It’s tempting to imagine Mom hauling apple pie by the gross load in the bed of that full-sized pickup truck she’s buying. But, chances are, like most of her countrymen, Mother won’t fill her big rig to capacity or anywhere close. So sue her. Americans, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out, love pickup trucks. They top the sales charts most years, whether we need them or not, and when gas is cheap, look out. Their ruggedness and heft place crumbling infrastructure worries further down your list of front-line concerns. Plus when you actually do need something to haul or tow, there’s not much to better them.
The other day, for instance. It was 23 degrees outside, the winter-pocked roads were covered with slush and salt and I needed to drag – I couldn’t drive it; I wouldn’t drive it -- a 1963 MGB roadster to eastern Pennsylvania from New York. There in the sleepy town of Perkasie, the long-lived Ragtops & Roadsters operation – sited in an old brick factory that used to make major league baseballs for Dudley (later Spalding) – will be installing a rebuilt, manual overdrive transmission I bought for my ‘B’ four years ago. Also on the agenda: fixing the factory hardtop I’d meant to install before driving a 1936 Riley into it as it lay summering against a garage wall a few years back, breaking the top’s glass, rear screen into a million tiny pieces. In short, I needed a pickup with a tow hitch and the oats to get the job done. What better way to try Ford’s new F-150, a pickup that incidentally doubles as the most significant entry into the competitive field in modern memory?
Pickups are big business. Most years, the F-150 is America’s best selling vehicle. In 2014, for instance, a comparatively slow one for trucks, Ford sold over three-quarters of a million examples of their pickup in the U.S., and this year, with gas cheaper than ever, they could sell more. All eyes are on the F-150, though, because not only has it been redesigned for 2015, it’s also being built for the first time with an all-aluminum body, a first in the pickup field as well as in the high-volume car market. The goal was saving weight– an average of 700 lbs., per car, says Ford -- in the name of enhanced fuel efficiency. Aluminum, which doesn’t rust like steel, weighs less. But it could also well end up changing the national landscape in other ways. We’re all used to seeing old steel pickups rusting into the ground; it’s the universal display of Americana on farms and fields across the land. Thanks to the preternatural lifespan of the new material Ford pick'emups are now composed of, we wonder, will aluminum F-150s dot the landscape, the way classic 50s, 60s, and 70s pickups do today, but in 2415? 3015? We ought to be told.
The material may be new. And the jury is still out as to whether body men, insurance companies and owners of serious work vehicles will really cotton to more-costly-to-repair and replace light alloy. But the F-150’s new look is comfortably familiar, in the sense that it is more aggressive than ever, which has been the trend in truck styling for the entire 21st century. Indeed, with door tops cut down at the belt line for better outward visibility, the new Ford pickup can look positively like a military war bird from some angles, kind of like an F-18 fighter. And at the same time its high, bluff and massive grille causes the F-150 to come across as belligerent as Dick Cheney after a three-martini lunch on a day when his moon is in the wrong house and Act Up demonstrators are noisily crashing his high-paid speaking event.
Huge electrically controlled running boards drop down quickly when a door is opened to make ingress and egress into this 4x4 Tower of Power easy. Once inside, there’s nothing Spartan or particularly truck-like about it, except that everything is sized XXL, including radio knobs that could double as wheels for Soapbox Derby entrants. So much for My Ford Touch, FoMoCo’s widely criticized infotainment interface that has gone the way of the dodo. Luxury and tech gadgetry one does not want for, though it helps to know that the Ford press office has sent a very loaded, leather-lined SuperCrew (four-door) Platinum Edition truck our way, with the optional FX-4 off-road package. With five basic trim levels -- XL, XLT, Titanium, King Ranch and Platinum -- Ford will happily help you run all your F-150 all the way from less than $27,000 for a base two-door up all the way up to, well... . The Platinum I’m driving stickers for more than $54,000 but an endless list of options catapults its sticker price to almost $62,000. And you could keep on going. As my Car Talk colleague Doug Mayer observed, “You gotta really overbill some home owners to get in that package.”
Still, if that were the only problem, I might be recommending the F-150 unequivocally. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?
My issues are three. First, it rides a little rough – not as bad as trucks in the days of yore when Ford’s non-independent “Twin I-Beam” front suspension rode about as cushily as solid steel I-beams sound. But the new truck is not up to the standard set by FCA’s new Ram pickups with their independent rear suspensions, which are a revelation in this class of vehicle; they hardly beat you up at all. Hardly, because at the end of the day they all remain two and a half ton pickup trucks which makes them all compromised cars.
With its optional Eco-Boost, twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 engine and four-wheel drive, our loaded F-150 has the power (365-horsepower, 420 lb ft of torque) and traction I needed to pull 3,500 lbs. of puny sports car and U-Haul trailer one hundred and fifty miles. Of that I was sure.
But what it didn’t have-- and second on my list of complaints -- -- was fuel economy. We’ve talked about Ford’s eco-boasting before, and sadly it appears Dearborn has not got back to the straight and narrow yet. With its new, lighter, truck and 3.5-liter V6 engine, Ford reports a self-certified 23 mpg EPA highway mileage, which sounds good enough. Except for the life of me I couldn’t coax 15 mpg out of it, driving over 400 miles, most of it on highways, at an average of 13.7 mpg. With the trailer attached, that figure fell to 13.2 mpg, which seemed a small additional penalty to pay, but overall pretty unimpressive for a truck that claims to be specifically engineered to save fuel.
In spite of it, I could really like this truck. Except for my final concern and most serious reservation. The F-150 revealed a worrisome side early on, a spooky habit that saw its nicely weighted, if artificial-feeling steering suddenly going all light – or limp – in my hands. It loaded up in a corner, as you’d expect, and you’d be holding it in place, then just like that the effort fell off and the wheel felt disconnected, squirrelly. To be honest, I don’t know if I was being subjected to actual danger or if it just felt like it. But real hazard or not, if it feels subjectively to the driver like he’s in a dangerous situation, it might as well be a dangerous situation, as correction and over-correction will inevitably ensue. To paraphrase Republican congressmen speaking on the subject of global warming, I’m no automotive engineer and not even a qualified mechanic, but my guess is there’s something not right about Ford’s new, electrical power steering system, because it appears to randomly add and subtract boost in a way that positively scares in corners, especially at highway speeds when you’re towing, which is not good.
So a promising new truck, then. Kind of expensive, plenty thirsty, and needs some remedial intervention. In the meanwhile, here’s hoping Ma doesn’t spill the pies.