Ford F-150 gets major makeover for 2004
Tough, yet refined truck sets new pickup standard
By Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
SAN ANTONIO--Texans love their pickup trucks. More to the point, they love Ford pickups. Every year, the automaker sells nearly 900,000 full-size trucks in the United States -- and Texans buy more than 50,000.
There's not quite a Ford truck on every corner of every small Texas town (it just seems that way). But you can understand why the local residents do a double-take when a spanking new, two-tone 2004 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew 4x4 cruises through town.
The redesigned F-series pickup is plenty tough, as we learned in a series of trailer-towing exercises and offroad slogs in the Texas hill country outside San Antonio. But for those countless thousands of Texans and other Americans who may never tow a trailer or take their trucks off the highway, the new Ford is a truly beautiful truck.
Let me digress for a moment. As the son of a Nebraska farm kid, I was raised in a truck-loving family in rural Macomb County. Even after I got married and moved to the city, my older son drove a Ford Ranger back and forth to high school in Detroit.
The first car I ever drove was, in fact, a beat-up old red Ford pickup of uncertain vintage. I was 14 years old, and our next-door neighbor, Hank White, owned a 300-acre dairy farm. He occasionally let us kids pilot his dilapidated F-100 out in the field during haying season. I recall the truck's stark metal cabin and moth-eaten bench seat, its total lack of amenities (outside of a speedometer and a fuel gauge) and, of course, the agony of wrestling with that oversize manual gearshift lever in the floor.
By the time I got my first real automobile at age 16 -- a used 1965 Ford Fairlane with a 289 V-8 and a column-mounted three-speed manual shifter -- I felt like a seasoned pro.
In the ensuing years, I've driven many pickups of all sizes, shapes and configurations. Besides hay wagons, I've towed boats and campers, and done my share of backwoods treks in trucks of various descriptions.
As I write this, I have yet to test the all-new 2004 Nissan Titan pickup, which hopes to challenge the best of Detroit's full-size trucks this fall. But Ford furnished a broad sampling of F-150 competitors, including several versions of the Chevrolet Silverado, the Dodge Ram and the Toyota Tundra.
After several hundred miles of driving and riding over a variety of Texas terrain, my overwhelming impression is that the 2004 Ford F-150 is the best America has to offer.
It's also a darn sight prettier than the Titan, or the rest of the competition, for that matter.
Ford design boss J Mays and truck design director Pat Schiavone nailed this puppy in a clever way. The exterior design is very nearly perfect -- modern, rugged and distinctive, and a clear evolution from its best-selling predecessor, without looking like a caricature (a problem with the current Dodge Ram).
Inside, the new F-series is a dramatic and astonishing improvement over the 2003 edition in nearly every respect. American truck interiors have always been a pet peeve, and none more so than the Ford F-series cabins, which right up to the present day have been noteworthy for their crummy materials, shoddy fit and unrelentingly drab and boring appearance.
Forget all that. Just as it did a year ago when Ford redesigned the Expedition and Navigator sport-utes, the automaker took the opportunity to perform major surgery on the cockpit of the new F-series, and the result is a near-world-class interior that leaves the other guys in the dust.
It's clear that Ford spent big money to spruce up the inside of the F-150. Even the low-end XL and STX trim levels look brighter and better put-together. The mid-level XLT is classier than most of the premium trucks from the Chrysler Group's Dodge brand and General Motors Corp., while the high-end FX4 and Lariat are simply best in class.
The F-150 continues to evolve the new Ford interior design theme that began to emerge on the 2003 Expedition and Navigator, with lots of matte-finish metal and leather and even a better grade of plastic. One sore spot on the top-of-the-line Lariat is the heavy-handed application of some obviously fake wood that would look more at home on a cheap imported family sedan.
On the plus side is a new overhead powered rail system that uses snap-in modules for everything from storage bins and AC adapters to flip-down video screens and satellite radio.
The interior environment is important as more families switch from sedans, wagons, minivans and even SUVs to four-door pickups for their everyday transportation.
But let's not forget that this is still a truck, in all its many different guises. Ford offers a dizzying variety of cab, bed, driveline and body side options. You can choose from regular, SuperCab and SuperCrew cabs. Beds come in 5.5-, 6.5- and 8-foot lengths. Engine choices for the moment are 4.6- and 5.4-liter V-8s (a 4.2-liter V-6 will be added next spring), in both 4x2 and 4x4 configurations.
Because it has extensively reworked the larger of its two V-8 engines, Ford had journalists spend most of their time with the revised 5.4-liter unit, which now features three valves per cylinder for better efficiency and performance.
That's probably a good thing because the standard 4.6-liter unit is no better than middle-of-the-road against the competition. The 5.4-liter V-8, however, has been recalibrated to deliver 300 horsepower and 365 pounds-feet of torque, while returning the same fuel economy -- 15 miles per gallon in city driving, 19 on the highway -- as its smaller, less powerful sibling.
Equipped with the optional payload package, the new F- 150 SuperCab 4x2 with 8-foot bed has a maximum payload capacity of 2,700 pounds and a towing capacity of 9,500 pounds. Incidentally, curb weight for this particular configuration is a whopping 5,879 pounds -- nearly three tons.
I spent most of my time in some very nicely equipped F-150 SuperCab and SuperCrew models, in both FX4 and Lariat trim. Even the four-wheel-drive model provides surprisingly good ride comfort coupled with decent handling, although it still feels like a truck on rough pavement.
The steering feels quite responsive and well-damped, even in extreme offroad situations (like bouncing over rocks in a stream bed), and the brakes feel progressive and sure-footed.
One surprise was the quietness of the cabin, particularly at freeway speeds. Two adults can actually carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice at 70 miles an hour, which is difficult in some competitors.
I'm a bit disappointed that Ford doesn't offer a five-speed automatic or side air bags on a truck with such wide appeal and that sells in such huge volume.
Although the company hasn't announced prices yet, you can count on two things: Base models won't be priced much higher than their '03 counterparts, and the sticker on a top-of-the-line Lariat 4x4 with 5.4-liter V-8 and a few options should easily exceed $40,000.
If you're inclined to spend that much money on a pickup, at least you can take comfort in knowing that you're getting the best truck that money can buy.
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.....