Gas ‘n’ Go with F-150 EcoBoost

By Tom Berg, Truck Editor | August 3, 2011

Aside from Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, which brought four-wheel mobility to the masses in the early 20th century, the pioneering industrialist’s greatest acclaim came in 1932, when he fathered the flathead V-8 engine. It offered performance in low-priced cars and trucks, and began a long line of V-8 products from Ford Motor Co.

“The V-8 is in our DNA,” an engineer remarked a few years ago in explaining why the cylinder configuration in the latest Ford PowerStroke diesel for the SuperDuty pickups also has eight cylinders in a Vee configuration.

Yet a turbocharged V-6 is now the premium engine in Ford’s best-selling F-150 pickup truck, a vehicle that’s almost synonymous with V-8. Isn’t this sacrilege? No, because the company’s automobile products now are all powered by V-6s and Inline-4s. Gasoline is pricey and smaller engines with fewer cylinders use less of it. 

The EconoBoost gasoline V-6 in our test truck is an adaptation of the 3.5-liter engine in the latest Taurus and other models. It’s double-turbocharged, actually, and has direct fuel injection and variable valve timing to maximize performance and efficiency. It has all the power that any sane driver could use—365 horses and 420 lbs.-ft. of torque—so it can easily haul and tow heavy loads. You wanna go? Car and Driver magazine says it’ll do zero to 60 mph in an “astounding” 6.1 seconds.

I did no acceleration runs, but I can say that it’s more than a ton of fun to drive because of the turbo’s compressor action. It’s a euphoric boot in the butt and back, a sort of floating sensation that a naturally aspirated gasoline engine completely lacks. There’s no “turbo lag,” which old turbos were guilty of; power is right there, all the time your foot presses the pedal.

There’s no whistling, either—not even a faint whispering that might be satisfying to the customer who paid extra to get them with this engine. And the turbos are on the back of the block, hidden under plastic shrouding and the cab’s cowl. What a shame. But that position lets them gather the exhaust gas’s force which they convert to propulsion energy that belies the engine’s limited displacement. The 6-speed SelectShift automatic transmission worked so smoothly that I could barely discern any ratio changes.

The high-tech features of this engine cost about $750 over the simpler 5-liter V-8 that’s standard in this series, according to the window sticker. Bottom line on that is a likewise astounding $42,660. To be sure, this was a fancy-schmantzy truck, seemingly more suited to city slickering than charging through muck far from pavement. But it’ll do well off-road because of its tall stance and solid-gripping 4x4 system. A rotary switch on the dash has settings for 2-Hi, 4-Hi and 4-Lo, and things click into place down in the transfer case and the front-wheel hubs as easy as can be.

Alas, I had no time to try any of that, but can testify that the truck is truly tall. The cab’s floor is about a quarter-inch shy of 2 feet off the ground. I’m vertically challenged at 5 feet 8 inches with stubby legs, and getting into the cab was daunting. There were no running boards, so I couldn’t just step in, and pulling myself in while gripping the steering wheel got old fast. Ford used to put a grab handle on the A-pillar for the driver, but this truck had none, and I complained about it to anyone who’d listen.

One was my stepson, Mike Chase, who is a long-legged 5-11 and had no trouble climbing in. He has an ’04 F-150 XLT SuperCrew, which provided a good comparison for this shiny new ’11-model machine. His truck has a 5.4-liter V-8, which has good power but not like the EcoBoost. It also uses far more fuel: The readout in his instrument panel often says 13 to 14 mpg, while the EcoBoost V-6 was getting more like 15 and 16. He sees 17 on the highway, and the new V-6 is rated at 21.

It used more gas while pulling his speed boat, which with its trailer weighs about 3,600 pounds. The new truck’s instruments included a graph whose bars rose and fell and changed colors in response to power produced and fuel used. The bars stayed green while the truck was unladen, but went black with the boat on back.

Mike loves his truck for its driveability and versatility, but this new F-150 is clearly more roomy and comfortable. The cab structures appear identical, but he noticed that the 2011’s dashboard is several inches shallower, and those extra inches are spread between the front and rear areas. Back-seat passengers, especially, have more leg room than in his ’04. Windshield glass on the new truck is also closer to someone with a rag, so it can be cleaned more easily.

A $2,950 FX Luxury Package included everything from power-adjustable pedals and a power-sliding rear window to heated, leather trimmed seats. A back-up camera under the blue Ford oval in the tail gate sends color images to the center rear-view mirror—better than putting ’em on the screen in the dash, which has other functions. The camera is complemented by a backup alarm that beeps faster as you get close to colliding with something behind you. Open the tail gate, though, and the camera faces straight down and provides a nice view of the pavement, grass or dirt.

The radio—dare I call it just that?—played AM and FM bands and had a six-CD changer plus MP3-playing capability. I cared about stuff like that when I was young, but now I appreciate peace and quiet, and this truck has that for sure. It motors down the road almost silently and Mike and I could barely hear the idling engine while standing alongside. With its fancy interior it seemed too nice for real work, but many guys will buy it like this for hauling the family, then throw in tools and supplies and go to work.

Because it’s based on an automobile engine, you have to wonder how the hot V-6 will hold up to real, sustained work. Ford says the truck-spec EcoBoost has strengthened internal parts, especially in its lower end—crankshaft, bearings and the like. Engineers have beat the blazes out of the engine in lab and road tests, and raced it in the mostly off-road Baja 1,000 in Mexico. The company says it’s a tough engine that deserves confidence.

Eventually those turbos will need work, and that won’t be cheap. And plushness and a fun-to-drive factor is usually not part of a business decision. That’s why there are less costly versions of the F-150 that are more suited to commercial use. And there are three other engines—a non-turbo’d V-6 and two V-8s, including a hefty 6.2-liter version—to choose from. But the EcoBoost V-6 is so intriguing and capable that it’s worth considering.