2021 Ford F-150 looks nice enough to live in, packs lay-flat seats, generator and hybrid power
With everything from a table to a bottle opener and wireless Apple CarPlay, Ford's new F-Series is nice enough to give tiny houses a run for their money.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Make no mistake, there will be splashier new-model debuts this year, but there will be none bigger, or more important. The 2021 Ford F-150 debuted under the klieg lights at a special event with emcee Denis Leary on Thursday, and it's worth a very close look. When America's newest full-size pickup rolls into dealers this autumn, it will inherit not only the title of America's best-selling truck (for 43 straight years!), it will also also assume the mantle of being one of this country's chief economic drivers, automotive or otherwise.
Watch this: 2021 Ford F-150 is a closet revolutionary
One look at the 2021 F-150 might reasonably have you wondering what, exactly, is new. Certainly, in the move from today's model to this new 14th-generation truck, Ford's designers have delivered one of the more conservative visual overhauls we've seen out of the F-Series lineup in decades. However, a closer look at the truck reveals that's not for lack of ambition: This pickup packs more electrification and connectivity-minded tech than we've seen in any light-duty production truck in the business.
Peel back this broad-shouldered rig's aluminum skin, and you'll find an available hybrid powertrain -- the first full hybrid to hit the US pickup truck market. You'll also find a raft of other novel features and tech designed to improve both productivity and comfort. Among them? Pro Power Onboard, a burly in-bed power source designed to replace generators at work sites and campouts, as well as huge new screens running next-gen Sync 4 infotainment. So whether you're a professional contractor or someone who likes to play hard on weekends, Ford is hoping you'll find something new here that you like. In fact, even if you're not a typical truck fan, you might be interested to learn about how this new pickup sets the technological table for Ford's coming Tesla Cybertruck competitor, the all-electric F-150, due sometime in 2022.
2021 Ford F-150 brings PowerBoost hybrid tech, OTA smarts
Let's start with the basics: Most of the F-150's ladder-frame chassis carries over unchanged, and along with it, the lion's share of the F-150's dimensions and overall footprint, as well as cabin and bed specifications. The new truck has a slightly wider track and bigger available wheels (up to 22 inches!) for a more planted stance, but the shadow it casts will be very similar to today's truck. All cabin and box configurations return, as do all major trim levels -- XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, Platinum and Limited (a new Raptor will come later).
Despite your likely initial impressions, every single sheet metal panel is new. This is a handsome truck, and Ford didn't need to reinvent the outgoing model's look from whole cloth (especially in view of the truck market's often-conservative buyers). Up front, there's a bolder grille bookended by headlamps outlined by oversized C-clamp-shaped daytime running lamps that extend into the bumper, a design theme echoed in the taillights as well. The new truck figures to be slipperier as well, incorporating not only active grille shutters that close at speed, but also an automatically deployed front air dam that lowers at 40 mph to improve aerodynamics (the latter retracts out of the way at low speeds to negotiate off-road trails and rogue parking barriers).
Out back, you'll find matching C-clamp-shaped taillamps and a trick new multifunction tailgate. While the latter lacks the fancy multi-directional hinging found on some competing GM and Ram trucks, this new tailgate has a lot of baked-in cleverness, including a new flat work surface that integrates a tablet holder, ruler, clamp mounts and new tie-down rings that double as bottle openers. If nothing else, this more straightforward approach is undoubtedly less complex, heavy and costly than the Chevy Silverado 1500's MultiPro unit and the Ram 1500's 60/40-split solution.
2021 Ford F-150 vs. 2020 Ford F-150
2021 Ford F-150
2020 Ford F-150
2.7-liter twin-turbo V6
2.7-liter twin-turbo V6
3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6
3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6
3.5-liter twin-turbo V6
3.5-liter twin-turbo V6
3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 hybrid
Length (Crew Cab, 2WD)
Width (Crew Cab, 2WD)
Height (Crew Cab, 2WD)
Wheelbase (Crew Cab, 2WD)
EcoBoost and PowerBoost hybrid drivetrains to spare
Once you get past assessing the F-150's new look, if you're a typical truck buyer, you're going to want to know what's under the hood. Ford says most output specs like horsepower, torque and fuel efficiency will come later, along with payload and tow ratings. For now, we do know the engine lineup. There's a lot of carryover here, too, including naturally aspirated 3.3-liter V6 and 5.0-liter V8 options, along with the company's well-received 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6s. The 3.0-liter V6 PowerStroke returns for diesel buyers, as well. All F-150 models receive 10-speed automatic transmissions.
The big news, of course, is the F-150's new PowerBoost hybrid powertrain. Piggybacking off of Ford's existing 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, this will be the industry's only full hybrid pickup on the market (Ram's eTorque is a less-powerful mild hybrid). The system integrates a single 35-kilowatt (47-horsepower) electric motor into the transmission housing backed by a liquid-cooled, 1.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. This isn't a plug-in hybrid system, it's a self-contained, self-charging deal that incorporates a belt-driven starter. PowerBoost will be available in all trims, in both two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive configurations.
Ford has outlined some significant PowerBoost performance targets, including upwards of 12,000 pounds of max towing capacity, best-in-class horsepower and torque figures, and a leg-crossing range of 700 miles per tank.
Interestingly, today's 2020 F-150 can tow up to 13,200 pounds with its 375-hp, 470-lb-ft, 3.5-liter EcoBoost powertrain, so it's unclear if the new PowerBoost hybrid will outperform its gas-only counterpart in hauling metrics the way it likely will in the miles-per-gallon column.
Whether you're into trucks or not, it's worth noting that even if PowerBoost sales only make up a relatively small percentage of the F-150's annual sales volume, it's possible that this tech could have a bigger impact on America's total fuel consumption than any other new vehicle, including electrics. That's in part because full-size trucks are so thirsty by nature, and partially because Ford sells so many -- the automaker shifted nearly 900,000 units last year.
F-150 replaces need for generator with Pro Power Onboard
PowerBoost also allows for a high-power version of Pro Power Onboard, an optional new power inverter that could replace owners' need to lug loud, heavy and dirty generators to job sites and campgrounds. Heck, it might even be useful as a backup generator for your house when the power goes out. Pro Power Onboard is an integrated generator that provides up to 7.2 kilowatts of power from a series of outlets mounted both in the cab and in the bed. In the case of the hybrid truck, those ports take the form of four bedside-mounted 120-volt, 20-amp outlets, with a single 240-volt, 30-amp outlet for big equipment.
With the 7.2-kW system, Ford says you can power a 12-inch miter saw, a circular saw, a hammer drill, a half-horsepower air compressor, flood lights and a gang battery charger, all at the same time. If you're not much for construction but you like to play hard on weekends, Ford says PPO can charge a full bed-load of electric motorcycles. You can even juice up the batteries of your tools, computers and toys while on the move. While we anticipate that a lot of traditional pickup shoppers -- especially fleet buyers -- may hesitate at the thought of buying a hybrid vehicle, unique, useful features like Pro Power Onboard could help convert hesitant buyers.
Watch this: 2021 Ford F-150 vs. Ram 1500: Truck battle royale
And for those who really don't want hybrid power, you can still option a lower-power PPO system with 2.0 kW of power. That's enough juice to simultaneously power an electric heater, a TV, a mini fridge, a blender and portable speakers for tailgate parties. It's available on both the gas-only EcoBoost and naturally aspirated engine models.
Regardless of which PPO system is fitted to your truck, you can control it via the FordPass app, along with a bunch of other functions including vehicle locator, remote locking, HVAC controls and a new multizone lighting system.
While arguably not as far off the pace as the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, today's 2020 F-150 has clearly fallen behind Ram's 1500 in the cabin-niceness sweepstakes. As such, the new 2021 truck has some catching up to do. Ford appears to have done the trick, with interior highlights that include an all-new dashboard with more-premium materials, new storage areas, significant upgrades in tech and a couple of party tricks.
The new F-150's most unexpected new feature is undoubtedly its available stowable gearshift lever. This center-console-based electronic shifter actually folds down and into a well out of the way to allow for the center armrest to expand into a large, flat work surface that can hold a 15-inch laptop. Naturally, this can only be done when the vehicle is parked, a lockout will keep you from doing this while driving.
Other available creature comforts include special Max Recline seats that fold nearly flat (180 degrees) for sneaking quick lunchtime naps, a massive panoramic moonroof, an 18-speaker Bang & Olufsen Unleashed audio system with SiriusXM 360L, plus a clever full-width lockable storage box that lives underneath the rear seat and can fold flat when not in use.
Sync 4 with wireless CarPlay, Android Auto and OTA
Also on the tech front, Ford's next-generation Sync 4 infotainment is present. Even low-end models receive an 8-inch center screen, a big update from today's 4.2-inch unit. Along with improved processing power and improved natural voice recognition, it features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The latter integrations are even wireless on the premium 12-inch-screen setup that comes standard on higher-trim XLT models and above. The latter also comes with a matching reconfigurable 12-inch digital gauge cluster with some impressive-looking animations.
Along with the rest of the truck's electronics, Sync 4 also allows for over-the-air updates. That means customers will be able to not only get the latest navigation maps, but also download new features, bug patches, powertrain updates, and so on. In fact, Ford is already telegraphing one major update that it will make available in the third quarter of 2021: Active Drive Assist.
F-150 is ready for Active Drive Assist hands-free driving
Active Drive Assist is a Level 2 hands-free driving system that's geofenced to be used on divided highways that have been HD mapped. Ford says there are over 100,000 miles of these roadways available in the US and Canada. This eyes-on, hands-off system features a driver-facing camera that tracks eye and head movement to ensure they're still paying attention. This is not autonomous drive tech, it's a partially automated drive assistant for easing commutes, especially bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ford has yet to release further details about the system, including its maximum usable speed and how the system handles an inattentive driver, but more information will likely be revealed as this system's availability draws near.
Buyers interested in Active Drive Assist on their F-150 will have to pay for a prep kit up front -- the latter bundles hardware that enables another new safety feature, Intersection Assist, which helps drivers avoid errantly pulling into oncoming traffic when making a left turn. Once the tech becomes available, an over-the-air update or a dealer-performed software reflash will enable the new capability.
As far as we know, Active Drive Assist will be the most advanced partially automated drive assist in the truck market when becomes available. Elon Musk and the Tesla Cybertruck may actually have something to say about this when it hits the market in late 2021, of course, but today's Autopilot remains a hands-on system, although it is not geofenced to operate in specific areas.
2021 F-150 offers advanced safety gear and cameras galore
The new F-150 includes Ford's CoPilot 360 2.0 suite of advanced driver assist systems. Even low-end XL models get pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, as well as headlamps with auto on/off and automatic high beams. XLT models get lane-keep assist, along with reverse sensors and new safeguards like reverse brake-assist and a post-impact braking feature. A comprehensive self-park system is also available.
In trailering-minded safety news, Ford has also ported over a number of features introduced on the latest F-Series Super Duty trucks. That includes a bunch of new rear camera angles for easier hauling, as well as Trailer Theft Alert and Trailer Light Check, the latter two being accessible through the FordPass phone app.
Ford F-150 lays the groundwork for a Tesla Cybertruck competitor
It's tempting to conclude that the 2021 Ford F-150 boils down to more evolution than revolution. That notion makes sense considering the last-generation truck's radical leap into aluminum construction and engine downsizing. Plus, Ford's F-Series models have often had major step changes followed up by generations that simply refine a theme. This alternating innovate/iterate cycle has been key to F-150's reliability, familiarity and profitability.
The truth with this new generation lies somewhere in the middle, however.
While the 2021 Ford F-150's appearance at first looks like it could be midcycle facelift instead of a generational change, major infusions of new tech, including the PowerBoost hybrid hardware, Pro Power OnBoard, OTA and Active Drive Assist are not only bold new features for the class, they help set the technological table for Ford's upcoming all-electric F-150 which is due in 2022.