2008 Ford F150 Driving Impressions

The Ford F-150 is among the heavier trucks in its class, contributing to a solid feel and none of that empty metal box bang-and-clang that characterized pickups of old. There’s an impression of substance and tight construction regardless of the road surface or the model; Ford attributes some of this to its laminated Quiet Steel panels in the bodywork.

Any engine will get the job done so long as you pay attention to load ratings. The 4.2-liter V6 gives 202 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, enough to get around town or tow a small boat over nominally flat terrain.

Ratings for 2008 models weren’t out at posting, and most recent ’07 numbers put the V6 at 16/21 with the manual and 16/20 with the automatic. In general, fuel economy ratings drop by 1 mpg for each increase in engine size or addition of 4WD. Subtract 4-5 mpg for E85 on the 5.4 V8 or be a realist and smile when you get a V8 into the teens.

The 4.6-liter V8 on base 4WD versions was updated last year to 248 horsepower and 294 lb-ft of torque, and it need not be revved a lot to deliver that power. You could spend money on the 5.4-liter (or on a shorter axle ratio) if you tow a lot or live in hilly areas, but the 4.6-liter is more than satisfactory and will return better fuel economy, perhaps by 5 percent to 10 percent.

Ford’s 5.4-liter V8 is the only truck engine with overhead cams and three valves per cylinder, yet it delivers the grunt earlier in the rev range than many traditional pushrod pickup engines: 375 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 and 300 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. It is paired exclusively with a four-speed automatic transmission that shifts gently and as soon as possible for highway economy.

There are two big reasons the F-150 is not the quickest half-ton pickup or fastest tow vehicle. First, it is usually heavier than similarly equipped models from the competition, and second, like GM’s Silverado and Sierra, it has to make do with a four-speed automatic where Dodge, Nissan and Toyota offer a five- or six-speed automatic. (We are expecting to see six speeds in the 2009 F-150 because the Expedition’s 5.4-liter already has it.)

The F-150 needs no excuses for ride quality, however, whether it’s empty of loaded. We’ve tried all six wheelbases over the worst freeways in Los Angeles and Ford has a handle those expansion-jointed roads, with better-controlled pogo-sticking (bobbing) that plagues many mid-length (say 138-150 inches) wheelbase pickups. Resistance to shuddering is very good too, although it’s nearly impossible to rid any two-body-on-frame vehicle of it.

Suspension follows typical light pickup design, with coil-sprung independent in front and leaf springs out back. Aluminum is used to save weight in components in protected positions, with steel parts where they may scrape on a rock. Unlike most pickups the rear shocks are mounted outside the ladder frame, in theory allowing more precise control of the spring, but in actuality the performance of the shock absorber makes more difference than the outboard mount.

And in this regard the F-150 parallels other pickups in that the best ride quality anywhere except a racetrack comes with the FX4 (off-road) package. Off-highway performance strongly depends on keeping the wheel in contact with the ground, and using the most available suspension travel is the best way to do that. Such off-road packages are tuned to take advantage of all available travel, typically with only the slightest reduction in response to turns. Some off-road packages also offer the biggest tire sidewall, the first impact absorber in any suspension system, although the FX4 uses 18-inch wheels and stronger LT tires as an option.

All F-150 models use power rack-and-pinion steering and have been singled out in more than one comparison as the best in class. The F-150 is quick to respond to steering inputs without feeling too light or going too far, and directional stability is superb.

[NewCarTestDrive]

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