First Drive: 2018 Ford F-150
Direct-injection and a 10-speed automatic make America’s best-selling vehicle that much more enticing
The 10-year old inside me is freaking the hell out. I'm driving a cherry-red 1950 Ford F1 pickup truck. It is wonderful. With just 100 hp from its flathead V-8 and no synchros for the three-speed manual gearbox, it's pure, honest, and majestic in its simplicity. It's also a refreshing reminder of how far Ford and the F-Series have come, now 70 years on from the F1's birth in 1948. Critical to that continuum has been a mantra of constant improvement, and from our first crack at the refreshed 2018 F-150 and its new powertrains, Ford is staying true to the lifeblood of the brand.
Life's good over at the truck department in Dearborn, as the F-150's big switch to an aluminum body for its all-new generation in 2015 has paid off. F-Series sales in 2016 totaled 820,799 units, far and away the best showing since Ford broke the 900,000 mark in 2005. So far in 2017, sales are nearing 500,000 units, which Ford says puts it 57,000 north of where the F-Series was last year at this time. Ford isn't resting on its laurels though; not only does the 2018 F-150 get the usual styling updates and tech add-ons that come with a mid-cycle update, but also major powertrain changes yield power, torque, and fuel economy gains across nearly the entire lineup.
One big upgrade that makes this possible is direct-injection technology, now included alongside multi-port fuel injection in every engine available. Multi-port fuel-injection alone handles idle and low rpm situations, but as speed and pressure build, direct-injection takes on more and more of a role (port injection never turns totally off). Combined with Ford's new 10-speed automatic (co-developed with General Motors), performance and efficiency take a fine step forward.
While Ford already included this fuel-injection strategy in its 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6, the new 3.3-liter naturally aspirated V-6, 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6, and 5.0-liter naturally aspirated V-8 are also on board. The 3.3-liter is the F-150's new base engine, taking over for the outgoing 3.5-liter V-6. Despite the drop in displacement, output is up to 290 hp and 265 lb-ft, gains of 8 hp and 12 lb-ft, respectively. XL and XLT trims will offer this engine, mated exclusively to a carry-over six-speed automatic transmission. EPA figures for this powertrain improve by 1 mpg in both city and highway ratings.
I first hopped into an XLT SuperCrew 4x4. Once just barely out of earshot from the Ford event tent, my drive partner laid into the throttle with full force. Not bad. The engine makes very usable power, but it does so way up at 6,500 rpm, and it has to work pretty hard to get there. It sounds sad and brutal doing it, as well. And while the transmission usually does a good job of not hunting for gears, it's a bit slow to shift and you really notice a big kick-down when you need to quickly dip into the throttle. That said, for a base engine, the new V-6 is far from an anchor, and I think most people who just want to get into an F-150 for cheap won't be disappointed. Given the wide range of available features even at lower trim levels (this XLT had SYNC 3, heated seats, blind-spot warning with tow monitoring, and a bunch more), there's more than enough to keep people happy.
Every other engine in the lineup switches over to the 10-speed automatic, starting with the 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6. Direct-injection does nothing to change the 2.7's 325 hp, but torque sees a healthy 25 lb-ft jump to 400. With the new gearbox, fuel economy for the 2.7-liter goes up by 1 mpg in both city and highway ratings for the 4x4 model. Of all the variants I drove, this engine was the one I'd pick for myself, and the one I think suits most buyers (Ford confirms that it's already the best-seller of the bunch).
Our previous impressions of the outgoing F-150 2.7-liter were glowing about the engine but mum on the six-speed, which editors resoundingly panned for its reluctance to downshift and questionable gear selection. Those concerns are history. The marriage with this new 10-speed is indeed a happy one; gear selection is always on point and shift action is both smooth and consistent. At low speeds, there's plenty of low-end torque to get going, and when I flipped the drive-mode selector into Sport and matted the gas, I was both surprised and thrilled with immediate downshift and forceful kick of the twin-boosted V-6 in the Lariat SuperCrew 4x4. With its flexible combination of towing capability (max. 8,500 pounds), fuel economy, and everyday performance, this is the powertrain to get.
Nevertheless, there are those for whom a V-8 engine is the only worthy choice. About 25 percent of customers opt for the old-school workhorse. The sound alone makes me understand why. When I dug deep into the power well, the entire cabin of the V-8-powered Lariat SuperCrew 4x4 filled with a bassy roar, and the smoothness of predictability of the free-breathing V-8 has a strong appeal. Total muscle is up by 10 hp and 13 lb-ft of torque, ringing in at 395 hp and 400 lb-ft. EPA ratings for fuel economy also increase by 1 mpg across the board, except in the 2WD city category, where it increases by 2 mpg. Still, even with the undeniable fun-factor the V-8 offers, unless you really need more towing or payload capability than what the 2.7-liter can muster, I'd go with the little V-6 that could.
Of course, ultimate performance from an output, efficiency, towing, and payload perspective still belongs to the top-dog 3.5-liter EcoBoost. My only time behind the wheel of an F-150 with the bigger twin-turbo six, which received direct injection for 2017 and carries over unchanged with an output of 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque sent through the 10-speed auto, was while launching a boat using the Pro Trailer Backup Assist system. While I was nowhere near the truck's best-in-class max towing capacity of 13,200 pounds (its max payload of 3,230 lb is close; the V-8 gets top position at 3,270 lb), I had no trouble backing the boat into the water. Despite my lack of towing and trailering experience, it was basically point and shoot to maneuver the boat on the correct path. Once the calibration is set, all it takes is pressing the button to engage the assist mode, shifting into reverse, and using the rotary knob to point the trailer where you want it to go. The steering wheel takes care of itself, so all you have to do is watch the mirrors and adjust as necessary. Piece of cake.
In addition to that friendly piece of tech, the 2018 Ford F-150 also gets B&O Play audio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, SYNC 3, 4G LTE with Wi-Fi for up to 10 devices, and an adaptive cruise control system with stop-and-go capability.
None of that fancy stuff was ever in the imagination of the original 1948 F-Series' creators, but I like to think they'd be psyched to see what good seven decades has done for their truck. Better powertrains, more capability, and useful bells and whistles is nothing to complain about, after all. And once the new 3.0-liter Power Stroke diesel joins the mix in spring 2018 as the first-ever oil-burner in an F-150, there will be even more for Dearborn to brag about to their Detroit-area rivals.
2018 Ford F-150 Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2017|
|ENGINE||3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6/290 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 265 lb-ft @4,000 rpm;
2.7L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/325 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 400 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm;
5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/395 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 400 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm;
3.5-liter twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/375 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 470 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
|LAYOUT||2- or 4-door, 3-6-passenger, front-engine, RWD/4WD truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||17-20/22-25 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||209.3-250.5 x 79.9 x 75.5-77.3 in|