The new frame is boxed and partially hydroformed, features seven crossmembers, and is reportedly nine times stronger than the previous F-150's. Attached to the front rails is what resembles a scaled-up Honda Accord's long-spindle double wishbone, with a beefy, aluminum lower A-arm and an easily serviced coil-on-shock unit. In the rear is a live axle, located by extra-wide leaf springs and damped by shocks mounted outside the frame. This unusual shock setup enhances body-motion damping and reduces roll.

During skidpad maneuvers and high-speed lane changes, the truck carves pavement neatly and cleanly via a new heavy-duty power rack-and-pinion steering unit, which replaces the old recirculating-ball system. Besides being more responsive, it feels lighter. Also inspiring driving confidence is the all-new braking arrangement consisting of large, vented four-wheel discs with standard electronic ABS. Pedal feel is excellent and, despite high ambient (95 degrees F) temperatures and repeated high-speed stops, the brakes displayed zero fade.

A workhorse needs horses. There are two engines: a new SOHC 24-valve--that's correct, three valves per cylinder--Triton 5.4-liter V-8 and a smaller SOHC 16-valve 4.6-liter/231-horsepower V-8. The 5.4 serves up 300 horses--a 15-percent improvement over last year--and 365 lb-ft of torque. Its new head design uses two intake valves and one exhaust valve, as in a Mercedes. Other 5.4-motor advances include variable valve timing, with 50 degrees of adjustment range, and electronic throttle control. Ford claims five-percent-lower fuel consumption and a broader torque peak.

The new engines are powerful, yet quiet; even the idle quality is superb. Both are mated exclusively to four-speed automatics. Despite even higher torque outputs, these trannies exhibited smoother, more well-managed shifts and less noise than we've come to expect from Ford trucks.

If you want a V-6 engine and manual gearbox, Ford will continue to offer the current pickup--dubbed Heritage--alongside the new model, for several months, as the company's many F-Series plants change over to new production tooling during 2004.

On the off-road course, we sampled the electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case; a manual system will also be offered. The former moves easily in and out of four-wheel high and low modes without drama or sticking, and it turns the polished new pickup into a veritable mountain goat on the grades.