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First Drive: 2004 Ford F-150

Best-seller, reloaded

Jack Keebler
Aug 6, 2003
Lizards scatter across burning yellow sand, as our convoy of '04 F-150 prototypes hammers through the desert. We're inside the fenced and guarded confines of Ford's Kingman, Arizona, Proving Ground, and, as heat waves wrinkle this rocky moonscape, these hardworking test mules are 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.

For now, the F-150 stands atop the last significant domestic-dominated product segment: full-size pickups. But can the iconic Ford stay there, against fiercely competitive players like Ram and Silverado/Sierra? Furthermore, can it handle the upcoming Nissan Titan and, eventually, a true full-size truck from Toyota?
Photo 2/4   |   Ford worked hard to raise the pickup interior ante, and the effort has paid off. The designs are dramatic, there's a wide variety of materials used, and quality improves substantially.
Alongside a shrinking, profit-poor car market, Ford sold more than 800,000 F-Series pickups last year. Any time an automaker remakes its best-seller, it's a risky proposition. Dearborn hopes to fortify its market position by creating a new F-150 with a stiffened frame, increased power, more refined steering and ride, upgraded interior design and equipment choices, improved quality, and a bolder edge on its appearance.
Many F-150 critics--translation: Ram 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 sideglass, a higher nose and beltline, and crisper radii on all the bends. This tougher, planted look is reinforced by wider front and rear tracks.
Photo 3/4   |   No more park-bench rear seating; the Crew Cab rear seat is nicely contoured and features flip-down armrest.
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.
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.
Photo 4/4   |   The revised 5.4-liter Triton V-8's SOHC, three-valve heads provide added breathing, help increase horsepower to 300. The frame is structurally stiffer and mounts uprated hardware such as rack-and-pinion steering and rear disc brakes. (Click image to enlarge.)
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.
Our proving-ground foray gave us a good overall read on Ford's all-important new truck. Based on this first experience, we believe the '04 F-150 has the potential, smarts, and good behavior required to stay at the head of this multimillion-unit sales class. It's great looking, has more power (though still not as much as the competition), offers many innovative details, and resets the meter at an altogether higher level in terms of light-duty-truck interior design and execution. Full road test coming up.
{{{2004 Ford F-150}}} Crew Cab
Base price$35,000 (est)
Price as tested$37,500 (est)
Vehicle layoutFront engine, 4wd, 4-door, 5-pass truck
Engine{{{90}}}* V-8, cast-iron blk/ aluminum heads, SOHC, 3valves/cyl
Displacement, ci/cc330.1 / 5409
Max horsepower @ rpm{{{300}}} @ {{{5000}}}
Max torque @ rpm365 @ 3750
Transmission4-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb5590
0-60 mph, sec8.0 (est)
EPA mpg, city/hwy14/17 (est)
On sale in U.S.October 2003



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