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For the past thirty-odd years, the Ford F-150 has been the best-selling truck and vehicle in the U.S. Pickup trucks have always been locked in a battle for capability—tow ratings, payload ratings, bed size, and crew capacity with fuel economy being an also-ran consideration,
It isn't anymore. Trucks are being reined in by new requirements that will force dramatic change. With the new F-150, Ford is taking the plunge before its top rivals, with a lighter-weight aluminum body that rescales every metric possible. The F-150 is the most consequential new vehicle in the past 25 years—Volt included—and it's been named the 2015 North American Truck of the Year.
The pickup's body and bed are composed from glued and riveted aluminum panels, akin to the technique Ford pioneered with Land Rover and Jaguar before it sold them. The ladder frame? Almost all high-strength steel, with a buffer between for long-term durability.
It's an expensive gamble, one that Ford claims results in overall weight loss of more than 500 pounds, from last year's roughly comparable models. The slimming enables one great new downsized engine, increases the capability of the remaining powerplants, and is said to boost fuel economy by 5 to 20 percent--though Ford has not yet released final EPA figures for any single F-150 variant.
You'd never know the F-150 is such a radical by its looks. The F-150 goes out of its way to play down its radically new body structure, wearing every possible right angle, even ditching the few rounded shapes it once wore. Make no mistake, every square inch is detailed to cheat the wind, to make it easier to extract every possible tenth of a mile per gallon from a classically styled pickup truck. Outside and in, though, the F-150 barely makes mention of the fact that's it's without a precursor in the truck world.
Two of the F-150's powerplants are carried over, with some updates, while two are new. The base engine is a 3.5-liter V-6, replacing last year's 3.7, down slightly to 283 horsepower--but with the weight loss, it can be fitted to a crew-cab body for the first time, or configured with a max tow rating of 7,600 pounds. We still think the torquey 2.7-liter turbo V-6 is a better choice, for just a $795 upcharge. It's rated at 325 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, tows up to 8,500 pounds, and has stop/start to help what Ford says are the best fuel-economy ratings in the F-150 lineup--and of any gas-powered full-size truck.
For the luxury-truck crowd that tows often, Ford carries over the 5.0-liter V-8, now at 385 horsepower, or the even more capable twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6, at 365 hp. The former has the F-150's top payload rating at 3,300 pounds; the latter, the top tow number of 12,200 pounds, which Ford says is best in the full-size class, even after the latest SAE J2807 ratings system is applied.
All four engines are paired to a six-speed automatic transmission. Both 4x4 and 4x2 drive configurations are available. Electric power steering is standard across the board, and it's light and quick, which doesn't sound very trucklike but complements the new F-150's road manners. The Ford truck has exceptional ride isolation, quietness on the road, and a composure that belies the body-on-frame design.
The F-150 also holds passengers and cargo better than ever. Fleet-duty Regular Cabs aside, the SuperCab and SuperCrew four-doors have great space to match up with the usual five-and-a-half, six-and-a-half, and eight-foot beds.
The beds themselves can be optioned up with some clever and useful features. There are loading ramps that lock into the bedsides, for easy ATV loading; a BoxLink system that fits cleats and brackets to the bed so that it can be divided and so cargo can be anchored; LED lighting in the cargo box; and a deployable bed step. Our favorite is the tailgate step that slides out, along with a picket-style handrail. It folds in and out of the way inside the tailgate, but can support up to 500 pounds of weight on its slim steps.
The NHTSA gives the F-150 SuperCrew a five-star overall rating. It's possible the F-150 could be the first pickup truck to earn the IIHS' Top Safety Pick+ award, since it offers forward-collision warning systems to go with its stout body. A rearview camera is standard on most higher-end trim levels, and the F-150 can be fitted with surround-view cameras, an especially good idea for long, bulky vehicles when they're not in their native home-improvement habitat.
The F-150 pares down its trim levels in this transition year to XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum. New equipment offerings include inflatable rear seat belts, pickup-box LED lighting, Sony premium audio, and, on Platinum models, real wood trim. An off-road-oriented FX4 package will be available, bundling off-road-tuned shocks, skid plates, and an electronic locking rear axle. Prices start at a reasonable $26,615, but if you haven't shopped a full-sizer lately, you'll need smelling salts for the $60,000-plus stickers on King Ranch and Platinum trucks.
The F-150 answers most of the short-term questions about how aluminum can make a vast difference in trucks as it's doing in cars. It outpaces the past Ford trucks on almost every specification--it's quieter, it can tow more, and it promises to be more fuel-efficient. The long-term riddles--repair costs, insurance rates, real-world fuel economy--are ones we'll keep revisiting as the F-150 rolls out to showrooms late this year.