Ford's F-150 Lightning looks set to deliver on an absolute truckload of potential.
The F-Series is the perennial most popular vehicle on the planet. Last year, Ford sold more than 725,000 of the things, and that's despite supply-chain issues and everything else going on in the world. That fact -- the sheer significance of this truck's success to Ford's bottom line -- made last May's announcement that the company would build an electric F-150 all the more important. The F-150 Lightning had all the potential in the world to be a true mass-market game-changer. Now, less than a year later, the F-150 Lightning is fully in production, and a game-changer it is indeed.
Ford invited me down to San Antonio, Texas to drive its electric F-150, a suitable place to back up the key thing the company wants to reinforce with the Lightning: It's just a truck. A really good, really useful, really quick truck that's also electric. Fully electric, to be clear, powered by either a 98- or 131-kilowatt-hour battery pack delivering between 230 and 320 miles of range. Go with the lesser of the two battery packs and you're looking at 452 horsepower, or 580 hp if you step up to the extended-range pack. Regardless which battery you get, expect 775 pound-feet of torque applied to all four wheels.
To put that in perspective, that's more horsepower than all but the F-150 Raptor and more torque than any F-150 ever made. In fact, you'd need to step up to the 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel on the F-250 to get more torque than the Lightning, but the EV still offers 100 more horsepower -- not to mention a significantly smaller carbon footprint.
While those numbers are significant, more important are what you can do with them. And here, it's a bit of a mixed bag for the F-150 Lightning compared to its internal-combustion siblings. The Lightning has a max tow rating of 10,000 pounds and max payload of 2,235. Both figures are considerably higher than the 3.3-liter V6 F-150's ratings of 8,200 and 1,985 pounds, respectively, but fall pretty far short of the 3.5-liter EcoBoost F-150's 14,000 and 3,250 pounds. The Lightning sits closest to the 2.7-liter EcoBoost F-150 configuration, with its 10,000 pounds of towing and 2,480 pounds of hauling.
In other words, it's more or less right in the middle of the F-150 capability range. To put that capability to the test Ford provided a number of towing and hauling experiences, offering everything from an enviable pile of plywood to a utility trailer loaded down with water and wine. Total weight of that trailer and cargo? 9,500 pounds, just 500 short of the max rating. Despite that, the truck accelerated smoothly and braked cleanly, enough so that even though I lacked any substantial hills to climb, I have no doubt the truck would've tackled them with no issue.
That said, the question remains of just how many hills the truck can cover while so encumbered. Range while towing is one of the big question marks surrounding the F-150 Lightning. I only had access to a short, 15-mile towing test loop -- and a low-speed one at that -- so I can't give any numbers with real confidence. But I can tell you on the various trucks with various trailers, I saw estimated ranges generally in the 150-mile area, about half the maximum range. In my own test loops, I generally saw consumption rates of 1.2 miles per kilowatt-hour. That again would point to a range of around 160 miles, down from the 320-mile EPA estimated range with the extended pack.
Now, a 50% reduction in range may seem extreme, but it's more or less in line with the increased consumption you'd expect when towing with a regular truck. The difference, of course, is that you can much more quickly refill than you can recharge. I hope to do more thorough towing tests before I draw any formal conclusions, but it certainly seems like the F-150 Lightning will be great for towing short distances. Still, you may want to stick with your gas-powered rig for longer hauls.
OK, so the F-150 Lightning may not be the most capable of the F-Series trucks from a cargo standpoint, but I'm just getting started. This truck brings a number of new capabilities to the table that no other truck on the planet can achieve. It can, for example, haul up to 400 pounds of cargo in its weatherproof frunk. (Need to bring home five bags of concrete in the rain? Leave the tarp at home.) Far and away the F-150 Lightning's hallmark trick, however, is its vehicle-to-load functionality. With V2L, you can use the truck to power... anything, even an entire house. Ford says the extended-range battery is enough to power an average home for three days, which for professionals, might mean no more costly, droning generator rentals at the job site.
If that's not enough, the truck's bi-directional charging is smart enough to cycle your house on and off the grid, recharging itself at night and potentially disconnecting your home from the utility system during the day, when rates are highest. This is only applicable if you live somewhere with metered billing, but if you do, this could be a substantial savings on your utility bill.
So, the Lightning is a truck with an unusually comprehensive set of skills, but that still leaves the question of what it's like to drive. The answer is that it's quite nice, really. It's quick, of course, with a 0-to-60-mph time somewhere in the mid-four-second range. That's just a few tenths slower than a Mustang GT. Off-road, it's quite capable too; the instant torque and smooth throttle response making it easy to inch up to and over rocks. And with locking differentials at either end, even when opposing wheels are suspended in midair, the truck has no problem moving forward.
The ride quality is remarkably good, smooth and compliant, and easily the kind of thing I'd see myself wanting to do for long trips. Yes, I know it's an EV, which you may not think would be great for road-tripping, but 320 miles of range is on the order of four or five hours of driving. With the right charger, the Lightning can get back to an 80% charge in just over 40 minutes. That 150-kW charging rate is far slower than we see from products like the Porsche Taycan, but a 40-minute break after 5 hours in the saddle doesn't sound so bad to me. Plus, the truck's navigation system is smart enough to route you to and through those charging breaks.
If I have one complaint with the ride, it's that the body control is on the poor side. The truck is compliant, yes, but also floaty. That's not the end of the world, as this is a truck that can weigh in the ballpark of 6,500 pounds depending on configuration. In other words, this isn't the kind of thing you'll want to be hustling into corners.
And that's really my only complaint. The F-150 Lightning hits all the marks. It's remarkably competent at everything you'd want from a truck while also packed with a wealth of new and exciting features. It stands to revolutionize how a utility vehicle like this will fit into your life and, perhaps more significantly, your business. I've been saying for a year that the Lightning has the potential to be a game-changer. Now, I can confidently say the game has been changed.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.