Is Bigger Still Better?
The half-ton pickup market has been an arms race for the past couple of years. Each new offering seems to grow in size, weight, and capability, and the marketing efforts are just a step above the name calling found in political ads. But somewhere in the middle of this melee gas prices rose to $4.00 per gallon and the nation ended its affair with the pickup truck. Well, for a few months, anyway. Fuel prices are back to reasonable levels, at least for the moment, and Ford is releasing a bigger F-150 for the 2009 model year just as truck sales return to a normal level of the overall U.S. sales mix.
It sounds like a script right out of Hollywood, where the hero appears just in time to save the day. But will the F-150 remain Ford's savior at a time when the automaker needs every penny it can scrounge up, or is the bigger and badder F-150 too much truck for today's market?
The Song Remains the Same
The 2009 Ford F-150 doesn't bring any wild new hardware to the table. There's no two-mode hybrid like the 2010 Chevrolet Silverado and 2010 Dodge Ram will offer. Leaf springs still connect the rear axle to the frame, unlike the 2009 Dodge Ram which uses coil springs. Ford may introduce a diesel F-150 to compete with the upcoming diesel trucks from Chevrolet and Dodge, but the company seems to favor the impending EcoBoost engine which will combine direct injection and turbocharging to deliver diesel-like performance without the prohibitive cost of a diesel engine or diesel fuel. In true Ford fashion, this engine will not be available at launch.
The only significant changes for the 2009 Ford F-150 are the introduction of six-speed automatic transmissions, a larger crew cab, and a new 4.6-liter three-valve V-8 engine. The rest of the truck is just a freshening of the 2008 F-150, something you realize just as soon as you hit the road.
A Dizzying Array of Choices
Ford is very proud of the fact that the 2009 F-150 offers more possible configurations than any competitor truck. If you decide to buy an F-150, you'll first need to determine which cab style fits your needs (regular, super, and crew cabs are available), then decide how much bed you require (there are three choices ranging from 5.5 to 8 feet in length), and, finally, determine how luxurious you'd like the truck to be, since there are seven different trim levels. Once you've figured out all of that, you can choose among the three V-8 engines, then decide between rear- and four-wheel-drive. There are 35 different core configurations for the F-150 just taking cab size, bed length, and trim level into account. Fourteen of those possible combinations are available with the SuperCrew cab.
A Bigger Cab
The SuperCrew cab is the F-150 body style that has changed the most for 2009. Ford lengthened the cab by six inches between the A- and B-pillars and gave the rear a flat load floor. The larger SuperCrew cab means you can put large items, like a 50-inch plasma TV, right in the cab of your F-150. Competitors still force you to place large items in the bed of your truck, which must be horribly inconvenient for those who only make large purchases on rainy days. But that extra length also means the truck won't fit in everyone's garage.
Inside the F-150, things are very quiet. Extra sound insulation materials make the F-150's cabin almost as quiet as a luxury car's. The Platinum trim level, which is new for 2009, is the most luxurious truck interior on the market and features brushed aluminum accents and wood trim.
Tech Toys Galore
Step inside the F-150 and you'll discover a variety of new technology. Ford's Sync system, a new option on the F-150, includes the ability to dial 911 in the event of an accident and offers a vehicle health report in addition to the usual Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. The F-150's navigation system can join forces with Sirius Travel Link to locate the cheapest fuel, give real-time traffic reports, and provide weather reports for anywhere in the country. This system looks and works much better than the last-generation navigation system.
Ford Work Solutions are designed to improve the capability of the 2009 F-150 as a mobile office for contractors and offer a range of features from internet access to fleet management tools which help managers track maintenance and locate vehicles in the field. Tool Link allows owners to tag tools with RFID chips and ensure all the tools brought to a job are loaded back in the truck before heading home. A cable lock system allows contractors to lock large, expensive tools in the bed.
The Death of the V-6 and Manual Transmission
The heart of a pickup is the powertrain, but Ford didn't make many changes here. A new 4.6-liter three-valve V-8 is the big news; it slots between the base 4.6-liter two-valve V-8 and the 5.4-liter three-valve V-8. We prefer the 4.6-liter three-valve V-8, because it provides nearly as much power as the previous 5.4-liter (292 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque) and offers slightly better fuel economy than the larger engine. The V-6 engine was dropped from the F-150 line because the two-valve V-8 has the same fuel economy numbers as the old V-6 as well as more power (248 hp and 294 lb-ft of twist). Those looking for maximum towing will require a 5.4-liter V-8 and its full 310 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque.
A smooth six-speed transmission is standard on the three-valve engines, but the two-valve engine makes do with an ancient four-speed automatic. There is no manual transmission for the 2009 model year.
Fuel economy ranges from 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway for the 5.4-liter V-8 up to an estimated 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway for the 4.6-liter, three-valve V-8 equipped with the SFE package. SFE is Ford's Superior Fuel Economy package, and it's available on XL and XLT SuperCrew trucks with a 5.5-foot bed and two-wheel drive. The SFE package includes a 3.15 final-drive ratio and 18-inch low rolling resistance tires, but it does not include a tonneau cover or locking rear differential like the Chevrolet Silverado XFE package that returns identical fuel economy numbers.
And Then You Drive it
So far, everything looks rosy for the 2009 Ford F-150. We're looking at class-leading fuel economy, capability, and almost limitless configurations of cab size, bed length, and interior trim. But when you get behind the wheel, it doesn't feel significantly different from a 2008 F-150. Engineers boast about weight reduction (up to 100 pounds less than the previous truck, depending on configuration), but dropping 100 pounds from a 5000-plus-pound behemoth doesn't exactly give the truck razor-sharp reflexes.
The six-inch-longer leaf springs still allow for axle hop in some situations and do not hold a candle to the coil springs that give the 2009 Dodge Ram such a good ride. Those looking for comfort during daily driving would be much happier in a 2009 Dodge Ram, but drivers looking for more overall capability who don't mind a rougher ride will be happy with the F-150's driving experience. Dodge is expecting those customers to jump up to the three-quarter-ton Ram, while Ford continues to push the limits of half-ton capability.
So, You Want to Tow
Interestingly enough, the 2009 Ford F-150 will out-tow all the competition even though several key competitors have more horsepower and torque. The 2009 F-150 is able to tow 11,300 lb in any cab configuration when equipped with the 5.4-liter V-8 and 3.73 axle gears. With this much capability, the 2009 Super Duty with a 5.4-liter V-8 is almost a redundant product.
The 2009 Ford F-150 is a much better tow vehicle than the 2008 truck thanks to the six-speed automatic transmission and standard trailer sway control. The six-speed is flawless when it comes to climbing and descending hills. We strongly recommend the optional rear-view camera, integrated trailer brake controller, and available towing mirrors for regular towing duties. Ford's brake controller is flawless and much smoother than the leading aftermarket brake controllers.
If you're a fan of Ford pickups, the 2009 F-150 is everything you'd expect, but the bottom line is that the 2009 Ford F-150 isn't that much different from the 2008 truck. Everything from the design to the powertrain has evolved slightly, but there aren't any truly brilliant advances beneath the sheetmetal. Watch the sales figures closely over the next few months to see if customers are looking for the same old solution to the pickup truck or if more innovative approaches like the 2009 Dodge Ram sway buyers in these difficult times.