The big deal with Ford's new F-150 is the aluminum body. With it, the material has hit the mainstream—it doesn't get much more so than the bestselling vehicle in America. While that's its own milestone, Ford did a lot to take advantage of the lighter body's obvious and more subtle advantages, creating a truck that's going to beat up on the domestic competition.
Aluminum was a seriously big secret—NDAs were signed.
Ford started looking at aluminum for the F-150 back in 2009, and greenlit the idea in 2010. Employees and suppliers had to sign confidentiality agreements before being told. The metallurgy was on a need-to-know basis, with some still in the dark until late in the project. "We couldn't tell our wives," says chief engineer Pete Reyes.
Going light set off aluminum dominoes.
Engineers took 70 pounds out of the frame using some new processes and a larger percentage of high-strength steel. The aluminum body took care of the bulk of the claimed 700-pound weight loss, lowering the center of gravity by about 0.6 inch along the way. The lower CG lead to better handling which prompted extra frame strengthening to further improve the way the truck drives. These changes wouldn't have been worth the admittedly minor weight and cost increases on a steel truck. Less mass also means an improved power-to-weight ratio, so the trucks perform better and can carry more with similar output.
New rear suspension, but no fancy coils or air springs.
Suspension geometry changes were aimed at reducing axle wind-up, which is an engineer-y term for the binding that causes shakes, shudders, and other sh…tuff you don't want. They went to staggered outboard shock mounts—one located ahead of the axle and one behind—and also aligned the engine and pinion better, allowing the use of one-piece aluminum driveshafts in many cases where Ford used two-piece steel units in the past.
Ford set up an autocross with competitive trucks to show the difference the lightening and suspension changes make. It's obvious, and I'd go as far as saying the less-roll-prone F-150 is bordering on nimble, at least for a full-size truck. The Ram still has the edge with its expensive and complex air-spring setup, but comparing standard suspensions, it's no contest. The Ford feels better than Chevy/GMC and Ram, loaded or unloaded.
Ford has two ways to control electric steering. This one's a ton better.
The F-150 goes from worst to best steering among full-sizers by solving the old setup's two main problems: it didn't self-center and it required constant input during high-speed, straight-line cruising. The parts are similar, but the control method is different; it's now current-based instead of voltage-based, allowing for more precise tuning. The rack is mounted differently now as well, taking compliance out of the system to improve trailering. The lower CG also plays a part, as does the rear-suspension design.
The first non-gimmicky puddle lamp lives here.
An unnamed feature—early materials point to the awesome Super Puddle moniker—gives drivers independent control of spotlights stuck under the side mirrors. Instead of projecting a big Ford oval or some other hokey design, like the Lincoln MKC does, these are intended as actual, usable lights, and aimed to avoid disturbing neighboring campsites, cattle, or whatever you're rolling past at up to 5 mph. Ford also put a bright LED on the tailgate to illuminate late-night trailer hook-ups. Yes, we realize that sounds dirty.
Your elbows and waist can thank the lower beltline.
Another case of related consequences concerns the truck bed, side windows, and your arms. It's not clear which moved down first, but the lower beltline is tied to lower bed sides (Ford's were higher than most before) because they have to sit at the same level. That in turn put the upper part of the driver's window sill on a more comfy plane for forearms, and the lower (main) door arm rest is now at the same height as the center console.
It's filled with trucky and not-so-trucky features, with several firsts.
Trucking breakthrough: massage seats. And these can lift and drop individual buttocks, more than most luxo sedans can say. The tailgate has remote lock and release, there are lights aiming into the bed, and a nifty tie-down system accepts standardized clamps and accessories.
The tech and ergonomics were built to be used by humans.
An ergonomics guy designed menus for the high-end gauge package's eight-inch screen with help from actual truck users—not someone in front of a monitor in a dark room who's never been in a pickup. One result is the MyView shortcut screen, which lets drivers program up to seven favorite menu items. Why seven? The magic number of things people can remember is between seven and nine. I would have gone with eight. There are also additional useful menus and items, with more logical groupings.
One odd ergonomic choice: The steering wheel was designed with an extra large opening between the bottom two spokes, big enough to fit a gloved 95th-percentile hand. Fine, people drive like that, but do you have to enable their bad habits?
It'll get to know your trailer and remember it next time.
The Smart Trailer-Tow Module performs a light check every time you hook up. It also has memory, storing the brake-controller gain for up to four trailers and keeping an odometer reading for each. Takes the guesswork and record-keeping out of tracking those bearings and tires that you already know need replacement.
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The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 is for real.
If you're honest with yourself, you probably don't need more than 325 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque in a full-size truck. The new 2.7-liter twin-turbo six is surprisingly good here, with little turbo lag, lots of sound deadening ( some fakery to add noise back in), and an unobtrusive stop/start system. The lighter truck makes this possible. In fact, the base engine (a 3.5-liter N/A V6) can now be ordered in a crew-cab F-150 for the first time. We'd opt for the 2.7 for an extra $495, though, and expect most folks who don't need (or think they need) a V8 will too. Save the 3.5s for the rental counter.
Fuel economy will—surprise!—be a heap better.
Ford says between five and 20 percent better, depending on engine. Again, lightness, active upper grille shutters on all models. EcoBoost engines get independently controlled lower shutters for their intercoolers. I spent most of my time in an unloaded 2.7 and wasn't able to get the trip computer to show an average below 20 mpg. EPA certifications come in November.
Trucks and powertrains have staggered releases, with new stuff coming soon.
Ford strategically releases the new truck and then the new powertrains sometime after—it happened in 2011 after the 2009 truck showed up. The reasoning is that new powertrains need lots of testing in trucks like the ones they'll live in; Ford built 200 aluminum mockups of the new truck with old styling, which were neither cheap nor plentiful. So, aside from the new 2.7-liter, we have to wait for big powertrain changes. Pete Reyes wouldn't confirm anything, but we expect new transmissions, likely with eight speeds to match the GM and Ram trucks. "We have something new every year," Reyes says.