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North America :Ford confident in new and improved F-150

By John McCormick / Autos Insider

SAN ANTONIO -- Down here near the future home of a Toyota truck plant, Ford Motor Co. is drawing a line in the sand with its new F-150 pickup.

Bigger, more powerful and better equipped than its predecessor, the 2004 F-150 is Ford's way of telling Toyota, Nissan and other full-size pickup market invaders that further encroachment is most unwelcome.

Even though Toyota is trying to spoil the party, there could scarcely be a more appropriate venue for the F-series launch than Texas. The state is far and away the largest pickup market in the nation, accounting for 90,000 plus F-150 sales annually. Ford's next largest market is California, with 51,000 units per year.

Though Jim Padilla, president of Ford North America, does not underestimate the threat from Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., he is not running scared. The Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan full-size pickups are "decent but unremarkable," he says. The Japanese contenders do a fair job of matching the outgoing F-150, but they do not compare to the new version. What buyers want above all, argues Padilla, is more space, comfort and capability.

"The days when two doors and an interior that could be hosed out were all people needed in a pickup are long gone," he says. "Now people want more and will pay for it."

According to Padilla, the 2004 F-150 is one of 65 new products coming from Ford, Lincoln and Mercury over the next five years. But with a goal of maintaining Ford's 21-year record as America's best selling vehicle, with average annual sales of more than 800,000 units, the new F-150 is the product that will keep the lights on at Ford.

Padilla dismisses criticism that the latest F-150, which offers five versions compared to its predecessor's two variants, will be overly complex to manufacture. Proper management of the the three plants where the truck will be built -- in Norfolk, Va; Kansas City, Mo.; and Dearborn -- along with Ford's new flexible manufacturing system, will overcome the issue.

A key aspect of the new F-150, says chief engineer Frank Davis, is its increased frame stiffness. That allows for more refined and quieter ride and handling characteristics, as well as class-leading payload and towing ratings.

Design-wise, the exterior is wider, longer and much beefier-looking than its predecessor. But even more significant is the remade interior, where materials and finish take the pick-up firmly into car territory.

"Feedback from owners asked for an interior that was not so spartan-looking," says Tom Gorman, Ford division general sales manager. So three different cab configurations are offered, all with rear seats and four doors, a variety current competing models cannot match.

The base engine is an improved version of the existing 4.6-liter Triton V-8 with 231 horsepower, but most models are available with a new 5.4-liter, 3-valve per cylinder Triton that delivers 300 horsepower.

Two features the F-150 does not offer are the fuel-saving engine system called "displacement on demand" and rear-wheel steering, which improves maneuverability. Both are available (or coming) to General Motors Corp.'s pickup trucks. Davis contends, however, that in real-world usage, pickup truck drivers will rarely make use of displacement on demand, which cuts out four cylinders when the vehicle is cruising. As for rear-wheel steering, it is proving too expensive for most customers, Davis says.

From Padilla down, Ford executives involved in the F-150 appears confident the truck has what it takes to continue to rule over its rivals.

"Customers are loyal," says Gorman, "if you give them consistently good product."

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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