Technology is always on a relentless forward march, and it’s not uncommon for new technologies to be met with skepticism or hostility by traditionalists. And few other markets are more traditional than fullsize trucks. As soon as Ford announced the 10-speed automatic transmission for the 2017 F-150 3.5L EcoBoost, we almost immediately heard the grumblings of “it’ll be too busy,” “It’ll be a nightmare to work on,” “It won’t hold up to towing,” and so forth. While long-term real-world reliability remains to be seen, Ford subjects all of its products, and its trucks specifically, to extremely rigorous testing. Considering the F-150 is the crown jewel of the Ford lineup and its most successful product, we doubt they’d launch it without full confidence in its reliability. And as far as the driving experience, prepare to be surprised. All of our expectations were exceeded behind the wheel. There are some real, tangible benefits to the 10-speed in real world use.
In terms of the transmission, essentially everything. The 10-speed transmission is not an evolution of last year’s six speed but rather a clean-sheet design. The transmission was codeveloped with General Motors and a version of it is used in the 650hp 2017 Camaro ZL1. However, software and calibration is unique to each manufacturer. The overall ratio spread is wider than the outgoing six-speed, with three overdrive ratios and shorter lower gears for a more confident launch. The transmission is the first from Ford not to have any cast-iron components. The transmission extensively utilizes high-strength steel, aluminum, and where appropriate, composites. An integrated torque converter/turbine clutch saves 2 pounds. The overall package size and weight of the transmission is very close to the outgoing six-speed.
One of the concerns we initially had going into it was the subjective driving experience. Would the transmission be constantly hunting for the right ratio, making for an unpleasant experience behind the wheel? While that certainly could have been an outcome with that many ratios, the superb software and control calibration on the transmission makes the number of ratios almost transparent. The transmission can kick down multiple gears non-sequentially. Meaning it can go from 9 or 10 to 5 or 6 if the situation warrants. Engineers claim the transmission can skip as many as six ratios in a kickdown. Under wide-open throttle acceleration from a stop, the transmission goes sequentially through the ratios. Although it obviously shifts more frequently than a six-speed transmission, the experience is not jarring or off-putting. It simply shuffles quickly through the gears, providing strong, seamless acceleration. Thankfully, the calibration is smart enough to know when it’s towing or hauling and will hold the right gear as long as necessary. When towing a 9,900-pound trailer, the truck got up to speed and held third gear up the hill, providing the optimum ratio for the job at hand.
Under the Hood
The other big news for 2017 is an extensively updated 3.5L EcoBoost V-6. Other than the bore and stroke, nearly every other area of the engine is updated, including a new aluminum block casting. On the top end, the former bucket tappet valvetrain has been replaced with roller finger followers for reduced friction and improved NVH. The new 3.5L EcoBoost also employs a new dual port/direct injection system for improved emissions. The turbochargers are also new for 2017. These changes result in a net gain of 10 hp and more significantly, 50 lb-ft of torque, for a total of 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque, the highest torque output of any current 1/2-ton pickup, including V-8s and diesels. Combined with the added ratios of the 10-speed make for a strong, capable, confident combination well suited to the use of a 1/2-ton truck. The other major update is the addition of automatic stop-start to the 3.5L EcoBoost for 2017. As with the 2.7L and other applications, the operation is very smooth and quick, feeling much like a hybrid. The system is defeatable via a dash-mounted button for the traditionalists that like to burn gas at stoplights.
Sales of the EcoBoost F-150 since its launch have more than silenced the doubters, comprising more than 60 percent of sales. Although the 10-speed is only officially offered with the 3.5L EcoBoost for 2017, Ford representatives strongly inferred it would be offered more extensively within the F-150 lineup in the future. After having experienced it ourselves, we see that as a positive development. We’ll soon have another opportunity to experience it in a slightly different configuration with the 2017 F-150 Raptor. We can’t wait.