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First Look: 2004 Ford F-150

Tackling the wimp factor

Todd Lassa
Jun 4, 2003
Photographers: The Manufacturer
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.
Photo 2/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 front View
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.
It's a conservative approach, like the styling of the latest models from GM and Dodge. The F-150 updates the popular Heavy Duty F-Series appearance, with circular headlights within a rectangular clear cluster cover, bold enough to look macho without alienating light-duty truck buyers who are trading in cars.
Like the outgoing model, the '04 F-150 will be available in three cab configurations, but all come with four doors. The Regular Cab features two narrow access doors, which open suicide style (only when the fronts are open). The SuperCab has two conventional-size pickup-style rear-access doors. The passenger compartment is six inches longer for each, providing 13 inches of behind-the-seat storage in the Regular Cab and seating for three in the rear of the SuperCab. Extra space allowed Ford to lean the rear seatback to a more rakish angle, so back-seat passengers won't feel like they're hunched over in a penalty box. The SuperCrew returns with two rows of seats and four full doors, again offering the comfort of a big sedan.
Photo 3/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 open Door Interior View
Since such pickups are the most un-Japanese-like vehicles you can buy in America today, it's fitting that, unlike Japanese sedans, Ford continues to offer the F-150 in an almost confusing array of configurations and trim levels.
Photo 4/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 front Interior View
Ford will also offer the F-150 with a choice of three box lengths, two box styles, and in five trim levels. All cabs will be available with 5 1/2-foot, 6 1/2-foot, or 8-foot boxes (Ford says the SuperCab/5 1/2-foot box combo is unique in the industry). Next, choose from two different box styles, Styleside or Flareside, the latter a 6 1/2-foot box featuring rubber-covered footsteps and three exterior-panel tiedown hooks on each side. Finally, the five trim levels are XL (the construction-crew stripper model), STX (a minimum level of style and comfort), XLT (the mid-level volume model), FX4 (the sporty model, available in all three cab sizes), and the Lariat, which has standard leather seats and 18-inch wheels. F-Series marketing wizards have taken to calling the Lariat "Texas luxury" (Chevy Suburbans were called "Texas Cadillacs" until Cadillac got a big SUV of its own), which seems to pay homage to the fact that our current, Texas-bred U.S. president has erased all memories of the wimp factor his father suffered. SVT Lightnings powered to take on Dodge's upcoming Viper-engine SRT-10 pickup, Harley-Davidson specials, and probably a few other new niche models also will roll out over the next few years.
Grilles and interiors help differentiate the trucks. The mainstream XLT has a black honeycomb mesh, whereas the XL, STX, and FX4 have that F-350 Tonka-like set of black horizontal bars bookcased by two vertical bars over a black honeycomb. Only the base XL has a chrome ring and bumper, the two sportier models have body-colored accents. Lariat has a chromed honeycomb surrounded in more chrome.
The interiors, including the base XL's, are impressive, making the interiors on GM, Dodge, and Toyota trucks look, well, too trucklike. All dashes have style accents on the center stack and running vertically along the HVAC vents on each edge; charcoal in XL and STX, charcoal with chrome vent rings on XLT, "warm steel," chromed rings and fake carbon fiber in the FX4 and chrome and real wood in the Lariat. Dials and switchgear appear chosen from the best of Honda and Mercedes-Benz. Seat materials, whether vinyl, cloth, or the leather standard (heated optional) in Lariat, are the best we've seen in a pickup. If you order buckets (or captain's chairs, in the case of the Lariat), the gearshift is a bold chrome-handle grip. Finally, the new F-150 is the first to feature an overhead rail system, with movable and removable compartment bins that can be configured to accommodate PDAs, cell-phones, CD changers, DVD players (back-seat passengers only), and the like. The rail system is standard on XLT, FX4, and Lariat SuperCabs and SuperCrews.
Photo 5/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 axel View
Tasty, comfy interiors mean nothing without a powertrain and chassis worthy of a best-selling truck. Unfortunately, Ford isn't ready to let anyone drive one yet. We've driven the F-250 and F-350 with the new 24-valve Triton V-8 and can report that, in a setting controlled by Ford, the engine felt smoother and stronger than the best gas V-8s in the competitions' heavy duties. Ford claims seven-percent-better low-speed torque and five-percent-better peak torque than the Triton 5.4. The new engine uses dual-equal variable intake cam timing for better response and a wider torque curve and better emissions and fuel consumption. The dual-equal system shifts intake and exhaust timing at the same time. The engine also has magnesium cam covers for noise suppression and electronic throttle control, a first in the segment. It's paired exclusively to a new 4R75E four-speed automatic. A two-speed, four-wheel-drive transfer case is optional.
The 4.6-liter Triton carries on as the standard V-8, but now also with electronic throttle control. Ford says it's refined the engine and cut its emissions. It's available only with the 4R70E automatic.
No manual gearbox? This is still a truck, right? A V-6-powered F-150 available with a stick shift will arrive in the '05 model year. In the meantime, Ford will produce the current F-150 as a fleet/loss-leader, featuring the 4.2-liter OHV V-6, concurrent with the new model, which will be built in a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly assembly plant on the site of Ford's historic Rouge facility.
Photo 6/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 engine View
If the new F-150 rides and handles as well as its components would lead us to believe, you're best off leaving the old trucks to the construction crews. The fully boxed, partially hydroformed frame is designed to make the '04 F-150 the stiffest light truck around, with twice the torsional rigidity and 50 percent more bending stiffness compared with the '03. This is connected to a sophisticated independent front suspension. The long-spindle double-wishbone front features a cast-aluminum lower control arm with an oversize cross-section, which makes for better ride and control without adding to unsprung weight. (On that unsprung weight issue, Ford has avoided the temptation to offer 20-inch wheels, like those on the Dodge Ram--only 17- and 18-inch wheels are available.) The front suspension uses coil-over shocks, and the specs are no different for two- or four-wheel drive.
In back, engineers have widened the leaf springs by half an inch, to three inches, for more lateral stiffness and easier modulation. But the major change is relocation of the rear shocks to outside of the frame. Ford says this produces better roll control and prevents head toss, while producing a huge benefit in roll damping. Rack-and-pinion steering replaces the current truck's recirculating ball.
Does this sophisticated hardware translate into the kind of ride and handling that can meet or beat the high standard set by the GMT-800s (Silverado/Sierra)? Some of Ford Motor Company's latest SUVs--the new Explorer, Expedition, and Lincoln Navigator (but not the Lincoln Aviator)--have traded ride and off-roadability in favor of sport-sedan-like handling. That's great news for a sport sedan, but not for the average big truck. The latest Explorer/Navigator share little in common with the F-150, so those SUVs probably portend nothing about the pickup's dynamics. And all this sophisticated hardware combined with five trim levels should give Ford the opportunity to inject some Mustang-like handling and ride into the FX4 and not the other variants. Still, it's a concern.
Photo 7/7   |   2004 Ford F 150 front Side View
Ford says the F-150 offers great ride, handling, comfort, and quietness, with no trade-offs. That's a serious promise for cars, let alone pickup trucks. But the '04 F-150 has much to deliver if the company wants to hold onto its sales dominance. The new truck presents a modern, refined package to a segment consisting of people graduating from cars. Ford will have to sell it, sophisticated chassis and quality interior and all, without significantly raising prices. Something will have to take a cut, and we figure it'll be Ford's bottom line. After all, the product life-cycle of a modern pickup now is nearly as short as a family sedan's, so there's not much opportunity to pay off this new design.
We'll have answers on everything but profit margin when the '04 F-150 goes on sale, just in time for the autumn new-car season. Meanwhile, we can say this: The new Ford truck has the coolest, most carlike interior in the industry, and it has a bold (if not original) exterior that'll put the wimp factor to rest. TT
{{{2004 Ford F-150}}} Super Crew
Location of final assemblyKansas City, Kan., Norfolk, Va.
Body style4-door, 5-pass
EPA size class{{{Pickup}}}
Drivetrain layoutFront engine, 4WD
AirbagsDual front, side (opt head)
Engine type{{{90}}}° V-8, cast-iron block, alum heads
Bore x stroke, in3.55 x 4.17
Displacement, ci/l330.0/5.4
Compression ratio9.8:1
Valve gear3-valve/cyl, SOHC
Fuel inductionSEFI
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm{{{300}}} @ {{{5000}}}
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm365 @ 3750
Transmission type4R75E 4-speed auto
Axle ratio4.10:1
Final-drive ratio2.87:1
Transfer-case modelNVG
Low-range ratio2.48:1
Crawl ratio (1st x axle x low range)28.9:1
Recommended fuelRegular unleaded
Wheelbase, in138.5
Length, in224.0
Width, in78.9
Height, in75.3
Track, f/r, in67.0/67.0
Total cargo-area volume, cu ft61.1
Load lift height, in28.3
Bed size LxWxD, in 67.3x50.0x22.3
Base curb weight, lb4110 (est)
Payload capacity, lb2109
Max GVWR, lb8200
Max GCWR, lb15,500
Max towing capacity, lb8300
Fuel capacity, gal24.5/30.0
Suspension, f/rIFS, upper and lower control arms, coil-over shocks, anti-roll bar/solid axle, leaf springs, anti-roll bar
Steering typeRack-and-pinion, power assist
Ratio20:1 SWB / 17:1 LWB
Brakes, f/r13.0-inch vented discs/13.7-inch vented discs
Wheels18.0 x 8.0 alloy
Tires275/65R18 All-terrain
Base price$20,000 (est)



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