When we gathered a diverse crop of contenders for the '97 Motor Trend Truck of the Year award, we found the field ripe with fresh pickups, sport/utilities, and full-size vans, each approaching the market with its own distinct offerings. In the face of truly formidable competition, the all-new Ford F-150 stood out as the most significant truck, making a giant, evolutionary leap forward in mainstream pickup design, bolstering its work abilities with people-friendly attributes that result in a highly desirable truck for the money.

An unbeatable combination of smooth, efficient powertrains, strong towing abilities, commendable ride compliance and handling, and marvelous cabin packaging earned the F-150 the honored distinction of Motor Trend's '97 Truck of the Year. With three examples on hand for the big photo shoot and Motor Trend Television videography, the staff became so enamored with the SuperCab Lariat that we secured the mighty maroon truck for a year-long evaluation.

With an astronomical number of possible configurations available from V-6-powered Flareside standard cab truck to full-bore V-8-powered SuperCab 4x4, there is no shortage of F-Series choices. Our pick was a third-door-equipped, two-wheel-drive SuperCab in Lariat trim. Starting with a $23,110 base price, we opted for the 5.4-liter/235-horsepower SOHC Triton V-8 for an extra $555. Replacing the standard 4.6-liter, the larger-displacement engine boasts a modest 15-horsepower gain, but torque touts a 40-pound-foot improvement for a 330-pound-foot total.

To encourage staff sedan stalwarts to transition from the Lexus ES 300 and other posh four-doors in our custody to the long-term F-150, we ordered Preferred Equipment Package 508A featuring leather upholstery, Lariat trim, air conditioning, six-way power driver's seat, tilt steering wheel, and electronic speed control. Further civilizing the demure work beast, we added a four-speed automatic transmission ($970), six-disc CD changer ($400), and remote keyless entry ($255). Functional 3.55:1 limited-slip axle ($250) and protective bedliner ($201) round out the list. Factoring California emissions, destination and delivery, and package discounts, th e dressed-to-impress F-150 stickered at $26,551.

Surveyed owners paid a fair amount less than our pre-negotiated total, averaging $24,170 for their SuperCab trucks. Interestingly, only a mere 3.4 percent leased, indicating that buyers were investing in an extended ownership. Typically, the key influence in new vehicle purchase considerations among survey respondents is the styling, but with the F-150, it was the industry-first third-door that had consumers reaching for their checkbook. The controversial exterior ranked as a distant second for purchase influence, followed by prior Ford experience, comfort, and quality. That the leading purchase motivations didn't include traditional truck attributes such as power, payload capacity, and tow ability, speaks volumes about the modern, mainstream truck buyers who value convenience and comfort in their daily driver.

Laudable suspension compliance contributes to the F-150's refined character. The front twin-I-beam setup of old has been replaced by a short-and-long arm assembly. Combined with careful suspension tuning, the front A-arm and rear leaf spring arrangement delivers a pleasantly supple ride without sacrificing essential truck toughness. Owners agreed, as half the surveys featured such comments as, "It rides like a car but works like a truck" and "The ride quality is the best of any truck, two- or four-wheel drive, that I have ever experienced. Ford did its homework!"

Beyond subjective impressions, the F-150 proves that it can raise the benchmark without compromises by averaging 56.7 mph through our 600-foot slalom course despite a lengthy 138.5-inch wheelbase. Circling the skidpad at 0.71 g puts the massive Ford at the front of the truck and minivan pack. It is no wonder then that 94.7 percent of survey respondents rated handling above average.

Unlike the acceleration-addicted MT staff, the majority of surveyed owners bought trucks fitted with the 4.6-liter/220-horsepower SOHC V-8. For them, the half-second disadvantage in the 0-60-mph dash was outweighed by thriftier fuel economy and lower upfront investment. While 83.8 percent rated acceleration above average, the most commonly cited weaknesses remain fuel consumption and lack of power. The 15.1-mpg survey average trails our 15.4 mpg with the larger, thirstier 5.4-liter. (This is a rare occurrence that may tarnish the staff's reputation as mutants possessing heavy right feet.) For light-duty users to whom gas mileage is more of a concern than towing capacity, the excellent available 4.2-liter/205-horsepower V-6 has proven to have nearly the same unladen acceleration as the small eight-cylinder, making it a solid alternative to a traditional V-8. Needless to say, the brisk 8.3-second 0-60-mph time from our two-ton, 5.4-liter truck failed to elicit a complaint from the editors. One early logbook entry says, "My kids think this thing rocks, and I agree."

As the only pickup in our fleet, the SuperCab earned its keep pulling a variety of trailers ranging from simple two-wheel utility types, to dual-axle car carriers and boat haulers. With an 8000-pound tow capacity, the F-150 handled its workhorse chores without complaint, pulling heavy loads up mountainous grades with commendable strength. Recreation-hungry owners exploited the F-150's talents to perform a variety of grueling tasks, and complaints were virtually non-existent. A typically pleased Texas owner wrote, "It rides good, handles well, has plenty of power, and when I tow a trailer, it still handles great." Midyear, we increased the pickup's functionality by installing a SnugTop Top Gun shell on the 8-foot bed. Instantly, the F-150 was transformed into a sporty Expedition wannabe, with the security of a lockable cargo bed. Leaving stuff in the back more often, one editor observed, "It would be great if the keyless entry system tied in with the tailgate lock."

Open the third door, fold the rear bench flat, and a wonderfully useful cargo shelf is exposed with a protective surface on the seatback. Three people can be accommodated with reasonable comfort in the rear, though two passengers would be preferable. Of surveyed owners, nearly 75 percent rated the rear bench as providing above-average comfort. In daily living, it elevated the pickup to a true passenger car replacement, making it possible for families even with dogs to travel together, especially with the remarkable ease of ingress/egress. An Army mom wrote, "The third door is great. I have a 14-month-old girl, and the car seat fits in the middle of the rear bench really well, plus she sits high enough to see out." A logbook entry from a staff parent expresses thanks to Ford for including a passenger-side airbag shut-off switch, allowing small children to ride up front, rather than automatically being relegated to the rear.

With a full complement of power equipment, our long-term F-150 was downright luxurious and satisfying. Owners agreed, with 95.1 percent rating overall comfort above average. A mildly bolstered leather bench offers comfortable perches for three up front, though our staff would have preferred more contouring and support. Its slippery cowhide surface proved resistant to an onslaught of diverse potentially staining elements. A large, fold-down armrest in the center featuring a storage compartment and cupholder was constantly deployed in our long-termer. The clean, flowing dash is as inviting as a sedan's, with logically placed controls and intuitive, ergonomic design. The optional CD changer was positioned behind the driver's seat, making it nearly impossible to reach while the vehicle was in motion, though with six discs in the magazine, this wasn't much of an issue.

We accumulated nearly 25,000 miles on the F-150 during its tenure at Motor Trend, making the user-friendly Ford earn its keep day in and day out. Regular servicings and a steady diet of fuel were all that was needed to keep the pickup running in prime condition. The only glitch in an otherwise perfect record was an annoying accessory belt squeal, perhaps attributable to the grime-flinging Truck of the Year photo shoot. This was painlessly solved by our dealer, as was a power steering pump noise.

After 12 hard months, the F-150 still looks and feels great, virtually none the worse for wear (excepting tires). Even with our traveling-salesman-like mileage, the "Kelley Blue Book" wholesale and retail prices remain high at $19,525 and $24,345, respectively. Given the respectable equity retention, this would suggest attractive lease deals would be available. But at the end of our formal loan period, we can understand why so many survey respondents choose to purchase-who'd want to part with such a valued friend? Certainly not us, which is why we acquired the truck and now welcome it as a member of our permanent vehicle fleet (watch for future aftermarket upgrades to it in our "Truck Trends" department).

Owners were equally pleased, as evidenced by surveys returned overflowing with gushing praise. A professional truck driver from Florida wrote, "I really love my F-150. Everyone always tells me how good it looks. It rides like a Town Car, handles like a Mustang GT, and is the best vehicle I have ever owned." With a great ride, smooth powertrains, outstanding versatility, and carlike creature comforts, the F-150 truly is a truck for all occasions.

We upgraded the standard 4.6-liter/220-horsepower SOHC V-8 to a 5.4-liter/235-horsepower engine for $550, gaining 40 pound-feet in the deal for a total of 330.

A modern, flowing dash with well-designed controls at easy reach marks a decisive step forward in truck interiors. Details like passenger-airbag shutoff, third door, and flat-folding rear bench add significantly to the truck's value and versatility.

Daring styling didn't pay off for the Taurus, but the curvy look has delivered in spades for the F-150, as stellar sales attest. However, survey owners rated the third door over styling for inspiring their purchase.

Our staff appreciated the convenience of bed security offered by the aftermarket SnugTop cap, though it does compromise rearward visibility.

Although our long-term F-150 racked up lots of commuting miles, we frequently exploited its work talents by pulling a variety of trailers, including Editor-at-Large John Pearley Huffman's street-machine Camaro.

CONSUMER CHECKLIST
Yes No Opt.
Integrated child seats o o o
Roadside assistance o o o
Security system o o o
Anti-lock brakes o o o
Cupholders 4
Power outlets 2
Warranty 3 years/36,000 miles

MT Thumbs Up: Invaluable third door Smooth, compliant rideTruck-tough reliability

MT Thumbs Down: Love-it-or-hate-it stylingAverage fuel economy

OWNERS' VITAL STATISTICS
Surveyed group,
percentage M/F 91.6/8.4
Average age of owner 50.9
Average purchase price $24,170
Average monthly payment $432
Average total mileage 15,529
Average fuel economy, mpg 15.1
Percentage buy/lease 96.6/3.4
Average vehicles per household 3.4

OWNERS’ PURCHASE
CONSIDERATIONS
What influenced you
to consider an F-150?
Third door 85.4%
Looks/style 76.2
Prior Ford experience 64.0
Comfort 62.8
Quality 57.9
Prior F-150 experience 57.5
I would buy another Ford 96.9%
I would recommend the F-150 96.5%

OWNERS' REPORTED
STRENGTHS/WEAKNESSES
MECHANICAL PROBLEMS
None 72.7%
TYPES OF PROBLEMS
Transmission 4.7%
Brakes 3.5
Steering shaft 2.7
Check engine light 1.6
Vibrations 1.6
Air conditioner 1.6

SPECIFIC LIKES
Style 43.8%
Third door 32.3
Comfort 26.5
Handling 20.4
Ride 19.9
Power 10.2

SPECIFIC DISLIKES
Fuel economy 17.0%
Lack of power 8.0
Brakes 6.1
Tires 5.3

OWNER’S AFTERMARKET MODIFICATIONS
Made aftermarket mods 46.9%
Type of modification:
Running boards 32.3%
Bug deflector 21.2
Bed liner 19.5
Box cap 15.3
Tonneau cover 14.4
Bigger tires 9.3
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