With a name that sounds more like a part number than a car model, the 2011 Ford F-150 retains the utility that helped make it the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 24 years. The twin steel beams that make up the frame and large leaf springs visible through the rear wheel arches attest to the truck's continued working-class nature.
But the Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCab 4x4 we reviewed showed quite a bit of modernity creeping in, as well. Let's start with the EcoBoost engine, a twin turbocharged direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6. A turbocharged pickup truck sounds like something that should be entertaining crowds in a stadium as it rolls over hapless junked cars, but the turbos on this engine make up for the missing two cylinders.
Although pickup trucks have become associated with the V-8 engine, Ford makes its new F-150 available with a 3.5-liter V-6. But add the turbos and direct-injection technology, and this engine spits out more power than a 5-liter V-8, at the same time getting slightly better fuel economy.
This technical trickery causes only a small performance hit, in that the F-150 takes a moment to leap forward when you plant your foot on the gas. This hesitation is a combination of the turbos spooling up and the six-speed automatic transmission finding the time to engage.
But it's also just as well. Lacking the 1,760-pound payload the F-150 can carry in its bed, the rear wheels have little inclination to stay in contact with the pavement when faced with the engine's 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. That slight rein on the acceleration prevents the rear tires from becoming a smoking fury. No fun, maybe, but this is a work truck.
After that slight hesitation, the F-150 really goes. Despite the decidedly nonaerodynamic cliff at the front of the truck, the engine pushes this rig forward with increasing acceleration. The engine doesn't rumble, but emits a well-tempered growl accompanied by the whistling of turbos. It may not be the sound you expect from a pickup truck, but it's a new century--times have changed.
The EcoBoost engine's power doesn't just work for straight-line acceleration. We took the truck up steep hills, which it climbed without complaint, and on long freeway cruises at speed, where the power overhead allowed quick passing maneuvers. We generally left the transmission to do its thing, but occasionally found the low range or the manual shift feature useful. For manual shifting, you need to put the big shifter in the M position, then use a thumb rocker on its side to select gears.
The top gear let the engine hold a speed around 2,000rpm while pushing the F-150 down the freeway at 70 mph. At 50 mph on the highway, it settled down to 1,500rpm. After a test run on freeways, mountain roads, and over city streets, this F-150 turned in fuel economy of 17 mpg, well within its 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway range.
Off Road apps
To add variety to the mileage testing, we also ran it in four-wheel drive mode for a good amount of time. An option on the F-150, the four-wheel drive system includes a dial on the dashboard for switching between two high, four high, and four low. The driving feel was not appreciably different when powering four or just two wheels.
However, the drivetrain showed a tendency to bind when we cranked the steering wheel all the way around. With the wheels turned, power was sapped from the system and unholy noises arose from the chassis. That kind of behavior is not uncommon in four-wheel-drive trucks, but Jeep previously demonstrated for us how binding had been eliminated from the Wrangler.
Maneuvering the F-150 around on a rocky slope during its photo shoot, we found the four-wheel drive came in handy. As we attempted to reverse up the hill, the rear wheels began to dig ruts among the rocks, not surprising given the lack of payload. Flipping the dial over to its four-wheel-drive mode let the front tires, down-slope and with the weight of the engine over them, dig in, and the truck easily backed up.
This little off-road exercise let us witness the working of another modern element in the F-150, the Off Road applications built into a high-resolution display on the instrument cluster. These apps showed steering angle, active wheels, and incline angle. That display, controlled from a steering-wheel button, also let us view trip data and an eco coach screen, with a graph bar to indicate current fuel economy.
As our truck was in Lariat trim, the cabin was far from being the rough lair of a roustabout you might expect. A number of surfaces, including the seats, were leather-encased, while fake wood covered the center stack. A full climate control system let us set the cabin temperature, and the seats featured individual heating and cooling.