Ford flexes its truck muscles with all-new F-150 for 2004

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The idea came to mind when a diehard Chevy Silverado owner proclaimed admiration for the exterior styling of the all-new Ford F-150 truck while we were visiting a Ford dealer’s lot one Sunday afternoon.

He was curious to get a close up look, intrigued by print ads. He just had to see this new Ford in person. So he was told that when we got a new F-150 for a week’s evaluation, we would let him go over it with a fine-tooth comb. We would even let him drive it.

We would use him as a measuring stick to determine just what kind of a job Ford did in building a new vehicle to replace the best-selling truck in the world. That in itself takes lots of chutzpah. Through the eyes of a Chevrolet loyalist, criticism couldn’t get much harsher.

The results of this survey of one are in, and the F-150 received high marks in several areas from the Chevy guy. He loved the interior, the seats, and the feel of the steering wheel, the truck’s solid demeanor and the strength of the optional 5.4-liter V-8. (We did too).

Is he going to rush out to purchase a copy for himself? Not likely. His next pickup purchase will probably be another Silverado. Some guys are just hard to convince.

But Ford’s redesign was accomplished not so much to win over the hard-core General Motors customer, but to keep its enormous body of owners in the fold in the face of increasing competition.
And competition is advancing from all directions these days, not just from traditional rivals Chevrolet and Dodge, but from those pesky Japanese manufacturers, Toyota and Nissan who have now invaded the last bastion of domestic strength.

Nissan, for instance, expects to sell 100,000 copies annually of its all-new full-sized Titan after it hits the market later this year. It’s a good truck with exciting looks and an aggressive stance, and Nissan’s sales estimates are probably accurate.

Those 100,000 trucks have to come out of somebody’s totals. And Toyota is readying its new Texas plant for a fuller size of its Tundra and they are going to get a piece of somebody’s action as well. Ford is betting that with its new truck, the first redesign since 1997 that those Nissan and Toyota sales won’t come out of the F-150’s annual sales, which totaled 911,597 in 2001 and 813,701 in 2002. And the 2003 numbers are in the same ballpark too.

Ford, which has endured some tough times in recent years, cannot afford to slip in the full-sized truck ranks. Anything short of all-out success is simply not acceptable.

We think Ford has gotten it right. From the rugged outside look, which somewhat resembles the current crop of heavy duty Ford F-250 and F-350 trucks, to the stylized selection of interiors, which in the Lariat resembles an upscale sedan more than a traditional pickup to the entry XL that is all business. With five different interiors the range of choice is nothing short of brilliant.

And if you thought toughness was missing with the rounded lines of the current iteration you can put that behind you.

We think the F-150 will continue to sell its usual 800,000 to 900,000 copies a year and maybe more.

As usual, the F-150 is offered in a mind-boggling 26 configurations. Three body styles, regular, extended and crew; three bed lengths, 51/2-foot, 61/2-foot and 8-foot; and five trim levels, XL, STX, XLT, FX4 and Lariat.

There are two engines to pick from at the outset, the standard carryover 4.6-liter 231-horsepower V8 and an optional 5.4-liter 300-horsepower V8.

Although there is no V6 or manual transmission available this fall – you can expect those to show up by next summer – the V6 can still be purchased in the previous truck, which will continue to be manufactured for several months as the Heritage F-150, kind of like Classic Coke.

Two-wheel and four-wheel drive versions are available in all trim levels.

Prices start at $21,215 for a base XL package and climb through the levels to a base of $35,570 for a Lariat SuperCrew with the 5.4-liter engine.

Our test vehicle was an XLT SuperCrew with four-wheel drive, the 5.4-liter engine and the short cargo box. The base price was $33,030, and after options, $37,715.

One of the more interesting aspects of the new design is the elimination of the two-door truck. Even the regular cab models get four doors albeit two small rear-hinged half doors that allow for easy access to a small storage area behind the seats.

You have to keep reminding yourself you are in a truck as the smooth ride, hushed interior, and stylish dashboard layout convey something more akin to a luxury sport utility vehicle.

The Ford is also amazingly quiet the cacophony of the outside world, usually part of the pickup experience is virtually eliminated.

The quietness belied the fact that our test truck was a workhorse with full-range four-wheel drive, with a boxed and partially hydroformed frame, a towing capacity of 9,200 pounds and a cargo bed that is about six inches deeper than competitors’ pickups.

New rack-and-pinion steering gives the F-150 a great sense of the road. Steering is precise and on-center feel is superb.

On the inside fabric-covered front seats are wide and comfortable. The instrumentation is large and easy to read and the switchgear is well designed.

A new feature is a modular overhead rail system that allows a buyer to choose from a variety of about five different storage systems. The units, which can include a DVD player and screen, can be moved on the rails from the front-seat area to the back.

Head and legroom in the second row of the SuperCrew are excellent allowing five passengers to reside in comfort.
Nearly every passenger who rode in the truck commented on how easy it was to enter. Step-in height has been lowered to a more reasonable level in the 4X4 models; an important attribute for some of us larger and older types.

But the new Ford is not perfect. For instance, why doesn’t Ford offer a full-time all-wheel drive option such as its chief competitor General Motors? A full-time system is available in other Ford products including the Expedition. So far the question has gone unanswered.

Also a 5-speed automatic transmission would surely have improved the overall performance and gas mileage of its truck. While virtually every all-new product has a 5-speed transmission these days, Ford has elected to carry on with a 4-speed. Only somewhat convincingly do Ford engineers plead that the hefty 4-speed is indeed the correct choice. Perhaps an upgrade will come in the near future.

One strange omission on an otherwise well-thought-out interior is the lack of overhead grab handles. There are handles on the doorframes to help people climb in, but none overhead.

But we have to stretch to be very critical of this noteworthy new product. For the most part, Ford has made some mighty good decisions and has produced an industry-leading truck that will have the competition playing catch-up. Ford is counting on it.