2015 Ford F-150 Driving Impressions

This latest Ford F-150 is tacit confirmation that Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus automobiles who focused on making things as light as possible, was on to something. Previously among the heaviest in the half-ton class, the F-150 is now among the lightest. And it shows in the way it drives, at least without a full load, and EPA ratings.

F-150 has a solid feel and controlled ride; conversation is easy at freeway speeds. Trucks with big holes in the side like the SuperCab tend to have lots of squeaks and rattles but none were evident here, even with just two opposing wheels on the ground. There's little to no flex in the frame either, as those same twisting trails never made the bed move relative the cab in the mirrors.

Our drives were in trucks rated to carry about 1500 pounds, with about 600 pounds of people and messenger bags on board. They rode and stopped well, and went where directed by electric-assist steering. The steering is a bit dull on center, typical of these systems that will compensate for cross-winds and road crown to minimize fatigue, but returned to center well after a corner, added some effort with cornering loads and never lost assist in heavy maneuvering as old hydraulic systems did.

In very brief unladen comparisons, the F-150 felt lighter and more nimble than the Chevrolet Silverado and Sierra did. The F-150 felt lighter than the Ram, but the agility difference wasn't as marked, perhaps because of Ram's coil or air-sprung rear axle and lighter steering feel. At no point did we think any truck not completely under control, nor wonder how many pickup drivers race their trucks through autocross courses.

Maximum payloads are higher than those of the competition, with one F-150 configuration capable of carrying 3,300 pounds. That's typically 3/4-ton stuff, and we'd certainly keep that in mind if we ever get a chance to carry two-thirds of the truck's weight in a single-rear wheel pickup like the F-150.

Top tow rating is 12,200 pounds, eclipsing GM's best by 1.6 percent. Like many pickups, the top tow rating F-150 comes with one engine, the top cargo-carrying truck comes with a different engine. These V8 and turbo 3.5 engines are the ones Ford expects to do the heavy lifting, and one reason they come with a foot operated parking brake. Specific tow ratings are yet to be announced.

We found a mid-length F-150 V8 had no power issues briefly pulling a trailer labeled 10,000 pounds, and it made generous traditional V8 sounds doing it while averaging 7.7 mpg per trip computer. It was competent, though were we going farther we'd have put another link on the weight-distribution bars. Any towing package and integrated trailer brake controller option is worth getting; even if you don't have a trailer, one of your friends does.

Both the Ram and Silverado/Sierra offer more powerful engines, the F-150's weight advantage less an issue dealing with totals in the 16,000-17,000 pound range. Unless it was a twice-a-year move or emergency towing, we'd not choose any half-ton for towing 12,000 pounds. We'd go Super Duty, or one of the other heavy-duty pickups, for that. We'd also recommend carefully checking headlight aim to avoid blinding oncoming traffic, something Ram's optional air suspension takes care of automatically.

Since the F-150 weighs less than competitors unloaded, the engines have been downsized. The base 3.5-liter V6 makes 283 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, at 6500 and 4000 rpm respectively. Ram's 3.6 V6 is 305/269, while GM's 4.3 V6 favors torque that trucks like, with 285 hp and 305 lb-ft at lower revs. Ford's 3.5 is fine for running around, but will require lots of revs whenever you work it. Using Ford's assertion that torque gets the job done, and our preference for lower-revving truck engines, GM's is our choice for entry-level engines.

The new F-150 engine is a smaller, 2.7-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6. It is rated for 325 hp at 5750 rpm and 375 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm, likely compared to GM's 5.3-liter V8 (355 hp, 383 lb-ft), Ram's 3.0-liter V6 diesel (240, 420) and Toyota's 4.6-liter V8 (310, 327). It comes with auto start/stop smoother than many, to save fuel at traffic lights and drive-throughs. If you don't see the auto-stop message you may notice the oil pressure gauge drop a few seconds later, obviously not a very accurate representation of actual oil pressure. If left idling, most of the engines will shut themselves off after half an hour.

In a 5600-pound package the 2.7 is more than capable, delivering V8-like power at lower-than-normal V6 revs and noise. At full throttle it shifted from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd at 6200 rpm, in the tachometer's red zone, not into third gear until well past 70 mph. It cruises at highway speeds between 1500 and 1800 rpm and will tackle most moderate climbs downshifting no more than one gear. On the trail you may notice less downhill engine braking than a 3.5 and it doesn't have quite the idle creeping power, but power builds very predictable and progressively when throttle is applied. Top tow rating for the 2.7 is 8500 pounds; we had no opportunity to tow with it.

With auto start/stop worth one EPA City mpg and two sets of grille shutters the 2.7 is aimed at being the fuel economy leader. EPA ratings are yet to come, but we're anticipating 19-20 city and 26-27 highway, best in class except for Ram's diesel. We averaged 18 mpg with the 5600-pound truck/occupants over rolling highways at 35-70 mph, and posted a highway leg of almost 23 mpg.

Two things must be kept in mind for fuel economy. One, your driving habits will have a far bigger effect than anything the truck does. Two, a lighter truck needs less power to move it but if you use those 325 hp available you are going to use more gasoline. Long-term evaluations have put the 365-hp 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 mileage within one mpg of Ford's 360-hp 5-liter V8 and slightly behind a 395-hp Ram 5.7 V8 in similarly configured trucks.

The next step up and standard on many larger F-150 is the 5-liter V8. Ratings are up by 25 hp and a few lb-ft from last year to 385/387, the sound authoritative, and throttle response crisp to better spin the tires free of mud buildup. Output falls between GM's 5.3 and 6.2, a bit less than Ram's 5.7 or Tundra's 5.7, and more power but similar torque to a 5.6 Titan.

Top power and optional on virtually any F-150 is the 3.5 twin-turbo V6 EcoBoost. At 365 hp and 420 lb-ft, it has Ram diesel torque and almost Hemi horsepower, but can't quite match GM's 420-hp, 460 lb-ft 6.2. There is potential for more as the 3.5 in a Lincoln Navigator, which weighs more but tows less, is rated 380/460.

Every engine comes with a 6-speed automatic with tow/haul mode and works as it should; economy programming meant we often used Sport mode for undulating roads to keep gear-changing to a minimum. In most the top gears can be manually locked out in D using the thumb switch, and in M the selected gear is held even at full throttle unless the truck slows below idle speed or stops.

Axle ratios vary by engine and trim, but don't reach the 4.10:1 offered in Navigator. The most performance oriented ratios, which don't lower real-world economy much in the city, are offered only on heavy load or towing packages. You can't combine an off-road package with shorter axle ratios handy in four-wheel drive. A lockable rear differential is offered in 2 and 4WD; it automatically unlocks at more than 20 mph and re-locks below 20mph as long as it's switched on.

A rear camera is offered on most, all-around cameras available on most upper trims. With those all you need to watch out for backing in somewhere are low-lying tree branches that might not be in camera view. The new parking assist feature will help find an adequate space and parallel park a F-150 requiring the driver only to
brake and shift. But use caution if you're spatially challenged as the same F-150 will not get you out of the parking spot.

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