By Ken Payne
San Antonio, Texas, June 25-26, 2003
Ford Truck Enthusiasts had the opportunity to test how the all-new 2004 F-150 stacks up against the competition at the 2004 Ford F-150 Ride and Drive in San Antonio, Texas. All models of the 2004 F-150 were available, as were comparable models from Toyota, GMC and Dodge. Texas was chosen because it is the largest Ford truck market in the world. San Antonio is the largest market in Texas with one of every four vehicles being an F-series truck, out-selling Chevy, Dodge and Toyota combined. Six of the top fifteen F-series dealers in the USA are in San Antonio.
Our trip began with a stop by the Alamo for lunch next door, a requirement of any visit to San Antonio. Then we were hurried off by shuttle bus to a lot filled with 2003 model-year F-150s. We drove the trucks for a leisurely 20+ mile ride through beautiful countryside to a Ford dealership to view a presentation. I drove a Supercrew Lariat with a 5.4L V8. Along the way there were numerous Ford F-150 signs on the roadside, on barn roofs, and sides of buildings. Ford left no doubt in my mind that this was "Ford Country!"
The new 2004 F-150, unveiled to the public at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show in January, is an important step for Ford's continued leadership in the pickup truck market. "It would be extremely hard for me to overstate the importance this vehicle", said Todd Eckert, F-150 Marketing Manager. "On June 16th we celebrated our 100th anniversary as a company. For our first 100 years this was by far and away our best selling vehicle... We sold over twenty-seven and a half million F-series vehicles."
The first F-series vehicle rolled off the assembly lines in 1948 with the introduction of the F-1 through F-8 trucks. In 1953 the F-100 was introduced and the series took on the now familiar F-250, F-350, etc. name designation. The Ford truck was primarily the "working man's" truck throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, with the major use being farming, commercial and government use. In 1967 that started changing when Ford's truck division redesigned the truck to be tougher and appeal to a larger segment of the population. The "Built Ford Tough" slogan was born at this time.
Ford has dominated the truck market, with average annual F-series sales in the last five years of over 800,000 trucks and 900,000 each year in the last two years. Why would Ford Motor Company completely redesign such a successful product? As Todd Eckert puts it, "You didn't get on top by sitting still and by not setting that bar forward." Ford is already moving forward with production that started on June 9th in the Norfolk assembly plant and Kansas city will soon start producing F-150s as well.
Frank Davis, chief engineer for the new F-150, has been a part of the new F-150 since day one, nearly 4 years ago. Frank is quite proud of his truck, calling it "my baby." Frank's aim with the new F-150 was to provide "unquestioned leadership" and to "redefine the market." "If you look at the heritage of the F-series, its really been about three things: tough, capable and dependable", said Frank. "This vehicle will be the toughest, most capable F-150 yet... We've put in over five million miles in the testing of this vehicle." The frame is nine times stiffer in torsion and two times stiffer in bending over the current generation F-150. Payload is 3000lbs., 800lbs more than Ford's closest competitor. Towing is 9500lbs, up 700lbs from the current F-150.
Frank's team had a goal of providing "power, presence and package." The 5.4L 3-valve V8 delivers 300HP and 365ft/ls. of torque, delivering 80% of the torque at 1000 RPM, providing unparalleled towing capability. The styling combined the profile of the Super Duty and current F-150. The stance was increased by 1.7 inches and the glass angle straightened out, increasing shoulder room and head room. The hood line was raised by two inches, taken all the way to the back of the truck with the pickup box 2.2 inches higher to increase cargo space.
On the regular cab and supercab models, the cab length was increased by 6 inches. The regular cabs feature sixteen inches more lockable storage behind the front seat than the current F-150. All models now come with 4 doors, including the regular cab. Customer comfort was increased for rear seating in the supercab with a 21 degree back angle, the same back angle as the front seat.
Ford sought to meet unmet customer needs. The interiors were designed to be more inviting and functional. The instrument cluster lines mimics the curve of the steering wheel, making viewing of instruments unobstructed and provides a smooth look while driving. Drive by wire throttle control gives predictable power, which I verified during the many miles I drove the trucks. The rack and pinion steering provides precise steering and great "road feel and feedback" without being harsh. All new fully vented, larger four wheel disc brake systems yield linear braking and confident stopping, especially during our towing tests. Outboard rear shock absorbers and Super Duty sized leaf springs makes cornering flat, with car-like handling and reduces rear end hoping common with pickups.
The tailgate was designed with a torsion bar tailgate assist mechanism. I opened and closed the tailgate several times. The tailgate, while made of steel, opens and closes as if it were made of light plastic. The assist is transparent and most customers would not know its there if you didn't tell them about it. The force required to open and close the tailgate was reduced from 28lbs to about 13-14lbs. This feature is standard on all trucks.
The dealership had several displays set up. One display had the new 3-valve 5.4L V8 with portions made transparent so you could see the inner workings.
Another display featured the frame, engine and suspension, with the tires cutaway to prominently show the vented disc brake system.
Lastly, and most importantly, there were two trucks displayed that had been put through crash testing, both the full frontal impact and offset impact. Both trucks did really well with no collapsing of the cab.
I then took a long ride through the countryside in a 2004 F-150 Lariat with F-150 Marketing Manager Todd Eckert and F150Online's Steve Eppinger. We drove on dirt roads, open highway and slow country roads through ranch country. Steve and I were impressed with the quiet ride, smooth drive and much improved interior. Todd explained the lengths Ford went through to deliver a better truck than its competition and discussed the features of the truck. One thing all of us noted as a minor drawback of the truck... its so smooth and quiet that its easy to speed because it feels like you're going a lot slower. More than once I found myself on a winding back-country road with a 25mph posted speed limit going a little too fast. Watch out for the cops in this truck, its looks will get a cop's attention, and its easy to forget you're in a full-sized pickup!
Next stop was a small country restaurant for a quick snack of fresh bread... mmmmmmmmmm! Then on to a ranch and our towing test drives....
Ford provided similarly equiped F-150s, Dodge Rams, GMC Sierra and Toyota Tundra pickups with trailers with lead weights to provide a trailer load of 7000lbs. We drove the trucks on the highway up a flat area, up a grade, down a grade, around a corner and then a short stop to make a left into a turn-around area for switching trucks.
My first ride was the GMC Sierra. Low end torque was good and the truck got up to speed well. As we proceeded up the grade the engine's ability to provide power started dropping, requiring full throttle to proceed up the hill. Speed gradually went from 65 MPH to about 55 MPH under full throttle and the engine dropped down a gear to hold even this speed. Once in the lower gear it was able to hold its speed but only with the engine at a high, loud RPM. The suspension and frame was the worst of the bunch with a lot of bounce and sway. Cornering was "uncomfortable" and I had to slow down to feel comfortable with it.
When the time came to slow down so we could make the turn-around I was shocked by the poor braking. The brakes grabbed, faded quickly and were not up to the task of slowing down the load, causing me to almost overshoot the turn-around point. This truck does not inspire confidence while towing and while the engine provides adequate power for towing, it only does so in a loud manner. Combine that with the squarish 1980s dash layout and poor air conditioning that couldn't keep up with the 98 degree Texas heat while towing and I don't see how anyone can choose to purchase a GMC if they've tried the 2004 F-150.
Next, I drove a Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab equiped with a 5.7 Liter Hemi Magnum V8. I was really looking forward to trying out the "Hemi" after hearing so many people hype its power. The interior was very comfortable and well designed, with very comfortable seating. My biggest complaint about the cab design is it sits very high and a step is not standard equipment. Shorter drivers and passengers will definitely need a step for this truck.
The Hemi left me disappointed. The Hemi had a lot of trouble getting up to speed, requiring a lot of throttle. Hill climbing was poor until the engine was higher in the RPMs and nearly full throttle to get up the hill. Once the Hemi found its sweet spot it did well but I would hate to have to tow with it on a long trip and keep it at high RPMs. The suspension was good with a slight amount of bounce. Braking was also good and predictable, though not linear. Cornering was left a lot to be desired, with rear end sway.
Then came the 2004 F-150. Right off the line the engine accelerated well, gaining speed up the hill. I had the pleasure of having Todd Eckert, the F-150 Marketing Manager, with me along during my tow tests. I took the truck up to 70 MPH up the incline and it still had a lot left. He didn't need to comment on how well it did but a quick "that's nice" said it all! Half throttle was all I needed and it never dropped down a gear in order to accomplish its job. The ride was extremely smooth and quiet. The F-150 inspired confidence in towing, with no body sway, no bounce and great cornering. Braking was extremely smooth and predictable with no fade and no sudden jolt like the GMC had when it finally stopped. Did I mention the A/C was turned to max during this? Even with max A/C this truck had power to spare, reminding me of a V10. The greatest thing is the power is there across the entire RPM range, making for a much more enjoyable towing experience due to no engine down-shifting.
Lastly, I drove the Toyota Tundra. Climbing into it I felt like I was getting into a Dodge Dakota or Ford Ranger. Interior space was, well, not up to par with true full sized trucks. I began with it on the opposite side of the course so I started off on a slight downgrade. The engine did worse starting off downhill than the others did on a flat grade! It was horrible until about 40 mph then it started reaching higher RPMs. Due to its small size, body sway was excessive and there was constant bounce, with every bump in the road felt. We then started up a grade and its apparent Toyota's engineers knew the engine doesn't perform well at low RPMs because the computer dropped it down a gear sooner than all the other trucks. Power was there at that point but it was very loud and it shifted up and down the gears more than once. I remarked to Todd that while it had the power to tow it would get very tiring having to listen to the engine gun up and down on a long trip.
Then we drove back to the ranch, took a quick break and then drove the trucks to an off-road course. Unfortunately, my group arrived late so I didn't get a chance to experience all the brands there. I drove the Dodge Ram first following behind the GMC on the course. The truck performed well until we came to the point where ruts had been made at offsets in the course (similar to offset tires football players go through during practice). I'm really glad I didn't drive the GMC through the course at that point! I watched it from behind and its body twist was extreme. The driver was tossed all over the place and I'm sure it wasn't comfortable.
Then it was my turn. I felt confident the Dodge would handle it well due to its stiffer frame but I was wrong. While the frame didn't twist and sway, the suspension could not absorb the rough ride. I bounced all over the place and it felt like the seat belt shoulder harness would cut my neck off. I made a note after I pulled out that anyone with back problems shouldn't be driving a Dodge.
Then we were instructed to put the trucks into low 4x4 mode and drop the tranny to 1st gear. I drove the truck up a hill with bumps designed to showcase the smooth drive by wire throttle of the F-150. With a standard throttle every off-road bump is transmitted through your foot resulting in a jerky ride and the Dodge was no exception to this. Then I took the Dodge down a very steep incline without touching the brakes and the truck rapidly gained speed. After this I went up a similar grade, coasted around a corner and down another incline, this time having to hold the brakes down the incline because it had a sharp right at the bottom.
My next trip around the course was in the F-150. Where the Dodge was "herky-jerky" in the rock bottom stream bed, the F-150 was smooth and fun. Because of this I was able to open it up and ride up through the stream quickly, throwing great slashes of water and having a blast. I then took the Ford through the offset ruts and was able to do it faster than I could in the Dodge with far less tossing and turning of the truck, plus there was little jerk from the drive by wire throttle.
I then put the truck in low 4x4 and 1st gear and proceed to climb the bumpy hill. Verrrrrryyyyy nice and smooth throttle control, especially for someone without extensive off-road experience. Downhill was amazing. I took my hands off the steering wheel and brakes and the truck crawled slowly and predictably down the incline without gaining speed. Todd remarked that the system was programmed to provide a higher degree of engine braking when in low 4x4. Around the corner of the next hill I actually had to give it throttle because of this whereas the Dodge coasted through it. The downhill with the sharp right hand turn required no braking, something that would be appreciated by off-road drivers. Less work with off-road braking and throttling means less fatigue and more fun.
Other than a couple of leisurely paced drives through the country-side, that concluded our first day of testing. We had a wonderful tour ride through the river channels in downtown San Antonio with snacks served. If you're ever in San Antonio its something you ought to try, especially if your significant other is with you. We were dropped off the channel at an old stone church converted to an art school for dinner. It was simply wonderful food, with F-150 strip steaks (yes, F-150 steaks with the F-150 logo seared into them!), a potato bar, the best crab cakes I've had in a long time and a variety of Tex-Mex food. Once again we were reminded this was Ford country: F-150 steaks, F-150 dinner place mats, F-150 bottled water and F-150 napkin holders!
The following morning we started early at 6:30 for a quick breakfast and then a drive to the slalom course.
The course consisted of a straight drive followed by a sharp left which turns into a steady left turn, opening up into the slalom portion of the course, then a quick braking section. Following that is sharp u-turn, acceleration and an emergency lane change then a long winding turning and long straight-away.
First, I drove the GMC. No surprises based on my previous experiences. Acceleration was fairly good unloaded but engine noise was excessive. Cornering was acceptable, however once the truck was taken into the slalom and emergency avoidance maneuvers the body roll and sway was excessive. The suspension could not absorb cornering forces well making the slalom difficult. Braking coming out of the curves was grabby and left a lot to be desired. Definitely not a truck you want to be in during an emergency situation.
Next, the Dodge Ram. Unloaded the Hemi really showed its strength. Off the line it was no better than the others but once it hit about 25 MPH its torque kicked in and it took off quick. Cornering was excellent due to the stiff frame. In the slalom its suspension left something to be desired. While the truck tracked well, there was a lot of body roll. Braking was good.
Then I drove the F-150. Acceleration was very good. The flat torque curve and quiet ride can make the amount of acceleration deceiving but the truck had a higher speed then the GMC and Toyota going into the first turn. The Dodge won the "quick crown" with the Hemi really making a difference. The F-150 handle extremely well, better than many cars. Cornering was excellent and I was able to drive the slalom and emergency lane change much faster than in the other trucks, including the smaller Toyota. Braking was linear and predictable. Road feedback was excellent due to the rack and pinion steering without being harsh.
Last came the Toyota, a TRD Tundra. Acceleration was fair until the mid and upper range RPMs. I have no doubt the truck would have picked up speed quickly had there been a little more road but there wasn't enough distance to take advantage of its higher torque curve. Cornering was excellent. I was able to take slalom fairly quick, almost as fast as the Ford. This was due in part to its smaller size. Braking was good. Road feedback was poor with a disconnected feeling. The truck handled the emergency lane change well with a small amount of body roll.
I drove each make twice through the course to eliminate bias due to more course experience. Second runs confirmed my first impressions. I was able to take each truck faster through the slalom but the handling characteristics where the same.
After this, Ford gave us the remainder of the day to drive the 2004 F-150 for a considerable distance, in excess of 70 miles. We drove on dirt roads, through streams, back country roads, highways and ranch roads. It was a very enjoyable ride through some of America's most beautiful country.
I got a first hand chance to test out the braking capabilities of this truck on a back road when a deer jumped in front of the truck! Instead of crossing the road it proceeded to run in front of the truck. I slammed the brakes and the truck smoothly stopped with no pull to either side and virtually no anti-lock feedback. It was certainly not a planned event and I truly got to see how the truck really performed in a braking situation. I'm sure the deer was happy with the stopping ability as well!
We then stopped at a marina for drinks and snacks prior to driving a road which followed the winding San Antonio river.
This took us to our final destination, a restaurant with a live western band (quite good too!) and settled into eating some fantastic BBQ! Then we were whisked off to the airport.
In closing I want to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the new F-150. Every manufacturer brags about their vehicles: Ford delivered and their team has a lot to be proud of. I didn't expect GMC to perform to poorly in virtually every test. Dodge builds a good truck but still lags well behind the Ford in many areas. Toyota, well.... its a smaller truck and performed like one. After this trip I'm absolutely convinced the 2004 F-150 is a winner. If you get the chance to drive one and take it through its paces I'm sure you'll feel the same.
.....I can't wait to buy one!