Ford's F-150 suffers from the wimp factor. This wasn't an issue when the current model was launched for '98. By then, it had been the best-selling truck in the United States for 21 years and the best-selling vehicle of any kind for about 16. The '98 model brought a new level of dynamics and refinement to the pickup segment, reflecting the burgeoning interest in trucks by traditional car buyers.

How did the F-150 become wimpy? Ford's own F-250/350 Super Dutys followed about a year later with a beefy look that contrasted too much with its lighter sibling. General Motors introduced the '99 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra with good dynamics and refinement, but with a big, blocky grille and an overall shape that looked like the models Silverado and Sierra replaced. Dodge softened its big-rig styling last year, but the only manufacturer to copy Ford's smooth, rounded, almost delicate-looking nose was Toyota with the Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV. And while Ford has held the top sales spot, Chevy is starting to nip at its heels for the first time since the Carter administration. Combined, Chevy and GMC sales beat Ford throughout some of last year.

And so the 912,000-unit product (all F-Series) couldn't go unfed. Ford injected the pickup full of F-250/350 styling hormones, by way of last year's Mighty 350 Tonka concept. This coincided with tearing up everything under the skin. The '04 Ford F-150 has a fully boxed, partially hydroformed frame, an optional 5.4-liter/300-horse, 365 lb-ft Triton V-8, rack-and-pinion steering, and interiors that'll make Volkswagen/Audi take notice. Carlike on the inside and trucklike on the outside, the F-150 inverts the style (and styling problem) of the current pickup. On top of this are such innovations as a torsion bar at the base of the tailgate that loads up when you lower it and reverses its spring to reduce effort to raise the gate. It's a cool, simple solution aimed at attracting more traditional car buyers.

Ford adds substance to the new look with a two-inch-deeper cargo box that the automaker claims gives the F-150 greater capacity than its rivals with boxes of similar length. Ford isn't talking towing/hauling specifics yet, but promises to be competitive. It'll offer four axle ratios from 3.31:1 to 4.10:1, with all but the 3.31 available with limited-slip.

Still, the first thing that'll sell you on a truck is how it looks. The F-150 is a less-cartoonish version of the Tonka concept. It has a stronger, more upright nose and windshield than the '98-'03 F-150, emphasized in the black-grille FX4 version. Sheetmetal creases along the belt and shoulder lines, mimicking the Heavy Duty's, give the profile a distinctive presence. The lower window-line angles in a slant down to the A-pillar, also like the big truck. Even the blue-oval badges have been widened, from seven inches on the grille and five inches on the tailgate to nine inches front and back.