After seven years of exceptional sales with the current F-150 truck platform, Ford put the soft-shouldered look to bed and completely redesigned its best selling pickup. The '04 F-150's tough new appearance is a welcome change, and it also has the numbers in its corner to back up this new image. This is great news for off-road enthusiasts because the aftermarket industry thoroughly embraced the current F-150 pickup design, resulting in a ton of upgraded suspension, drivetrain, and styling packages, making it a good bet the new truck will enjoy the same upgrades.
With the redesign comes a range of models and trim levels that should appeal to most every truck buyer. The '04 F-150 offers three cab choices: Regular Cab, a single row of occupant seating and rearward-swinging access doors that reveal a behind-seat stowage area as big as 13 inches wide; SuperCab, a two-door extended-cab version featuring a second row of seating accessed by two rearward-swinging doors; and SuperCrew, a crew cab that features two rows of seating and four forward-swinging fullsize doors. In addition, the '04 F-150 has three box lengths and two box styles to choose from. An 8-foot, 6-1/2-foot, and 5-1/2-foot box are offered in two different box styles: Styleside and Flareside.
In recognition that truck owners spend more time than ever before in their vehicles, both for work and personal use, Ford says it wanted to design the new F-150 interior to be comfortable and versatile with a high level of style, fit, and finish. We think on the whole Ford has achieved its design goals. We have only been in the engineering models, though, so we'll wait until we test a production model before making a judgment on the quality of the work. However, from a design and ergonomic view, the new F-150 impresses with pleasing form and function.
The designers took a modular approach to the F-150 instrument panel. The vertical bands allow the use of different colors, textures, and materials to customize the look of the instrument panel, an approach used on all models, including the base version. It also created three different instrument cluster designs that combine with other elements to give each series a distinctive look and feel. One of our favorites, the FX4 cluster, brings a sense of classic aviation to the interior, while the Lariat features chrome-ringed gauges that match other chrome interior elements, including the door handles that you could find in an upscale luxury sedan.
The new F-150 interior also marks a significant styling change by introducing a flow-through center console. This arrangement gives buyers the option of two captain's chairs with a floor shifter on the FX4 and Lariat models. The floor shifter, an innovation on the new F-150, is a sophisticated design with high-end finishing details. We like the idea of having a floor shifter for off-road driving, too. Vehicles equipped with a 40/20/40 split-front-bench seat have a different instrument panel center stack optimized for middle passenger legroom.
With mobile electronics and entertainment systems increasingly competing for interior space, the new Ford's modular overhead rail system - the first we've seen in a production vehicle - allows owners to customize interior storage options to suit their individual needs. It is standard equipment on the XLT, FX4, Lariat SuperCab, and SuperCrew models.
The brushed aluminum rail system is integrated into the headliner and extends from behind the rearview mirror to behind the second row of seats. The forward end of the rail features a dome light console and a large storage bin module and features an integral power supply, which allows owners to easily snap in additional modules such as first aid kits, toolboxes, flashlights, and two-way radio holders as they become available from Ford or the aftermarket. Already available on the XLT, FX4, and Lariat SuperCrew is an optional rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
While it's difficult to objectively choose an aspect of the '04 F-150 that is most significant, in our opinion the new three-valve version of the 5.4L Triton V-8 tops the list. The new F-150 offers two engine choices: the 5.4L, three-valve Triton V-8 and the 4.6L Triton V-8.
The all-new 5.4L three-valve Triton V-8 engine has three valves per cylinder, variable cam timing, and several technologies that increase power. The new engine delivers 300 hp at 5,000 rpm and 365 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. One of the key technologies of this engine is the all-new aluminum cylinder head with two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder and an improved cast-iron block balance. This yields impressive power with better fuel efficiency and quieter operation.
The new engine will also be Ford's first modular V-8 to use variable cam timing. The variable cam timing technology allows Ford engineers to optimize intake and exhaust valve timing across the engine speed range. And according to Ford, it's the industry's first mass application of "dual equal-variable cam timing," which shifts the intake and exhaust valve timing together.
The variable camshaft timing technology allows the valve timing to be tuned to provide performance that is optimized for specific engine speed and load. In combination with precise control of spark timing, fuel injection, and use of electrically controlled Charge Motion Control Valves in the intake runners, the new three-valve 5.4L engine has an exceptionally wide powerband, especially in the low end, where you need it for towing and heavy hauling.
Even with a three-valve head, the new engine is said to weigh about the same as the two-valve engine it replaces. Credit the all-aluminum heads, single overhead camshafts, magnesium camshaft covers, and a clean-sheet design approach. The three-valve head is dimensionally smaller than the two-valve design for the 5.4L engine, while offering more rigidity and strength.
Ford is also touting a variation of electronic throttle control on the 5.4L and 4.6L engines. Ford is calling it "a torque-based electronic throttle control that uses driver input from the accelerator pedal to actively modulate the torque at the drive wheels." The system derives from technology first used in fighter aircraft to filter out pilot-induced oscillation, but in this application it removes small variations in throttle input to increase fuel mileage.
Backing the 5.4L three-valve Triton V-8 is a new 4R75E four-speed automatic transmission. The new trans is an updated version of the 4R70E used on the current F-150 that can handle the torque of the 5.4L engine. It also takes advantage of patented upgrades to the 4R70E.
The 4.6L Triton V-8 has two valves per cylinder and a cast-iron block and achieves 231 hp at 4,750 rpm and an impressive 293 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Ninety percent of this torque is available at 2,000 rpm for strong towing performance and solid acceleration while hauling heavy loads. It uses an upgraded version of Ford's 4R70E four-speed automatic transmission, which has improved shifting controls for smoother performance.
Four different axle ratios are available, the most appealing being the 4.10:1 cog. All of the new gearing options, with the exception of the freeway-friendly 3.31:1 gears, can be had with a limited slip differential for increased traction in dirt.
Ford is promising a significant improvement in ride and handling on the new F-150. It is touting the stiff frame, new suspension bushings, lightweight suspension components, wide leaf springs, and outboard-mounted rear shocks, as well as other tuning, to make the new Effie the best riding and handling truck on the market. We haven't been in one yet, but on paper it looks very promising.
The new chassis design is based upon fully boxed framerails, rather than the traditional C-rail design, and Ford says that it's nine times stiffer in torsion and about 50 percent stiffer in bending than the current platform. The attachment points for all the front suspension and engine mounts reside on hydroformed frame sections, which should reduce shake and shudder in rough terrain due to their increased rigidity. We like the strength of this new design, and with a minimal 'cage, the new F-150 should be a very stout and stable off-road vehicle.
For example, increasing the front track to 67 inches, 1.6 inches wider than the current F-150, should improve stability and handling. Additional improvements come with a reduced scrub radius on the front suspension to increase stability while braking, reduce tire wear, and enhance handling and steering precision.
Both 4x2 and 4x4 models use a new coilover shock, long-spindle double wishbone front suspension with a cast-aluminum lower control arm. As far as we know this is the first use of cast aluminum on a pickup control arm. By reducing unsprung weight, the aluminum lower control arm should provide better ride and stability on choppy, broken surfaces.
Ford says mounting the shock absorber inside the coil spring is a packaging solution that allows four-wheel-drive models to use coil springs, permitting more precise suspension tuning and commonality across the lineup. In addition, the shock absorber has been moved closer to the wheel, providing increased mechanical advantage approximately 25 percent. This allows using less aggressive shock valve settings to promote good ride quality while retaining excellent road feel and control.
The '04 F-150's suspension uses a unique bushing to enhance ride and handling. They are soft in response to road impacts but stiff for cornering capability, with ride tuning and handling tuning optimized independently. For example, the ratio of lateral to longitudinal response of the aft lower control arm bushings is 29 to 1, which, according to Ford, betters many performance sedans.
Yet another example of Ford's attention to tuning detail is the use of a new gripping bushing to mount the front stabilizer bar. This design keeps the bushing compressed against the stabilizer bar, allowing the bushings to twist with it. The design is said to give more linear loading for crisper steering response, yet it maintains relatively low bushing rates for a smooth ride. The stabilizer bar ends use ball joints instead of rubber bushings, which further reduces compliance in the stabilizer bar system, providing improved response.
Ford engineers optimized the F-150's Hotchkiss-design rear suspension by placing the rear shock absorbers outboard of the framerails. This has the same effect as the placement of the front shocks closer to the wheels. The shocks' positions maximize their results by reducing body lean during cornering and transitions, such as lane changes, as well as reducing the rear axle's tendency to skip and skate on washboard-type surfaces.
The new Ford should also be more stable in crosswinds and towing with a 1.5-inch wider rear track and wider leaf springs. The rear leaf springs, in addition to supporting the vehicle and its cargo, also serve to locate the axle side-to-side and front-to-rear. They are also 3 inches wider for less lateral motion during cornering and considerably better towing stability and controllability.
Rack-And-Pinion Power SteeringWith all this advanced suspension technology applied to the new F-150, we'd have been very surprised to find recirculating-ball steering on the truck. As it stands, the engineers said they had to use rack-and-pinion steering to achieve their targets for on-center feel, steering response, and precision. The engineering team says that it is the largest, strongest, and most rugged ever used by Ford. It is considerablystiffer than the recirculating-ball system used on the current F-150, and it has less operating friction.
Ford is claiming the new steering system contributes to accurate steering response and better driver feedback to make the new F-150's drive experience spirited and confidence-inspiring. It also claims the new F-150's steering system makes for a relatively tight 46-foot turning circle on SuperCab models with the 6-1/2-foot cargo box, which beats comparably equipped competitors. We'll have to wait for a test drive to validate those claims.
When it comes to brakes, pickups can always use more, and we are happy to report the new Ford has what appears to be a very robust new brake system design. The new standard four-wheel disc brakes are larger and are said to provide better feel. That assertion should bear out in testing because the new brakes feature larger and thicker rotors as well as larger and stiffer calipers that are 60 percent stiffer, according to Ford. Four-wheel anti-lock control (ABS) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD) are standard.
The '04 F-150's new brakes also incorporate high-performance brake pads, and the Ford engineers spent time tuning the suspension to promote effective and controlled braking. For example, the front suspension is tuned to provide a small amount of toe-in under braking to counteract most of the natural toe-out motion, resulting in minimal geometry change during braking. The reduced scrub radius of the new Ford's front suspension should also contribute to improve braking distances and control. Scrub radius is the distance between the tire patch center and the steering pivot, and reducing the scrub radius reduces leverage on the steering pivot applied by road forces. The new F-150's scrub radius is only 15 millimeters compared to 50 millimeters of the current F-150. No braking distance data was given for the new truck, but on paper it seems to us that it'll stop straight, quick, and sure.
The Bottom Line
After spending considerable time sorting through the press information and bench-racing with the staff, the overall impression of Ford's new F-150 is admiration and respect. The truck's design excels in all areas and will without a doubt raise the expectations of buyers in the fullsize pickup segment. The new look is strong and appealing and the interior is refined and has a near-luxury coupe feel to it, altough it retains the functional utility you expect from a a great pickup. Its new three-valve, 5.4L Triton engine produces power both at the low end, where it matters most when operating in the dirt, and the high end of the rev range. This new engine addresses the current engine's lack of top-end power, which should contribute a good deal toward a more thrilling off-road driving experience. Combine the engine'spower with a state-of-the-art suspension and braking and the F-150 performance envelope should be hard to beat. We can't wait to test it.