It’s been said that it defines us. It’s the best-selling vehicle in America, and it has been for decades. It’s big. You can put a bunch of stuff in it. It fills you with a sense of power and well-being and a sort of gargantuan, soothing American-ness.
You could most certainly be in Kansas when driving it. You could most certainly not be in Paris.
It’s the F-150 full-size pickup truck, and it has been made by the Ford Motor Company, in one form or another, since 1948.
Ford has two sets of wheels that are so critical to its destiny that to mess with them is to challenge a cheerful future in which the sun continues to rise and set, the globe reliably spins, and the customer keeps on buying.
One is the Mustang.
The other is the F-150.
Ford did recently mess with the F-150, redesigning it and re-engineering its manufacture to use more lightweight aluminium. Longtime customers and auto industry observers looked on with a mixture of awe and horror. Why would they do it? And what would happen if they screwed up?
In fact, for a brief period in 2014, it looked as if Ford had miscalculated. There wasn’t enough F-150 supply to satisfy demand, as the car maker revamped its assembly lines.
A strategic decision
In any case, the first question is easy to answer. Several years ago, Ford looked at a world in which gas prices were rising and government regulations on fuel efficiency were becoming more demanding. Then it looked at its balance sheet, a hefty portion of which is supported by F-150 sales. And the Wise Men and Women of Dearborn concluded that the Greatest Pickup In All The Land needed to shed weight.
The second question was answered when I had the chance to spend a week with the new truck earlier this year.
I’m not sure that Ford improved the F-150. But it 100% didn’t screw it up.
The new F-150 is very much a FULL-SIZE truck. It fills its space and fills it with an undeniable swagger, in its way more impressive than a Cadillac Escalade or a Lincoln Navigator — the large-and-in-charge American SUV-o-saurs. My test truck came with a SuperCrew cab, and that backseat actually felt far roomier than the second row in either the Escalade or Navigator, both of which my family of five spent time with last year.
Plus, a big old pickup truck is a lot like a choo-choo train: It thrills children while bringing out the child in the man.
Or woman. My wife, born and raised in New York City before a decade in Southern California rescued her from a life lived without freeways, has become quite a truck gal. This was preordained: She always said she wanted to have a soulful rusty-bucket pickup to roll around in, up and down some canyon road to a ranch with a view of beach. She mind-melded with the F-150, as she has with the other pickups I’ve brought home.
The kids liked it, too, save for one small oversight on Ford’s behalf, which was as we’ll see understandably strategic.
Well, most of the kids liked it, most of the time. When I started playing country music on SiriusXM satellite radio, my 12-year-old daughter, now heavy into bands like Panic! At The Disco, was not pleased. I won’t repeat what she said. It wouldn’t go over well in Nashville.
The F-150 we sampled came in at about $US52,000, with a nice suite of options (Heated seats!), a black interior and a deep red exterior, four-wheel-drive, and a 3.5-litre engine, turbocharged to deliver 365 horsepower and 23-mpg combined highway/city.
Scale matters in a vehicle like this. In the cabin, floating high above the roadway, there are parts of this thing that are large enough to make items that would otherwise clutter the interior completely disappear. Just look at what this compartment between the seats can do!
What’s does this giant armrest conceal?
I could hide an entire Jack Russell Terrier in there!
Also, the F-150 obviously has a big, empty truck bed in back, just yearning to be filled.
This setup is emblematic of why the F-150 is such a staunch best seller. A good-sized American family can sit encased in relative comfort, whether motoring about town, trapped in traffic, or transiting freeway distances. There are charge ports and plugs everywhere, so that devices remained all juiced up. The sound system is terrific. The ride, while truck-like to be sure, isn’t unpleasant.
And then there’s the bed, referred to in the business as the “box,” which can be loaded with furniture, bikes, sporting goods, small boats, surfboards, steamer trucks, dirt, rocks, lumber, logs, bricks, paving stones, a pony, camping equipment, a large sculpture of a bear carved from a tree, a gas generator, bundles of rebar, sand, sod, two grandfather clocks, a wine cellar, enough food to keep a Boy Scout troop on the march for a week, all the rakes and mowers and blowers you need to run a prosperous landscaping business, a couple of dogs, or a rescued dolphin being returned to the open ocean. And that’s without making use of the F-150’s considerable capacity to tow things.
It’s a vehicle that can do it all.
We didn’t use it to do that much, although we did help a relative move some furniture and household items.
Its performance, once I got used to manoeuvring it in and around the streets of Manhattan, was admirable. The turbocharged V6 engine served up good acceleration and smooth cruising on the highway. The rumble of a big V8 wasn’t present, but you won’t miss it, nor will you miss getting 21-mpg combined with only about 20 more horsepower. You will, after all, have the capacity to tow more than 7,000 pounds. (And if you must have a V8, you can get one.)
Still Ford tough
There was concern that the new aluminium F-150 wouldn’t feel tough enough, but that’s nowhere in evidence, even as the truck has dropped 700 pounds of bulk.
There was also concern that the revamped pickup wouldn’t feel solid on the road. But if anything, it comes off as more nimble and fun to drive, even though the steering errs on the loose side and the back end will tend to skitter a bit over bumps and through chug holes. The doors thunk when closed. The tailgate is a sturdy slab that comes with a retractable step. The front end is a great matte-black wall of pickup-truckness, proudly adorned with a large Ford blue oval.
There’s really just one nit to pick: The aforementioned strategic call made by Ford.
Ford took the aluminium plunge. It now has a lighter truck that’s just as good as the dozen generations that preceded the current F-150, which were forged from molten flows of smoking steel and could repel wayward asteroids while charging angry dragons carrying platoons of Marines armed with enormous, swivelling lightsabers.
General Motors, meanwhile, installed 4G LTE connectivity in all its vehicles, turning its Silverado and Sierra pickups in rolling wifi hotspots. GM’s trucks are still built with steel, but young passengers can tap the Wi-Fi to play Minecraft until their eyes bleed.
Different choices. But I’m here to tell you that to use a pickup as a true family car is to hotly desire that Wi-Fi feature.
The F-150 will get something similar, soon enough.
So for now, we can say without question that Ford has proven something.
It has proven that it can take a huge, if logical, risk and pull it off. It has proven that it knows what it’s doing when it builds a pickup truck. It has proven that it lacks fear — that bravery can still hold win the day in the automaking citadels of Motown.
We really shouldn’t be surprised. If you mess with monumental success, you simply must succeed.