For the new Ford F-150, it's all about the transmission. While much of the truck has been toughened and tweaked for 2009, it's the fresh gearbox that contributes most to a significant update of the previous-generation pickup.
At Ford's invite, we drove the new six-speed F-150 at Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds and around the surrounding area, including many of the same roads, trails and test tracks used to develop the truck.
Class Leading Transmission
Adding two extra cogs and Mensa-IQ-sized shift logic to the F-150's transmission has yielded three wins over last year's four-speed automatic: a critical reprieve for Ford's 5.4-liter V-8, improved fuel economy and a wickedly smart tow/haul mode for trailering.
Ford's modest 5.4-liter V-8 hasn't kept up with the rest of the half-ton herd's premium engines. Power is up to 320 horsepower and 390 pounds-feet of torque when running on E85, versus the 2008 F-150's 300 hp and 365 pounds-feet, but that's still well below the top eight-cylinder engine options available in GM (6.2-liter, 403/417), Chrysler (5.7-liter, 390/407) and Toyota (5.7-liter, 381/401) trucks.
The new six-speed transmission compensates for the engine's shortcomings by reaching deep into its power band, smoothing out acceleration and delivering peak torque 250 rpm sooner than it did last year.
First gear is a deep 4.17:1, versus 2.84 in the 2008 model, so you'll feel the truck pull away aggressively at wide-open throttle and confidently during modest, low-speed takeoffs. Smaller steps between the gears (4.17, 2.34, 1.52, 1.14, .87 and .69 in the new six-speed, versus 2.84, 1.55, 1.00 and .70 in the old four-speed) reduced the perception of the 5.4-liter becoming bogged down after each upshift by placing the engine mill into its optimal power band sooner.
The lower level of acceleration effort we perceived with our ears and butts gave a feeling of increased confidence in the truck's capabilities, even though we found no significant gains in 0-60 times. We clocked the F-150 at 8.96 seconds in a 5,500-pound four-wheel-drive SuperCrew with a 3.73 rear axle, 18-inch wheels and two adult male passengers. That's about the same 0-60 time we've experienced in similarly configured 2004-08 F-150s.
The new lease on life that the six-speed transmission has given the 5.4-liter V-8 should be enough to propel the F-150 along until Ford delivers a rear-wheel-drive version of its turbocharged, direct-injection V-6 EcoBoost engine. That engine is expected to have higher power ratings than the 5.4-liter V-8. Ford is in wait-and-see mode as to whether a long-awaited light-duty 4.4-liter diesel V-8 will find its way into the F-150 to create the premiere power-pulling engine.
The 4.17 first gear and two overdrive gears - versus a single overdrive gear in the four-speed - help raise fuel economy to an EPA-estimated 14/20 mpg city/highway, up from 13/18 mpg, while enabling Ford to delete the 4.10 rear axle option, which was necessary in order to achieve the previous F-150's 11,000-pound maximum trailer towing rating.
Now, 3.73 is the shortest (numerically highest) rear axle available for maximum trailering, and a brand new, tall 3.15 rear axle (standard on two-wheel-drive 5.4-liter F-150s) is available for the lineup's best fuel economy numbers and reasonable maximum towing loads. In fact, the combined ratios of the first four gears of the six-speed transmission, when paired with a 3.15 rear axle, provide final gearing ratios that are lower than the first four gears in the four-speed transmission with a 4.10 rear axle. That's progress!
The 2009 F-150's tow rating has increased to a segment-leading 11,300 pounds. To help manage loads that large, Ford has finally added a tow/haul mode to the transmission. Similar to the system found in competitors' trucks and Ford's Super Duty pickups, tow/haul mode holds engine rpm at higher revs during acceleration before upshifting, and it downshifts the transmission on descents, using driver brake input to engine brake the truck rather than burning up the wheel brakes to slow the load.
In practice, we towed 7,000-pound trailers up some of the same hills on which we did our 2007 Heavy-Duty Shootout. Running up the grades at wide-open throttle, to speeds of 45 to 50 mph, the transmission wound up to more than 5,000 rpm before shifting to a higher gear, to keep momentum up. Each shift was nearly as smooth as when the truck was unloaded and had changed gears at lower rpm. The amount of driveline noise that intruded into the cabin was among the lowest of any half-ton truck we've driven with a similar trailer load. First- and second-gear shifts were cleaner and more confident than in the five-speed automatic 2009 Dodge Ram we drove several weeks ago, even though the Ram's 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is rated at 390 hp and 407 pounds-feet of torque. The Ram had difficulty overcoming the steep drop-off between first and second gear.
On descents, after cresting the top of the proving ground's hills, the transmission seemed to intuitively know when to downshift. Depending on momentum, speed and throttle position immediately before hitting the top of the hill, the transmission would auto-magically downshift after the truck glided over the crest without throttle. When we were aggressive with the accelerator to the top of the hill, the transmission downshifted only after a tap of the brake. A second tap yielded a second downshift. A third shift could have been executed, but the transmission denied that request, as it would have pushed engine rpm over the redline. The transmission didn't upshift at the top of this hill, which could have bogged the truck down had we been in a towing scenario in which, after cresting one hill with a small descent, we needed to climb a second hill. This also reduced gear hunting versus non-tow/haul drive mode.
Other transmission changes include stronger input and output shafts and a larger torque converter with increased pump flow to idle the truck at lower engine speeds for better fuel economy. Depending on the model, you can get the shifter mounted on the steering wheel or on a floor-mounted console. The floor-mounted shifter shifts straight back; though we prefer the gated approach Chrysler uses in the Dodge Ram's floor-mounted shifter.
Also helping improve fuel economy, the F-150's engineers delivered a new torque converter with variable lockup speeds - depending on the gear, pedal position and driving environment - so it always locks up as quickly as possible instead of running the engine harder and longer before the driveline and rest of the drivetrain hook back up.
With all of its features and shifting finesse, loaded and unloaded, we think the 2009 Ford F-150's new six-speed transmission is the best gearbox in the half-ton segment.
Beyond the transmission, though, the second biggest engineering revision that will noticeably impact F-150 drivers and passengers is the truck's improved ladder frame.
The platform remains fully boxed with through-welded cross members, but Ford has substituted high-strength steel in the middle and rear rails, slimming down wall thickness to shave up to 15 pounds of weight, depending on wheelbase. The high-strength steel also improves bending stiffness by 10 percent over the 2004-08 F-150, which was already 50 percent stiffer than the 2003 F-150.
One of Ford's key selling points for the SuperCrew F-150 is the flat load floor in the second row. To achieve that level surface, Ford modified the third and fourth cross-members in the frame.
The third cross-member runs under the frame, directly below the driver's feet. It protects the transmission and transfer case from offroad obstacles and has been boxed for added trailer-towing capability. It sits lower than the same cross-member in the 2004-08 F-150 because Ford seated the driveline lower to remove the second-row hump that's normally caused by the driveline running under the cabin floor. When you look at profile shots of the F-150, you can clearly see the third cross-member hanging low, even when the truck has side steps.
You'll notice the impact of this modification in certain offroad situations, especially in standard four-wheel-drive F-150 models (as opposed to the purpose-built FX4 offroad series). We thought we were killing the side steps trying to get over tall obstacles, when we were actually scraping the third cross-member. A Ford engineer at the driving event said one of the durability criteria for the third cross-member was that it had to support the entire weight of the truck (about 5,200 to 5,800 pounds) without reducing clearance between the cross-member and the transmission.
The fourth cross-member arches above the frame under the second row. Because the driveline sits lower, the top has been leveled and broadened to support the flat load floor.
True Off-Road Capability
While Ford has stretched luxury to new heights in the F-150's new Platinum trim package, we're most enamored with the revamped FX4 offroad model. Unlike the sticker-buffed Dodge Ram TRX4, Ford gives the FX4 Barry Bonds levels of offroad juice, starting with an electronic locking rear differential supplied by GKN. It's the first time an F-150 4x4 has had this feature, and it was specially made to fit inside the F-150's standard 9.75-inch rear ring and pinion case. The system locks the rear axle on demand to provide traction to both back wheels to help get the truck out of sticky spots in snow, mud, sand or rocks. In practice, it was easily activated by pulling out the dial on the transfer case selector.
A key point we like about the locker is that it works at up to 66 mph in 4-Low, so you can get the rear wheels really spinning if you're tightly jammed, and up to 25 mph in 4-High. Exceed those speeds and it automatically disengages. The locker also stays engaged in Reverse, unlike some other systems that have to unlock when backing up.
Even though the locker provides extreme capability, it won't prevent you from getting stuck if you enter terrain that's beyond the truck's limits. We managed to do exactly that by not gaining enough speed before entering a mud pit so deep and sticky it claimed our FX4 and two Super Duty rescue trucks. Oops. Eventually we had to be pulled out backward, but the locking rear diff's rear operating mode made that operation easier than it would have otherwise been.
In soupy-mud conditions, we found the FX4 had no difficulty overcoming ooze that was deep enough to touch the third cross-member, as long as the truck's excellent 17-inch wheels and Goodyear Wrangler A/T LT275/70R17 tires could find the least bit of solid ground underneath to grip. Three-quarter throttle and aggressive offroad-mode shift points -- courtesy of the new six-speed transmission -- powered the truck through the muck.
Steep hills and low-speed terrain can be tackled with the FX4's best-in-class 41:1 crawl ratio in 4-Low.
Ride & Handling
Ford hasn't just improved its pickup's offroad capabilities, it's also improved the F-150's on-road performance. Across all F-150 models, Ford has updated its electronic stability system, called Advance Trac with Roll Stability Control, for improved crash avoidance and sudden-maneuvering safety.
To test out the stability system, we autocrossed three F-150 models: an FX4 with 20-inch wheels and Scorpion ATR P275/55/R20 tires, a Lariat with 18-inch wheels and Goodyear Wrangler PP275/65/R18 rubber, and an XLT optioned with a heavy-duty payload package that included 17-inch seven-lug steel wheels and LT245/75Rx17E BSW all-terrain rolling stock. All of the trucks were loaded with 1,000 pounds of hay in the cargo box.
We thought the XLT heavy-duty F-150 performed best. Its beefed up suspension package - including heavy-duty shocks and new leaf springs that are 6 inches longer and 3 inches wide - minimized body roll in 90-degree turns and through simulated lane changes and cone slaloms. The FX4's stiff suspension closely followed the handling characteristics of the HD F-150, but its maneuvering envelope was relatively limited by its large 20-inch wheels.
All the trucks exhibited near-linear ride and handling feel up to the point where the electronic nannies kicked in to help prevent the truck from breaking the laws of physics. Intrusioneering was most apparent in the Lariat and FX4 pickups; we couldn't push the HD F-150 hard enough in the tight course to prompt the system to reduce throttle or noticeably apply the brakes.
Another safety feature for frequent towers is Ford's trailer-sway control. It's built into the F-150's optional integrated trailer-brake controller. Trailer-sway control senses unsafe yaw from a trailer and activates both the truck's and the trailer's brake systems - if the trailer has electric brakes - to stop the sway before it pitches the entire rig off the road. Due to the extreme nature of such an event, Ford wouldn't let us test this capability, but the company says it definitely works. Stay tuned for more information on this unique feature in the future.
The 2009 Dodge Ram also offers trailer-sway control, but it only brakes the Ram's front wheels when it senses dangerous yaw input from the trailer.
We've been big fans of the F-150's interior since it was totally revised in 2004. The 2009 model refines the earlier styling and provides drivers with more information about their truck's status. A new information display is available on every model except the work-grade XL version. Our favorite feature is the all-new navigation and infotainment system. It provides real-time traffic, local fuel prices and incredibly useful radar maps of the weather. It's a must-have for any F-150 buyer purchasing a truck for frequent towing over long distances; the system will help those drivers save time, purchase fuel at relatively low prices and arrive at their destination safely and on time.
Ford has extended the SuperCrew's length by 6 inches, an unexpected benefit of trying to reduce manufacturing complexity and expense by deleting the vestigial side-access door the F-150 used to have on its regular cab. Removing the small doors meant Ford had to lengthen the driver and passenger doors by 6 inches. The benefits: This pushes the B-pillar back in the SuperCrew so you no longer risk banging your head on rough offroad terrain and also give the second row additional legroom. The drawback: The extra cab length contributes most of the 8 inches the SuperCrew grows in overall length from the 2004-08 model, making the F-150 difficult to garage with the 6.5-foot bed option.
It's mind-blowing to think of how much has changed in the five years since Ford last redesigned the F-150. The summer of 2003 was a prelude to the strongest full-size truck market ever. Big-truck sales in the U.S. hit 2.5 million units in 2004 and 2005, and F-Series pickups sold in record numbers. Sales slowly began to deflate in 2006 and 2007, though, after the housing market peaked and fuel prices started to climb. Ford's competition responded to the F-150 with new rigs. In 2007, Toyota introduced a powerful new Tundra, and General Motors reengineered its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra light-duty pickups.
Today, things have gotten brutally tough for big pickups. Full-size truck sales cratered as truck buyers felt the pain of home-equity hangovers and high fuel prices chased casual buyers - who accounted for much of the bubble in full-size truck sales - into smaller vehicles. For the F-150, the competition continues to squeeze, too. The 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 has pushed half-ton usability to new heights with its comfortable coil-spring rear suspension and innovative RamBox cargo box storage.
Tough times call for a tough pickup -- one that's built to last a decade or more as a work truck, not an image hauler, and strong enough to stand up equally to or beat the competition. That's what Ford appears to have delivered in the new 2009 Ford F-150.