It's second nature in trucks, like the first beer of football season. You order a full-size pickup—you order a V-8 engine, unless you're buying for Uncle Sam or someone equally tightfisted. Ford knows the allure of the V-8 better than just about anybody in the truck business, and this year it's introducing two new V-8s—a new 5.0-liter, along with a big-displacement, 6.2-liter V-8 cousin that matches GM's biggest eights in marketing numerology and outpaces them on power, if only by a scant few horsepower.
But there's more to the story. In the interest of better fuel economy, Ford is introducing its new 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 new to this year's F-150. It's the star of the lineup, and will provide a full 11,300-pound tow rating. Versus the car-duty EcoBoost V-6 that's featured in a number of vehicles including the Ford Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKT, the truck-duty EcoBoost is different; Ford points to a different fuel system, completely different airflow, and various durability improvements—such as to the pistons—in the truck. And its 420 pound-feet of torque is higher than 2010's top engine, a 5.4-liter V-8 with only 310 horsepower. Twinned with the new standard six-speed automatic, the EcoBoost's power is essentially V-8-like down low, where it counts. There's some low-frequency booming that doesn't sound at all like a V-8, but in reality, the basic V-6 block and heads share some family with Ford's new 5.0-liter and 6.2-liter V-8.
The big V-8, producing 411 hp and 434 lb-ft, has two valves per cylinder, but they provide as much flow as four according to engineers, and the roller-rocker valvetrain and overhead-cam design helps allow huge valves that aren't shrouded by the bore. A fuel economy rating of 12/17 mpg accompanies this engine.
If you're not ready for the notion of a V-6 engine in a full-size pickup truck, you're probably even less prepared for the thought of a twin-turbo V-6 challenging some of the best V-8s in the business for truck performance. For the classic V-8, we're nearly as enamored. All of the new F-150 engines get a little more carlike character, along with a higher-revving feel, and with the standard six-speed automatic and electric power steering, they provide the most car-like driving experience you can find in a full-size pickup.
The base engine on the 2011 Ford F-150 will be a version of the new 3.7-liter V-6 that's also used in the 2011 Ford Mustang, among other models. Here, it makes 302 hp and 278 lb-ft, effectively replacing last year's base V-8 for some customers, and will get 16 mpg city, 23 highway mated to a six-speed automatic transmission (Ford is the only automaker to equip all of its full-size trucks with six-speed transmissions). Ford has installed a higher-capacity, deep-sump oil pan in the truck application to allow effective lubrication even under severe towing situations—and to extend oil changes to 10,000 miles under normal use. This engine is also smooth and responsive, though not as torquey in character as last year's most affordable 4.6-liter V-8.
When it comes to towing and straight-line acceleration, there's no doubt the EcoBoost is the equal of the V-8s that nudge its performance aside by a small margin. The turbos are staged to deliver a groundswell of torque at low engine speeds (90 percent of it comes as low as 1750 rpm), and Ford's making some fast rear-axle ratios available to maximize the grunt for EcoBoost buyers doing medium- to heavy-duty chores. The 5.0-liter V-8 is good for up to 10,000 pounds with a regular-cab, long-bed, 4x2 F-150 and a special heavy-duty package. The 6.2-liter or EcoBoost engines can tow up to 11,300 pounds on SuperCrew short-bed 4x2 editions.
The one distinction between these powertrains outside of the magnitude of force available underfoot, is in steering feel. The smaller-displacement V-8 has the swell-feeling electronic power steering found in all other versions except the 6.2-liter F-150, which soldiers on with hydraulically-assisted steering. EPS, as it's acronymmed, helps fuel economy numbers—and with 411 hp, fuel economy just isn't as much, or as relevant, a concern.
In either case, behind the wheel of the F-150, there's no forgetting you're in a large truck; though the ride quality is decent and the steering is light and quite precise—especially with the EPS—you won't find yourself pushing hard around corners or darting into gaps in traffic just for the sheer enjoyment of it. However braking performance is impressive for such a large vehicle, and Ford has finally mastered a more confident, firm brake pedal feel with this latest version.