We recently watched lizards scattering across burning yellow sand as our convoy of '04 F-150 prototypes hammered through the desert. We were inside the fenced and guarded confines of Ford's Kingman, Arizona, Proving Ground, and, as the heat waves wrinkled across the rocky moonscape, these hardworking test mules were intent on proving that America's number-one-selling pickup (for 26 years) hasn't lost any off-road toughness or work-hard capability--though it rides, handles, and runs more like a sedan.

Many F-150 critics (translation: Ram and Silverado owners) feel the drooping nose and soft overall shape make the current truck look wimpy. So Ford Design put the starch and creases back in with upright side glass, a higher nose and beltline, and crisper lines on all the bends. This tougher, planted look is reinforced by wider front and rear tracks.

The new F-150 comes in five trim flavors: XL (base), STX (sporty), XLT (family), FX4 (off-road), and Lariat (premium). Choose from Styleside and Flareside bed types. Ford will offer regular, SuperCab, and SuperCrew cabs and three bed lengths: 5.5, 6.5, and 8 feet. The new cabs are six inches longer for more storage or rear-seat legroom, and all the beds are two inches deeper. Even the regular cab has four doors; these narrow back doors allow easy access to storage.

One of the most exciting elements of the F-150's design brief is an upgraded interior look and specification. These range across the trim lines from base, hose-it-out XL to leather-lined Lariat. The Lariat and FX4 are the most impressive, with metal-trimmed gauges and bright door handles and levers that recall the look of premium Euro sedans. For the first time, interiors will vary by model; not just in color or seat material, but with differing instrument panel, console, and seating layouts. For example, some automatic-trans-equipped versions will have column shifters, while others will be floor-mounted.