2004 Ford F-150 Supercab XLT

    January 2005 Towdown

    Christian HazelPhotographer, Writer

    The Ford F-150 has been the most popular truck in America for a bazillion years, so when Ford revamped its flagship pickup for 2004, we were quite interested in the results. Along with a more angular, squarish look comes a coilover front IFS suspension, large four-wheel disc brakes and a very torquey three-valve-per-cylinder 5.4L engine. Add to all this the 3/4-ton-ish Ford Sterling 9.75-inch rear axle that Ford 1/2-tons have enjoyed for years, and it seems a foregone conclusion that you should stab a trailer behind the rear bumper and hammer down. So we did.

    The truck Ford sent us for our testing was a 4x4 SuperCab with the upscale XLT trim package, 5.4L engine, heavy-duty four-speed auto and freeway-friendly 3.55 gears. Higher tow ratings and better pulling power could be realized by checking the box for the optional 3.73 or even 4.10 gears, but we have to work with what the manufacturers give us.

    Load Carrying
    With the 5.4L engine, trailer tow package, 3.55 gears and 144.5-inch wheelbase, our F-150 tester was rated for a maximum 8,300-pound trailer. Ditching the 4x4 option, selecting 3.73 gears and squeezing into a standard cab will let you tow 9,900 pounds. Our test truck had the 6.5-foot bed, which is a good compromise between cargo capacity and overall vehicle length compared to the available 5.5-foot and 8.0-foot beds. Our tester didn't come with a bedliner, but there were tie-down cleats on the inside of the bed.

    Inside, our truck had the 40-20-40 split bench seat with a fold-down console in the middle seatback. There is lots of room inside for CD cases, sunglasses and all your other sundries. There are also four cupholders for the front passengers to fight over and an optional DVD housing that can slide front to back on a roof-mounted track. Ours was empty (no DVD player), so we put Cheetos and other snackies inside. The rear seating area should be considered a penalty box for all but small children and little people traveling to and from the carnival. Also, when the rear seats are folded up for cargo carrying, part of the metal frame remains on the floor. There's no tray that drops down or any other way to get a flat surface to lay bulky stuff on, so unless you're carrying lots of little stuff, your big items had better be able to ride in the bed.

    On The Highway
    The F-150 rides nice loaded or unload-ed, but the longer wheelbase suffers badly from what we refer to as freeway oscillation, induced when the tires fall into the troughs and crests of concrete freeway seams at the same time. It's like riding a horse on a pogo stick. This is minimized, however, when a trailer with some tongue weight is on the rear.

    Power-wise, you appreciate the 300 hp on tap from the three-valve 5.4L as you pull down onramps or try to pass with a trailer. Lots of velvety-smooth acceleration is available with the tap of the throttle. The power delivery is very linear. You never feel a great surge of acceleration, but a quick look at the speedometer will usually tell you you're moving quicker than you think you are.

    The four-speed transmission is one of the best of any vehicle we've tested. There's no Tow/Haul button and we never found ourselves wanting one. The tranny always seemed to know exactly what to do to keep our truck-and-trailer combo rolling. It downshifted exactly when we wanted it to and held the lower gear for passing or climbing exactly until we wanted it to. It's like it was hooked to our brain, which is funny because unlike some magazine writers we know, we're not robots.

    Hills And Mountains
    If we liked the 5.4L's 300 hp on the freeway, we loved its 365 lb-ft in the mountains. Even with the weenie 3.55 gears, we could lug our 5,500-pound trailer up steep mountain grades without spinning the engine past 3,000 rpm, even at elevations above 9,000 feet. Like on the freeway, the smart tranny proved itself, letting us give the engine 11/42-throttle, more or less, before kicking down to a lower gear. There are few things worse when towing than having an engine and tranny combo that needs to constantly upshift and downshift to get your junk to the trailhead.

    Another nicety was the stability and smooth steering on tight, twisty mountain roads. Whether going up or down, we never felt our trailer pushing or experienced any understeer. It's a balanced package that inspires confidence, but that can also get you into a little trouble, as we'll mention in the braking section.

    Descending big mountains, we were pleased to find some compression braking afforded by dropping the column shifter from "D" to "3". Granted, there wasn't a whole lot of compression braking on tap, but in a sea of vehicles that lately have offered zero, even moderate holding power was a welcome luxury.

    The brakes on the F-150 are big and powerful. They grab well, but they're hampered by an ABS system that doesn't really seem to work correctly. More than once while coming down twisty mountain roads or trying to avoid dumbasses in town that always seem to pull right in front of a moving trailer, we got into an emergency situation where we needed to jack on the brakes hard. Doing so caused the rear tires to lock up in short bursts that were violent enough to loudly squeal the tires and break traction. Then the rear of the vehicle would fishtail and get squirrely. This isn't the thing you want happening when you have more than 2 tons of trailer and Jeep strapped to the back of your rig.

    Once you're rolling, there's no trouble pointing the F-150 where you want it to go. It handles well, steers comfortably and is so civilized you hardly feel like you're driving a truck. However, like most other Fords we've driven, our tester seemed to suffer from a rather large turning radius.

    The F-150 doesn't turn that tight, so pulling into some parking spots or backing a trailer into a tight place may require a backup or two. Also, although the side mirrors are nice and large and afford a big field of view, the bed is very deep and the tailgate towers above the visibility line of most trailers, so if you can't use your side mirrors to back your trailer, you're hosed.

    Bottom Line
    Well-balanced workhorse that won't complain at the end of the day.

    The Vehicle
    2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab XLT 4x4
    Engine: SOHC, three-valve per cylinder 5.4L V-8
    Horsepower: 300 hp at 5,000 rpm
    Torque: 365 lb-ft at 3,750 rpm
    Transmission: 4R75E four-speed automatic overdrive
    Transfer Case: Borg-Warner 4406 two-speed
    Axles: IFS with upper and lower A-arms and coilovers in front, Ford 9.75 semifloat Sterling rear and leaf springs in rear, 3.55 gears
    Tires: P255/70-17
    Brakes: 13.0-inch front, 13.7-inch rear, four-wheel ABS
    Curb Weight: 5,244 lbs
    GVWR: 7,200 lbs
    Payload: 1,650 lbs
    GTWR: 8,300 lbs
    GCWR: 14,000 lbs
    Average Towing Mileage: 10.4 mpg
    Price As Tested: $37,585

    Towing Performance
    Here are our impressions on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being Losertown and 5 being the best.
    Overall Power: 4
    Stability: 3 (Hindered by brakes)
    Ride Quality: 3
    Brakes: 2
    Transmission: 5
    Turning: 3
    Hillclimb: 4
    Hill Descent: 3 (Hindered by brakes)
    Interior Comfort: 3

    Our Recommendations:
    * Ditch the ABS and install a rear proportioning valve.
    * Add 4.10 or even 4.56 gears for massive towing grunt and quick acceleration.
    * Add drop-in plastic bedliner for heavy hauling.

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