Big pickups and little engines are a marriage made somewhere south of heaven. V-6s are for women. They won’t tow. They sound funny. They are impossible to sell used. These are the abject prejudices Ford faced when the need for a more fuel-efficient F-150 became inescapable. With CAFE obligations looming and the Ranger disappearing after the 2011 model year, something had to be done.
Ford marketers claim that good gas mileage is the full-sized pickup truck segment’s grandest unmet need. While everyone wants better mileage, there’s no appetite for the sacrifices usually required to get it. Ford used to offer a 4.2-liter V-6 engine for the all-conquering F-150 but that 202-horsepower weakling was discontinued after 2008 due to lack of interest.
Could we show you something with 302 horsepower AND more than enough torque to tow your boat? It finally dawned on Ford that the rub may not be the number of cylinders. Or, in other words, a good engine trumps a mediocre one every time.
Ford’s 60-degree Duratec V-6 reported for duty in 2007 under the hoods of various Ford, Lincoln, and Mazda products. This year it brings new vitality to base Mustang and F-150 models. In twin-turbo form, it’s the star of Ford’s EcoBoost show.
This is an up-to-the-minute design with a die-cast aluminum block, aluminum cylinder heads, and plastic top (valve cover and intake manifold) parts. The four cam, four-valves-per-cylinder valvetrain provides variable intake and exhaust timing. The deep-skirt block supports a forged steel crankshaft with six bolts per main bearing. Thanks to an oil-to-coolant heat exchanger, lubricant change intervals are a lengthy 10,000 miles. The aluminum oil sump contributes to the block’s rigidity and oil sprayed on the bottom side of the pistons supports a 10.5:1 compression ratio. Peak torque arrives at an enthusiastic 4000 rpm with 278 lb-ft on tap. The power curve tops out at a heady 6500 rpm with 302 horsepower. That’s down just a bit from Mustang figures.
Ford is shooting for a combined fuel economy over 20 mpg. That, in combination with a 6100-pound tow rating and the new V-6’s affordability should lift more than a few eyebrows.
Without a look under the hood or at the window sticker, most truckers would never guess they are experiencing a cylinder deficiency. The new V-6 makes substantially more power and nearly as much torque as the 4.6-liter V-8 it replaces. Thanks to Ford’s new six-speed automatic, it merges swiftly into traffic and experiences no difficulty holding sway in the fast lane. This engine does have a metallic twang that’s not quite as satisfying as about any V-8 but it compensates with its lust for rpm. The sight of a tach needle crowding 7000 rpm isn’t common in the truck world but, by holding the pedal down, this engine delivers all the performance that most customers will ever need.
Expecting customers to believe that 3.7-liters is sufficient to move a 5000-pound pickup truck is a stretch. A test drive will be essential to convince the skeptics. The clincher will be the price of a gallon of regular. When or if it surges above $3.00 and stays there, Americans will be more willing to break their V-8 habits.
CUE THE TURBOS
Proving that Ford is serious about fewer cylinders, there’s a secret weapon scheduled to hit the streets in February. The EcoBoost movement arrives in the form of an even smaller 3.5-liter V-6 with grand aspirations. This is the engine that keeps all the balls flying -- mileage, towing, performance, and technology. Six small-bore pistons teamed with two turbos and six transmission gears deliver nearly as much torque as the 6.2-liter V-8 with the F-150’s best gas mileage.
In addition to the 3.7-liter engine’s architectural features noted on the previous page, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 has direct fuel injection to help sustain a high (for a turbo engine) 10.0:1 compression ratio. The result is small engine mileage when you baby the throttle with big motor might when you’re towing a heavy trailer up a long steep grade. Proving that this engine has the guts to go, Ford has blessed this package with a 11,300 pound maximum tow rating.
The turbos are quick to contribute. Brush the gas and there’s a powerful but silent surge ahead. With no intake or exhaust commotion, the forward thrust is smooth and satisfying. There is no hint of turbo whine or six-cylinder shake. If anything, the EcoBoost F-150 feels lighter and quicker on its feet than a comparable 6.2-liter V-8 pickup.
Ninety percent of peak torque (420 lb-ft at 2500 rpm) is available from 1700 to 5000 rpm. After the 5000 mark, where a maximum 365 horsepower is produced, this engine wilts so, unlike its normally aspirated brother, charges for the far reaches of the tachometer dial are not part of the deal.
To make sure this engine doesn’t blow in customer hands, Ford invested more than 1.5-million hours in simulations and analysis. Real engines were tested on the dynamometer for 5000 hours at full boost (13.5 psi) and 2500 hours at or above 5000 rpm. With a target life of 150,000 miles as the goal, more than 100,000 hours of in-vehicle tests were logged.
How much will that power run you? Ford's estimates suggest the 3.5-liter EcoBoost will carry a $1750 premium over the base 3.7-liter V-6, or roughly $750 more than the 5.0-liter V-8. Exact mileage is also an unknown. Our guess is high teens in city driving, high twenties on the highway, and a combined rating of 22 or 23 mpg. Another piece of good news is that it runs fine on regular gas. Illustrating what can be achieved with feather-foot driving, we recorded over 32 mpg on a mileage test conducted over rolling Texas terrain.
A key part of the efficiency gain is a move to electric power assist rack-and-pinion steering for all F-150s except those equipped with the 6.2-liter V-8. While many electric power systems are devoid of feel and funky for effort, this one is properly calibrated with hints of road information and a firm feel at cruising speeds.
The new twin-turbo V-6 is available with all three cabs (regular, SuperCab, SuperCrew), with or without four-wheel drive, on seven out of the ten F-150 trim levels. (It’s not available on the Harley-Davidson, Lariat Limited, or SVT Raptor models.)
EcoBoost will serve as an important acid test. Is the F-150’s reputation strong enough for customers to trust that Ford is not leading them down a blind alley with a small turbocharged V-6? By this time next year, that question will be answered.