Frank Davis received clear marching orders with his appointment as chief engineer for the 2004 Ford F-150 pickup: Make it bigger, make it badder, but make sure it sells. In the aftermath of faulty Firestones and tipping Explorers, Davis's truck faces the daunting task of hitching up to the Ford Motor Company and restoring its lost momentum.
The F-150 has been Ford's golden tow horse and America's sweetheart for decades. For twenty-five years, it has trumped full-size pickup competitors in the sales race, and it has hogged pole position among all vehicles since 1982. The F-series accounts for nearly one-fourth of Ford's entire U.S. volume. Three assembly plants work overtime, in a good year cranking out nearly a million units (including Super Duty models).
So Davis's army of engineers had their work cut out for them. With a budget of $1.8 billion (a speculative figure Ford won't confirm) and a "bigger, badder, better" mantra, they set about refurbishing a pickup last remodeled in 1997. To make it bigger, they stretched the wheelbase nearly six inches to add vestigial rear doors to the regular cab (for storage space access) and to improve rear-seat accommodations in SuperCab and SuperCrew models. In place of the wimpy aero-style nose, there's a more assertive trapezoidal grille beneath a muscled-up hoodline. The beltline is also elevated, there's a door notch borrowed from the muy macho Super Duty, and the top edges of the box are raised 2.3 inches to increase both cargo volume and visual mass. Underneath is the real mass: a fully boxed frame that's nine times stiffer in torsion, new rack-and-pinion power steering, a coil-over-damper control-arm front suspension, and straddle-mounted three-inch-wide rear leaf springs. To make the F-150 less of a bully in collisions, its frame is an inch lower, and bumpers have been dropped three inchesnot a bad idea, because curb weight is up by 500 pounds.
Even though nearly a third of the parts carry over from the outgoing F-150, the powertrain, trim, and body-style matrix are drastically different. A 300-horsepower, 24-valve, 5.4-liter V-8 is new, but a V-6 engine, the five-speed auto-matic recently introduced for Super Duty trucks, and a manual transmission all missed the cut, at least for now. The sprawling F-series family tree includes five trim levels ranging from the rubber-floored, vinyl-upholstered XL worker bee to the leather-lined Lariat, three box lengths, and a choice between lever and button shifting for the optional part-time four-wheel-drive system.
Driving several pre-production F-150s on and off Ford's Kingman, Arizona, proving grounds lent credence to Davis's boast that his new truck scrambles not just the rules but the whole big-truck game. The new Triton V-8 purrs as smoothly as any Jaguar engine and leaps predatorily with a nudge of its electronically controlled throttle. The stout frame and front suspension derived from Expedition components facilitate expansion-joint crossings without clenched teeth. The steering locks onto a straight path with a Gila monster's tenacity. While it's difficult to associate agility with anything weighing more than 5000 pounds and standing six feet tall, the F-150's steering sensitivity, roll damping, and overall composure definitely lift the pickup bar to unexplored heights. The only C mark on an otherwise exemplary road manners report card is a rear axle that mule-kicks its way through corner bumps.
Inside, the massive center console, finely wrought instrument cluster, and delectable trim materials prompt a search for the hidden Lincoln logo. The only lapses are the Lariat's shelf-paper wood grain and SuperCab doors that rattle their jambs over rough pavement. Will the F-150 swoop in as supertruck to beat back the imports targeting its turf? That fracas is about to unfold.