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The Ford F-150 has been the best-selling full-size pickup line for more than three decades, and big improvements in the past three years have kept it at the top of its class for towing, gas mileage, and luxury and technology features. It's still true for the 2012 model year, with some more minor changes that maintain its place near the top of TCC's truck ratings.
The F-150 has prospered behind the visual impact of its blocky, defensive-lineman styling. The last-gen F-Series was a smooth-shouldered piece, with almost carlike lines; these days, the F150 wears a Tonka attitude, with an immense, tall front end and lots of straight, flat lines that subconsciously say "truck" a lot better than those 1990s-era F-150s. The more macho look borders on cartoonish--the big grille sits at torso height for most drivers--unless you live in truck country, where the right-angle sheetmetal makes it the musclecar of its class. The cabin's a contrast, and a jarring one, in a good way. It's plush, finished in tight-grain plastics and higher-grade materials, and styled attractively. It's interiors like these that have blunted the work-grade reputation of trucks, and wooed drivers out of cars.
Last year the F-150 gained a new foursome of powertrains, with two real winners and two at least earning an honorable mention. The basic 3.7-liter V-6 sounds less appealing, except maybe for fleet buyers, but it's now a reasonable choice in this truck. In base spec, it makes 302 horsepower, and the six-speed automatic teams up with optional 3.55 or 3.73 rear axles to give it more capability, with under 10-second 0-60 mph acceleration when it's lightly laden, and with highway fuel economy ratings of up to 23 mpg and towing of up to 6100 pounds. Adding turbocharging to the 3.5-liter version of this engine yields EcoBoost, which blows out 360 horsepower with stout, V-8 like feel and enough torque to give the EcoBoost versions the highest towing figures of the entire F-150 lineup, at 11,300 pounds.
Traditionalists will love the new 5.0-liter V-8, shared with the Mustang GT and sounding every bit like it. It also makes 360 horsepower, retuned for better low-end torque than in the pony car, and teamed to a six-speed automatic to tow up to 10,000 pounds. At the top of the range is a new 6.2-liter V-8 with a monster output of 411 hp and 434 pound-feet of torque, fitted in the most luxurious models and in the Raptor off-road special edition.
Electric power steering was adopted along with the new engines, and it's also carlike in feel, with quick, light responses to inputs, more so than any other full-sizer. The ride and handling of the F-150 is probably where it gets nudged by Silverados and Rams: it handles pretty well for such a large pickups, but the ride is just a touch tougher than either. Four-wheel drive is available across the lineup, of course, and a new mechanical setup comes with automatic 4x4 mode that shifts power to the front wheels when needed.
The F-150 comes in a wide range of body styles and bed lengths, and it's up to you how to configure it. The Regular Cab has either a 6.5-foot or 8-foot bed, and so does the extended SuperCab. The SuperCrew four-door pickup also comes with short- and long-bed options, as well as a wheelbase six inches longer than other versions, with all the additional room going to the rear seats. All F-150s can have well sculpted bucket seats, and even the basic bench isn't a bad alternative. In back, the seats have a truly flat floor, and the cushions fold up against the back on four-door models so huge packages can be carried inside, safely and securely. A tailgate ladder and a side box step are stamped into each version.
All F-150s have a package of safety gear that blends electronic assistance with the usual airbags. Stability control is standard, and so are trailer sway control, which uses anti-lock brakes to mitigate the motion of a trailered vehicle, and hill start assist. A rearview camera and Bluetooth are available, too, and the F-150 has done well in crash tests in the recent past.
More than most any vehicles on the road, pickups still offer the custom-order experience, not just in hard points but in soft points. The F-150's no different: it comes in no less than ten packages that run from stripper XL editions to Harley-Davidson, King Ranch and Platinum editions. The F-150 can be fitted with Ford's SYNC media controller, with real-time traffic information, and even with features like a Sony sound system, DVD entertainment players and second-row heated seats. If you want to get an idea of how luxurious an F-150 can be, step into the King Ranch, upholstered in natural leather, surrounded by LCD screens and a navigation system. It's like sitting in the world's most sophisticated baseball glove.