2011 Ford F-150 V-6: First Drive

September 27, 2010

What does the best-selling pickup truck on the planet do for a follow-up act to the biggest recession in a generation or two?

Last week, High Gear Media traveled to Dallas, Texas, to find out. We jumped in behind many wheels in a one-of-a-kind press event that put us, and Ford's new F-150 lineup, through the same paces that owners can experience in a cross-country marketing tour. Ford's shopping the new 2011 F-150 as substantially new, although it looks largely the same as last year's truck, and they're canvassing America in a few stops where they'll let truck owners and shoppers pit their heavily reworked pickups against the competition.

What do the Dodge Ram, Chevrolet Silverado and Toyota Tundra have to fear from the mid-life upgrades coming to the F-150? The brute-force looks carry over, but the engine bay sees radical change. The 2011 F-150 gets a whole range of powertrains, four new engines in all, teamed up to a standard six-speed automatic across the F-150 lineup--from Regular Cab short-bed pickups to fully-dressed Harley-Davidson CrewCab trucks.

Of all the engines, the new base 3.7-liter V-6 may sound like the least appealing. Who buys a full-size truck with a V-6 except governments and utilites? This V-6 likely will change some minds. In entry-level spec, an F-150 with this engine gets 302 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque to work with. A standard six-speed automatic has a few optional rear axles (3.55 and 3.73) to give it more rugged capability. And four-wheel drive is of course, an option in any body style you choose--Regular Cab, with either 6.5-foot or 8-foot bed; SuperCab, with the same bed choices, and the SuperCrew four-door, with short- and long-bed options.

Is this new six-cylinder quick enough to dispel the "need" for a V-8 in a big pickup? Last year's base 4.6-liter V-8 grunted out significantly less power, at 248 hp and 293 lb-ft of torque, while the mid-range V-8 had about the same power as the new six-cylinder engine, at 292 hp and 320 lb-ft or torque. Without any radical changes to the body--but with the addition of the six-speed automatic to the base powerplant--we think there are few work-truck buyers who can recognize an acceleration difference. The new F-150 V-6 likely is good for a repeatable 0-60 mph time of under 10 seconds in an unladen truck, with a single passenger aboard. And for the contractors, entrepreneurs and weekend cowboys who might move up from a Ranger or a Dakota into an F-Series, the difference in speed-gathering seems negligible.

The V-6 also has a sweeter engine note than the old two-valve-per-cylinder V-8--a very car-like note, which makes sense when you learn the six-cylinder is closely related to the same one in the base Ford Mustang, Lincoln MKX and other Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The six-speed automatic has a manual-shift mode so you can hold a lower gear. And the F-150 lineup adopts electric power steering that's tuned well, and also calls car-like responses to mind with its light, quick responses.

Can this six handle the towing needs in this niche? Ford rates the V-6 at 6,100 pounds towing capacity, on the regular-cab long-bed, rear-wheel-drive model. That's a best-case scenario that probably won't tax the engine too badly, but we weren't able to judge hauling anything beyond people--Ford did stage a few towing exercises but none of the trucks we were able to drive with a trailer had the base V-6. If you're pulling heavy weight with wheels of its own, other engines in the lineup are no doubt better for the task.

A projected best-in-class fuel economy figure won't hurt the V-6's chances of wooing truck drivers up a class from the mid-size Dakotas, Tacomas and Frontiers of the world. Given last year's base F-150 fuel economy of 15/22 mpg and the Toyota Tundra's best figures of 15/21 mpg, we're betting Ford has pegged the F-150 V-6 fuel economy at 16/22 mpg or more. Is it easily achieved with a light payload? Our indicated 22 mpg on a short mixed-cycle drive seems to line up with those figures.

Without many cosmetic changes--save for some rejiggered trim lines, a new 4-inch LCD panel on the instrument cluster that adds some customizable features to the tripometer and other basic functions--the F-150's angle here simply is to cut fuel use, and to bring the best-selling truck in America into line with coming fuel-economy rules. On paper, and under foot, it feels like it's hit its targets with cargo room to spare.

Ford's launching four new engines this year--find out more as we cover all of them and explain which F-150 might be best for you.

MORE on the 2011 Ford F-150:

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