements of up to 5 miles at a time. That’s because the truck calculates its distance-to-empty algorithm based on past driving history, according to Ford. In our situation, the algorithm averaged in the low fuel economy with the previous history of high fuel economy from when the truck had been unloaded. The distance-to-empty algorithm isn’t a crystal ball; it had no way of knowing that we’d be driving with such a heavy trailer. That’s why the distance-to-empty range started dropping faster and faster. The extreme change in fuel economy pushed the algorithm to the edges. The range shown was still catching up and decreasing sharply when we went below a quarter-tank of fuel.
Given several tanks of fuel while towing, the truck’s distance-to-empty algorithm can adapt to the new, lower fuel economy figures — and it eventually did during our drive.
We weren’t aware of it, but the F-150 has a built-in solution to this situation that the driver can use when towing a trailer occasionally instead of regularly. Using the thumb controls on the steering wheel, the driver can access the settings menu in the cluster and select “Towing” instead of “Normal.” This tells the truck that the driver is going to drive under the situations tested. It effectively shortens the driving history and allows the distance-to-empty shown to be accurate within the top three-quarters of the tank. This setting can be chosen once, and always left as “Towing.” Under normal driving conditions, the driver won’t notice any changes between “Towing” and “Normal” because if the gas mileage history is 20 mpg and the truck is currently getting 20 mpg, the length of history does not matter.
Of course, we also wondered why we averaged only 7.2 mpg towing in the EcoBoost truck. We quickly figured out – as you can see in our detailed fuel economy chart – that the mountain climbs, windy conditions and consistent cruising speeds above 65 mph robbed us of the efficiency we were expecting from the EcoBoost engine. The turbos were often spooled up in tow/haul mode when the truck was holding a lower gear for power. We suspect that as the turbo temperatures rose for extended periods, the engine may have overfueled and burned rich to cool down combustion and exhaust gas temperatures. This could explain the soot we saw coating the inside of the tailpipe.
Slowing down was the easiest way to boost fuel economy. With either truck, we didn’t attempt to get close to the 80 mph highway speed limit posted along Utah’s empty stretches. Depending on terrain and speed, we eventually could push the towing fuel economy into the 8 mpg to 9 mpg range. Not great and below what we expected, but we were also steadily climbing into the Rocky Mountains.
Unloaded Efficiency (download full details in Adobe Acrobat format)
In contrast to the truck and trailer combo, the unloaded truck amazed us with its fuel economy. Dropping back from 70 mph to 60-65 mph raised its gas mileage from 18 mpg to the low 20s without even trying, even when we were high in the Rockies where the air is thin.
During a 300-mile stretch of highway — where we refueled just outside Vail, Colo., and headed east across the Rockies to Dillon, Colo., and then traveled back west to the Utah border — there were moments when the truck’s trip computer told us we were averaging over 25 mpg. We finished that segment averaging a manually calculated 23.2 mpg — the best fuel economy we can recall over such a long distance in a full-size gas pickup truck.
It’s important to point out that we didn’t “hypermile” either truck to boost efficiency. We drove them like we normally would, and for long stretches we kept the trucks at one speed using cruise control. We also filled up only with regular octane gasoline, which ranged from 85 RON to 87 RON.
Our fuel economy chart (download full details in Adobe Acrobat format) summarizes our gas mileage throughout the trip, according to both the trucks’ trip computers and manually calculated mileage. It also includes our range estimates for highway speeds, weather conditions and altitude. We’ve also identified (in red) where we performed acceleration tests. Fuel economy with and without those tests is provided.
Other Mileage Experience
Driving in Los Angeles’ urban traffic, before and after the touring and trailering portion of our test, we easily averaged 15 mpg to 17 mpg depending on surface street traffic and stop-and-go conditions. For an unloaded truck, were we impressed with this fuel economy. The thirsty 6.2-liter V-8 in the F-150 Raptor returned only about 12 mpg in similar conditions.
The last data point about fuel economy we’ll provide is how the EcoBoost performed pulling the 9,000-pound trailer up the steep 17-mile grade on Highway 163 due west of Laughlin, Nev. Averaging 55 mph to 60 mph at low altitude, the rig burned 3 gallons of fuel and averaged 5 mpg to climb the mountain. The unloaded truck burned 0.9 gallons of gas and averaged 15 mpg, according to the trip computer.
Overall, both trucks used 356 gallons of fuel to travel a combined 4,186 miles.
During our EcoBoost odyssey, we also worked the trucks hard to measure their wide open throttle performance at some of the highest and lowest altitudes you’ll find in the country.
On I-70 in Colorado, on the same route we did our Rumble in the Rockies, we also ran the F-150 pulling the 9,000-pound trailer. We were stunned by how well it pulled at such high elevation on the 7 percent grade to the Eisenhower Tunnel. It was so strong that we had to start testing at 10,000 feet to ensure the rig didn’t climb the hill at an unsafe speed at wide open throttle. The EcoBoost F-150 ran the quarter-mile in 27.83 seconds at 50.83 mph – more than enough to keep up with or pass traffic. That’s a performance we don’t think could be easily matched by a non-turbo gas engine, even a large-displacement V-8.
Now, compare that time to how the truck-and-trailer pair performed on Davis Dam’s shallower 5 percent grade at only 2,000 feet of elevation, where it’s easier to gulp oxygen to feed the engine. Here, it ran the quarter-mile in 24.56 seconds at 58.47 mph – not much slower than it did in the Rockies.
The EcoBoost’s Davis Dam time is also faster than what we measured in the 5.0-liter V-8 F-150 with a different 9,000-pound trailer (25.06 seconds at 55.46 mph).
On level ground, the EcoBoost F-150 and trailer covered the quarter-mile in 21.02 seconds at 67.21 mph and did zero to 60 mph in only 16.36 seconds (compared with 16.85 seconds for the 5.0-liter V-8).
But it wasn’t all perfect performance with EcoBoost and the trailer. The sudden delivery of torque to the rear wheels with the trailer hooked up often caused the tires to lose traction and cause pounding bouts of axle tramp until we reduced throttle or until the traction control system reduced power on its own. Wide open throttle isn’t just for testing purposes. If you’re stuck on the side of a highway with a trailer and need to quickly merge back into traffic, you’re going to need as much power as your truck can provide. It needs to do so without reducing driver confidence or control.
The unloaded F-150 was a screamer, too, but it didn’t suffer from wheel hop like the trailer-towing EcoBoost F-150 did. It went from zero to 60 mph up Davis Dam in only 7.29 seconds and took only 6.79 seconds on flat pavement – right in line with times we measured in other EcoBoost F-150s over the past year.
With the non-towing F-150, we noticed something that felt like turbo lag during wide open throttle runs. It took almost a second from the time the accelerator hit the floor until the turbos fully responded to the request, but once they did, we were shoved back in our seats. Awesome. We also noticed a hint of turbo whine but nothing that we considered fatiguing or annoying.
Overall, both trucks exhibited the traits we’ve come to benchmark other half-ton pickup trucks against. Both F-150s provided great rides, unloaded and towing. It was reasonably easy to hop from one truck to another without needing a lengthy amount of time to get used to the handling differences. The F-150’s new electric steering also seemed to help better maintain control of the loaded truck on the highway during windy conditions crossing the desert. Even the unloaded truck and its large crew-cab profile seemed to benefit from similar steering assist.
We also discovered a cool feature for the backup camera that was displayed in the rearview mirror. Using the productivity screen, we could change the zoom setting to pan out to a fisheye lens view or zoom in for a close-up look at the hitch while hooking up the trailer. Very nice.
As you might imagine, one improvement we’d like to see for the truck as soon as possible is the availability of a 36-gallon fuel tank, which is in the 5.0-liter V-8 F-150 we tested. The extra-large reservoir isn’t available for any EcoBoost truck, including those optioned with the Max Trailer Tow Package. The extra 10 gallons would have saved us from having to carry extra gasoline with us.
We’d also like to see the addition of a turbo boost gauge, which we think could be easily provided as a new truck app in the productivity screen. We’d also like the gear-select indicator to remain displayed in the screen after the truck is turned off and back on, as it does in the Ford F-Series Super Duty.
Each of the four engines offered in the 2011 F-150 has a unique application and personality. It’s like Ford is giving you four different tools to accomplish similar tasks. You need the right tool for the job. If you wondering if the EcoBoost is right for you, then you’ll need to carefully consider how and where you’re going to use your truck.
Balancing fuel economy and performance, the EcoBoost is the best choice for people who spend most of their time hauling cargo in the bed or driving empty on rural roads where speeds are limited to no more than 60 mph. In this case, you’ll get the best mileage for a reasonable price with the power to tow a heavy trailer occasionally without too much of a hit to your wallet. EcoBoost also works well if you’re going to regularly tow a heavy trailer at high altitude because its performance is only matched by today’s heavy-duty diesels in that environment.
If you’re going to tow a trailer regularly around geography like the Midwest, we’d suggest the 5.0-liter as a better choice. From our experience, the 5.0 gets better fuel economy in that scenario — we’ll be putting this to a side-by-side test in the future. For the heaviest trailers, the 6.2 is a good choice, or consider moving into a diesel Super Duty. Light contracting work at a reasonable entry price can be accomplished with the naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6.
We have high hopes for EcoBoost engines in the future but we want to see if Ford’s powertrain engineers can do more about the stressed fuel economy figures we saw when towing so they better complement the stellar unloaded gas mileage we observed. Or perhaps we’re faced with the fact that some physical laws can’t be repealed no matter how much slick technology is thrown at them. Big towing needs big cubic inches and trying to deliver that same capability with twin turbos may always force truck guys to pay a low-mpg price when there’s a trailer behind the truck.