First Drive: 2011 Ford F-150 (V-6s)

Don Sherman
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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.

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