When pump prices soar and the economy dives, full-sized pickup truck sales plummet. With jobs and mortgages in jeopardy, who needs an expensive gas guzzler’s fat monthly payments? This calamity and the bankruptcy experienced by two out of Detroit’s (formerly) Big Three would normally send truck engineers straight to early retirement. Ford, however, never got that memo. A thorough overall for the 2011 F-150 pickups kept right on truckin’. In the teeth of troubled times, the class leader kept its head high and prospects bright for the post apocalypse.
So, while Chrysler and GM are barely back on their 4×4 feet and Nissan and Toyota are still decoding their big-pickup game plan, Ford is rolling out the most new the F-150 has ever seen in its 62-year history: 4 engines, one transmission, significant chassis upgrades, and an instrument cluster that bares this truck’s soul. To show serious intent, the F-150s even have new ignition keys that combine lock and remote-control functions in one convenient unit.
We’ll focus on the V-8 half of the story in this report because tradition dies hard and most customers will gravitate towards the satisfying thump and steady pull only eight cylinders can deliver. (See an accompanying F-150 Web Driven for V-6 engine details.)
The smart part of Ford’s comprehensive F-150 powertrain upgrade is that the Mustang shares two out of the four engines and a version of the new 6-speed automatic transmission.
The workhorse engine which will likely power more F-150s than its three teammates put together is a 5.0-liter V-8 that provides an astute balance of initial cost, power, torque, and fuel efficiency. (Regrettably, Ford has not yet divulged EPA ratings, so the most we can currently report about mileage is ‘up to 20-percent better’ than the retired 4.6-liter V-8 provided. Plan on roughly 19 mpg combined.)
The 5.0 liter not only brings an illustrious past Mustang reputation to the party, it also bristles with forward-looking technology: aluminum block and head construction, a dual-overhead-cam valvetrain with variable intake and exhaust valve timing, and four valves per cylinder. The forged-steel crankshaft is well supported by the deep-skirt block, 6-bolt main-bearing caps, and a deep-sump oil pan. The entire top of the engine, including the tuned-length single-mode intake manifold and the cylinder head covers, is injection-molded, nylon-reinforced plastic to save weight and cost. A water-to-oil heat exchanger, an eight-quart lubrication capacity, and piston cooling jets are provided for longevity. Oil change intervals are an impressive 10,000 miles in normal service.
The 5.0-liter’s 10.5:1 compression ratio and its valve timing differ from the Mustang to plump up the low end of the torque curve. Peak outputs are 380 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm and a husky 360 hp at 5550 rpm. That merits a maximum tow rating of 10,000 pounds.
Test drives near Fort Worth, Texas, demonstrated this V-8s mettle. It had no difficulty trumping the 4.8-liter base V-8 fitted to Chevy and GMC pickups provided for reference. Throttle response is enthusiastic and the run up to 6000 rpm is accompanied by the throaty growl that becomes hard edged but never strident as the revs climb. While the Mustang version will rev to 7500 rpm, the truck 5.0-liter is all done by 6000 rpm. Thanks to the 6-speed multi-mode automatic, this engine is capable of powerful towing, quiet commuting, and 20+ highway mpg.
The Big Kahuna in the F-150 lineup is a 6.2-liter V-8 intended for mega towing assignments. The extra piston displacement moves the torque curve over the 400 hurdle with 434 lb-ft at 4500 rpm and the maximum tow rating to a class-leading 11,300 pounds.
While the 6.2 is a member in good standing of Ford’s modular V-8 family, it’s the least sophisticated engine offered in the F-150. The deep-skirt block is cast iron and the valvetrain is an SOHC configuration with intake and exhaust timing variable but locked in synch. There are but two valves per cylinder; twin spark plugs per hole help eliminate misfiring. Fuel economy in the mid- to high-teens is within reach with low twenties possible on the highway. Already in service powering the remarkable F-150 SVT Raptor, this engine will surely be a favorite for heavy haulers and owners who never hesitate to move any house requiring a new address. While the 6.2 doesn’t feel nearly as eager as the 5.0, it does show mid-range strength and a stirring howl on the way to its 5500 rpm power peak where it delivers a class-leading 411 horsepower.
The unsung hero behind these engines is a new 6-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission fitted to each and every 2011 F-150. (Our sincere condolences to stick shift fans.) Labeled 6R80, this box offers a 6.0:1 ratio spread between first and sixth, two overdrive ratios, and four distinct operating modes: regular automatic operation, a tow-haul program, driver-controlled manual shifting, or what Ford calls Progressive Range Select. An M slot in the shift gate offers command over upshifts with each gear held until a +/- switch on the lever is tapped. Toggling that switch with the lever in D allows blocking out upper gear ratios to avoid unwanted automatic shifts while towing heavy loads on aggressive grades. When this choice is activated, the current gear and available gears are displayed at the right side of an LCD window built into the central instrument cluster. Shifts are well orchestrated and free of shock and vibration.
While other brands offer comparable automatics, the F-150 is the only full-sized pickup with six speeds standard. Two tactical errors: only a few of the F-150 tachometers are marked with a redline and trucks equipped with column shifts have the all-important +/- switch hidden behind the steering wheel rim.
Damper calibrations new for 2011 accommodate changes in powertrain mass. While all-around ride quality is good, the F-150s still don’t top Ram pickups equipped with well located coil-sprung rear axles. Also, there’s some quiver in the Fords’ chassis over severely racked pavement. Brake calibrations have been adjusted to key response more to pedal pressure versus pedal travel.
One of the nicest upgrades this year is the addition of a 4.2-inch LCD screen positioned between the speedometer and the tachometer. While a similar display in the Ram may have prompted this move, Ford used the opportunity to do an excellent job of providing more information than most drivers will ever need. A square switch on the steering wheel is programmed to intuitively cruise through six menus. In gauge mode, the permanent transmission temperature dial is supplemented by a digital readout in degrees F. The trip computer provides time, mileage, and fuel consumption information for two distinct journeys. The fuel economy choice gives you detailed histories of consumption and instantaneous mpg info. The settings option allows you to disable such irritating features as automatic door locking. In information, you can read the oil life remaining, various warning messages, and the number of hours the engine has been running. The truck applications menu provides watch over differential and transfer case settings, roll and pitch angles, and electric trailer brake programming. The only down side is that the alphanumeric display for time, compass heading, and outside temperature located at the top of the center-dash stack now cries out for an upgrade.
A slew of new engines and supporting improvements are just what Ford needs to flush reluctant full-sized pickup truck owners out of hiding. While the competition dithers, the F-150 offers the tantalizing prospect of gains in both performance and fuel economy. That combo is sure to stretch Ford’s lead over arch-rival Chevy and increase the F-150’s market share, now at 39-percent and rising. So saddle up truck fans and hitch your hauler to the US economy. We need to yank business out of the ditch and back into the productivity lane.