2009 Ford F-150

Ford claims it sells more of its F-150 half-ton pickups to work and commercial customers than its competitors do, and Ford predicts this segment will grow to 45 percent of F-150 sales.

Toward that end, the new 2009 Ford F-150's fully boxed chassis is further fortified to provide best-in-class rigidity, payload capacity (up to 3030 pounds), and tow ratings (up to 11,300 pounds). As such, the new F-150 is well positioned to capture contractors migrating down-market out of Super-Dutys to save money and gas (did we mention that a new six-speed automatic, a lighter, more aerodynamic cab, and other tweaks boost fuel economy by 12 percent with the 5.4-liter?).

Ford claims payload and towing numbers like that simply can't be had with a coil sprung rear axle, so it stuck with leafs but made them longer to smooth the ride and wider with new mounting hardware to improve lateral rigidity and roll control. Lateral grip of 0.70 g for both Fords bested all but the feathery base Dodge and Suzuki, and our rear-drive SXT scored the best stop at 133 feet from 60 mph (the three-ton Lariat needed 144 feet).

Status-conscious contractors will have eight F-150 models from which to choose (including the forthcoming SVT Raptor), which Detroit editor Todd Lassa reckons is "about four too many," adding, "If this Lariat is the third truck from the top, how much of a boudoir must the King Ranch and Platinum interiors be?" Judges praised the low noise levels and interior materials quality, though some found the design cartoonishly macho.

Still, handy features like the Tailgate Step, Box Side Step, a stowable bed-extender, and rear seats that fold up with one hand to reveal a broad, flat load floor help tally a strong superiority score. On the negative side of the ledger is Ford's aging all-V-8-engine lineup, which is composed of two- and three-valve 4.6-liters and a three-valve 5.4. SVT will bring a bigger 6.2 in the Raptor, and an EcoBoost V-6 is likely to join the lineup for folks who don't tow, but the diesel is on hold.

The base V-8 handily outruns and outhauls the V-6 Dodge, but sounds and feels strained doing so. Gearing that's a third shorter than the Dodge's kept our 5.4L 4x4 within 0.6 second of the big Dodge, but costs it at the pump, where both trucks averaged just 13.2 mpg over 500 miles of mixed driving. The new six-speed automatic features excellent tow/haul-mode programming (ordering downshifts with a tap of the brakes on downhill grades, holding lower gears, etc.), but in normal mode, it's lethargic to kick down, and there's no way to manually select the higher gears.

Both Fords tackled our off-road sand-loop with aplomb. The 4x4 transfer case engaged high-and low-range settings quickly and easily, with the message center confirming the shift was in process. We're disappointed, however, that there's no on-pavement AWD option as offered by Dodge and General Motors.