Ford Motor Co. turned 100 years old in mid-June, just as its marketers and engineers began showing off their new 2004 F-150 to hundreds of dealers and press reporters. Executives are proud of the firm's truck heritage, which goes back about eight decades, and are betting that this new series will help ensure another century of life.
Based on what other reporters and I saw and drove during an elaborate intro, in and near San Antonio, Texas, I'd say Ford's got a winner. You and other customers will decide if the F-150 will remain the leader in full-size pickup sales, as it has been for 26 years.
You'll hear a lot about the gussied-up, personal-use versions of the new 150. These are the XLT, FX4 and Lariat, whose trim packages ascend from pretty nice to absolutely posh. But what you see here is the basic F-150 XL, plus a glimpse of the STX, a sort of lower-middle-class model with nicer adornments inside and out. These are what fleets and no-nonsense tradesmen will buy for use where they and their trucks have to work for a living.
XL and STX come in Regular Cab or SuperCab versions, while the sedan-like SuperCrew is reserved for the three higher trim levels. Cabs were strengthened and the nose designed to better withstand frontal and side impacts, and air-bag deployment has been better tuned. Engineers say the government has given it its best five-star rating in crash tests.
Pictured is the Regular Cab with its pair of short rear-swinging doors for easy access to a storage area behind the seats. Cabs have been stretched 6 inches, so there's room to stow stuff back there. Maybe they should call it the "Add Cab."
Most carrying, of course, is in a pickup's bed, and you have your choice of 8-, 6.5- or 5.5-foot lengths. Most work-truck buyers will want the 8-footer, but they all have wide loading areas and four low-mounted tie-down points.
Sides were raised 2 inches so their tops match the line of the window sills. It looks neat, but the higher sides make it a little harder to lift things over, or for shorter people to reach the bed's floor. All beds have clever "tailgate assist" torsion-bar hinges that take up some of the gate's weight and ease the chore of raising it, especially single-handedly.
The F-150's frame consists of box-section rails with stout crossmembers welded into pass-throughs so the members connect with both vertical walls. These are among the details that make the frame nine times stiffer and 50 percent stronger than on the current series, engineers told us.
Frame rails taper inward toward the rear to make room for outboard-mounted shock absorbers. The shocks are outside the leaf springs and close to the rear axle's ends to better control rebound during travel over uneven pavement and rough terrain. Spring leafs are 3 inches wide, versus 2.5 inches on the current series, for greater strength and stability.
When the truck's empty, the stiffer frame refuses to flex, making the springs do their work. The ride therefore is supposed to be smoother, and was with longer-wheelbase versions, but not so much with a short-wheelbase model I drove. The comparisons were with a current '03 F-150 SuperCab.
The older F-150 jounced a little on anything but smooth pavement. And on curves with rippled asphalt it hopped a bit, moving slightly toward the outside of the curve. The '04s didn't hop, so the outboard-mounted shocks were working as advertised. But the shorter-wheelbase '04 still vibrated slightly on straight but uneven pavement.
The stouter frame also enhances load-carrying capacity. With an optional Payload Package, the F-150's gross vehicle weight rating is as high as 8,200 pounds. And it will tow as much as 9,500 pounds. We did some towing of 7,000-pound van trailers with several types of F-150 chassis. These included regular and FX4 4×4 setups. The regular 4×4 swayed a bit, while the FX4's stiffer springs and shocks proved very stable.
Until the towing experience, I was underwhelmed with the allegedly increased power of a redesigned 5.4-liter (330-cubic-inch) Triton V-8. Maybe in the empty pickups the engine was just too quiet to impress. Then I pulled out with a heavy trailer into the path of a fast-approaching line of traffic, and had to get on the gas. The truck moved!
The 5.4 has several technology tricks (see picture) and makes as much as 300 horsepower and 365 pounds-feet of torque. The base engine is the two-valve 4.6-liter V-8, rated at 231 hp/293 lbs.-ft. The 4.2-liter V-6 is not offered in the new F-150. Executives didn't talk about it, but Ford has dropped plans for a V-6 diesel based on the Power Stroke V-8, which International Truck and Engine had been developing. International is suing.????
From the pictures you can see that exterior styling in all the '04 F-150s is now more like the popular SuperDuty pickups. The '04 styling corrects the "softening of the product" in '97, which cost Ford some sales, said Patrick Schiavone, design director on the '04. It should appeal to people "who want more truck-like looks."
Considerable work was done on the '04 interiors. Sit in a basic F-150 XL and you'll see that it's no "stripper." Seats are nicely upholstered and bolstered at the sides and front. XL has a split bench in cloth or thick Vinyl, and the STX can be had with the bench or optional captain's chairs. The XL comes only with roll-up windows and non-powered mirrors.
The dash includes a speedometer and engine-condition gauges, but no tachometer. There still are no numbers in the gauges for oil pressure, coolant temperature and alternator voltage, only "normal" ranges, as Ford's done it at least since the 1970s. "Why do you need numbers?" asked Gene Brown, Ford's truck marketing manager. So if something goes wrong, you know how wrong, I said. General Motors and Dodge gauges have numbers, but any gauges are better than idiot lights.
The pictured XL is a 4×4 with a lever shifter for the transfer case. This manual system allows on-the-fly changes between high-range two- and four-wheel drive; you have to stop and slip the transmission into Neutral to go into and out of 4-low, accompanied by some gear clashing. Other F-150s had the optional electrically activated system, with a rotary switch on the dash; it shifted the TC smoothly, and never missed.
We spent some time off-roading with various 4×4 trucks, running up and down steep embankments, along a shallow riverbed, and through frame-twisting ditches. The Fords proved sure-footed and even comfortable under sometimes-harsh conditions. As with the towing exercise, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota pickups were there for comparison, and each was good in its own way. Ford believes its F-150 is better, and you can be the judge.
The intro team made much of the new vehicle's quietness, and it is. But so is the current model, a copy of which each of us drove before exposure to the new trucks. The current F-150, along with its older series 5.4 V-8 and 4.2 V-6 engines, will continue in production for another year. It'll be dubbed the "Classic" to sell at a lower price alongside the new F-150.
Will it be a true classic, as is the original F1 of 1948? Will the new '04 F-150 attain that status? Time will tell, but there's little doubt that it'll sell very well.