Say what you will about small cars, alternative-fuel powertrains, and fuel economy, all of which will be front of mind for auto company executives and journalists attending the 2008 Detroit auto show. For Ford, the most important launch at the 2008 Detroit auto show is the heavily revised 2009 F-150 pickup truck, which is bigger and bolder than ever.
The F-series pickup is far and away the most crucial vehicle in Ford's lineup, selling hundreds of thousands more units each year than any other Ford vehicle. It has been the bestselling vehicle from any manufacturer for more than two decades. Yet there are serious cracks in the foundation of the F-series' sales dominance, as sales dropped some 13 percent in 2007, from a total of 796,039 units in the 2006 calendar year to 690,589 units in the 2007 calendar year. Nearly 700,000 units is still a huge result, but the loss of more than 100,000 unit sales hit Ford's balance sheet hard. Very hard.
The new 2009 F-150 rides to the rescue and will attempt to fend off a new challenge from the all-new Dodge Ram and last year's new Chevy Silverado and Toyota Tundra. The 2009 Ford F-150 takes its styling cues from the F-series Super Duty pickup, adhering to what Ford designers call a "Modern Tough" design aesthetic. "We learn from our customers," says Patrick Schiavone, the F-series chief designer. They've told us that "a truck needs to be tough. You cannot make it too tough for me." So, the new F-150 has a bigger grille, with chrome girders that are similar to those in the Super Duty. The big fender badge, according to Schiavone, "is meant to look like it's milled from a solid piece of steel." Grooves in the taillights that also run across the tailgate evoke 1960s and 1970s Ford trucks. The little flip at the top of the tailgate is there both to help aerodynamics and for looks.
Sitting side-by-side with the outgoing 2008 F-series, the new 2009 Ford F-150 indeed looks much bigger, tougher, and more substantial, and it will certainly appeal to those who purchase trucks as a reflection of their perceived masculinity or lack thereof. The Crew Cab model is a whopping six inches longer than before, with all of the additional length incorporated between the A- and B-pillars, in the front doors. Ride height is up about an inch, too, in response to dealers, who are asked by many consumers to install lift kits in the current truck. The increased height, length, and squared-off body combine to make the truck appear even bigger and more imposing.
What's interesting is that, even as the F-150's exterior has morphed into the automotive equivalent of muscle-bound actor Vin Diesel, its cabin has become as stylized as Jude Law's wardrobe. The outgoing F-150 already ran the gamut from basic work truck to on-the-town luxury ride in the form of both the luxurious Lariat model and the sumptuous King Ranch. Both of those trim levels return for 2009, as do XLT and others, but they're joined by a new, super-premium trim level called Platinum. "The F-series design studio has been dying to do the Platinum," enthuses Schiavone. "It's all about the big city. No two-tone paint. Twenty-inch polished wheels, not chrome. Big swathes of real aluminum trim, and black and brown materials derived from the fashion world. You see black and brown in BMWs and Rolls-Royces. We did not want tan." Indeed, the Platinum interior would do most any luxury sedan proud, and the instrument panel is very handsome. It's clear that the Platinum will effectively take the place of the Lincoln Mark LT pickup, which has not been very successful.
Underneath all the flashy new sheetmetal and leather, the F-150 is not all-new, but it has been extensively tweaked. The front of the frame is now hydroformed for better crash protection, and there's more high-strength steel than before which allows for a slight weight reduction and slightly better towing capacity. The leaf springs are longer and the bushings have been revised. On the powertrain front, V-8 engines are standard; the current 4.2-liter V-6 will be dropped. There now will be two versions of the 4.6-liter Triton V-8; one with two valves per cylinder, which will still be saddled with a four-speed automatic, and one with three valves per cylinder. Both it and the 5.4-liter V-8 now are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. None of the engines comes close to offering the level of horsepower that's now available in the 5.7-liter V-8 in the new Toyota Tundra.
All models will be offered with a fold-out tailgate step, the better to climb up into this tall beast. A foldable bed extender made of plastic is more flexible than the tubular aluminum ones. Dual tracks along the top of the tall bedsides maximize tie-down possibilities. There is no cap for the fuel nozzle, a feature that will be introduced across the board for all Ford vehicles in the 2009 model year.
It will be interesting to see if the market will follow Ford down this bigger, tougher road, or whether the decrease in sales of full-size pickup trucks will continue as Americans become resigned to $3-per-gallon gasoline and adjust their transportation choices accordingly. One could argue that the last thing full-size, light-duty pickup trucks should be doing at this juncture is getting bigger, taller, and heavier. How about a right-size pickup that's lower to the ground and still capable of towing and hauling?