3/1/2003 | 7 MINUTE READ

FORD's F-150: The Winner And Still Champion?

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The best selling vehicle in Ford’s lineup, and the best selling vehicle in America for more than 20 years, the F-150 is under increased pressure from competitors – both foreign and domestic – and consumers who want more for less. Its sales will determine the health of the Ford Motor Company for many years to come.


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Other than emphasizing Ford’s reliance on the success of a single vehicle line, the fact that Ford has been able to sustain its place at the top of the truck heap with the F-150 suggests the company has a special understanding of the American truck buyer. No doubt the fearsome loyalty truck buyers show to a brand has helped, but the continuation of this bond is by no means certain. After all, the generation that first turned to imported cars–especially those from Japan–in large numbers, and their children—who also have shown a marked tendency to buy from the import stores–have more available choices than their parents, and show less loyalty to a particular brand. And with Toyota about to update the Tundra, and Nissan launching its appropriately named Titan, the battle for dominance in this segment is about to get ugly. No matter who comes out on top, the simple fact remains that more competitors means fewer sales, and smaller potential profits for domestic automakers, especially Ford.

Underpinning the new look is a new chassis, a fully boxed design with seven cross members, an E-coat finish and hydroformed front rails. “Through rails”–cross members welded into laser-cut holes in the side rails–are used throughout, and all frame brackets are welded instead of riveted for long-term durability. The result is a frame that is nine times stiffer in torsion and 50% stiffer in bending than the one it replaces. It also sits 1.0-in. closer to the road, and directly behind the front bumper.

Both the rear-drive and 4x4 versions of the F-150 use a long-spindle front suspension that features a cast iron knuckle, cast aluminum lower control arm and coil-over-shock damping. The front wheels are allowed to “recess” or move rearward after encountering a bump or uneven surface via specially designed bushings supplied by ZF Lemförder. “The lower control arm bushings’ ratio of lateral to longitudinal response is 29:1,” says Dan Gomper, Vehicle Dynamics supervisor, “and was achieved by casting voids in target areas of the bushing to increase longitudinal ‘give’ in a controlled way.” Other bushings in the suspension use molded-in metal plates to limit lateral movement. A ball-jointed anti-roll bar, whose bushings are always under tension in order to maintain contact with the anti-roll bar and improve the response of the new rack and pinion steering system, completes the set.

The rear suspension consists of the expected live axle, though the rear dampers have been placed outboard of the frame rail this time in order to create a longer lever arm for better control over ride motions and reduced impact harshness. The leaf springs are 20% wider than before, which makes them the same width–3.0-in.–as the rear leaf springs on the current Super Duty pickup. Front and rear track have been increased by 1.5-in., and vented disc brakes are used all around; the fronts making use of stiffer twin-piston calipers for better response. Electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and ABS are standard equipment for 2004.

Atop this sits a body–a number of body styles, actually–that are significantly more rigid. Each features a high-strength steel reinforced torque box that prevents the front tires from intruding into the passenger compartment in a frontal collision. Two-layer, 2.2-mm high-strength steel is used in the body rocker section between the A- and C-pillars, and structural adhesive and spot welds joins the floor panels together. Despite a six-inch increase in Regular and Super Cab body length, the new bodies are 75% stiffer than the previous generation F-150’s. Shear-style body mounts–where rubber separates concentric tubes that are separately mounted to the body and the frame–isolate the cab from ride vibrations.

The 2004 Ford F-150 builds on established themes that have made it the best selling full-size pickup for the last 20 years. It carries forward the general themes of the last generation truck, and overlays them with the outline and details of the 2003 Mighty F-350 Tonka concept vehicle. Design director J Mays calls the result, “rugged but refined,” and in keeping with Ford’s “tough truck” ethos.

Stance and section height give the F-150 ruggedness and stability without making it appear unwieldy or brutish. The strong “waterline” establishes a visually stable base, and can be color keyed to the various trim levels. Up front, the hood-mounted trapezoidal grille also changes to match the trim level, going from a body-color surround with a dark, divided grille, to a large chrome border framing a honeycomb insert. The latter is the most cohesive, and works well with the round-element headlights used across-the-board.

The shoulder line dips around the side mirrors, then rises to form a level, uninterrupted border, just like on the current F-250 and F-350. A slight S-curve flows through body sides punctuated by large, bluff wheel arches, and bed tie-downs are integrated into the upper pickup box surface just below the edge of the bed liner. (The box, by the way, is 2.0-in. deeper, and has a torsion bar in the tailgate hinge to lessen lift forces from 34-lb to 18-lb.) Chief exterior designer, Craig Metros, took over an entire studio to create what he called “F-150 Land,” a place where he and his team could immerse themselves in the F-150 lifestyle. Interior development happened concurrently, and mimics the exterior’s ability to support every trim level. The instrument panel is trisected, with distinct gauge clusters, trim, and finishes for each level. This chameleon-like quality is echoed in the door trim, and by an optional system from Johnson Controls that allows owners to customize the interior by adding snap-in modules (storage compartments, DVD players, etc.) to twin overhead rails. If you detect a Lincoln Navigator like feel to the interior, congratulations. The same design team did the F-150’s interior.

Standard equipment on the F-150 is a modified 4.6-liter V8 with a drive-by-wire throttle, improved seals for better emission control, and revised fuel injectors. It mates to Ford’s 4R70E automatic transmission. Most of the powertrain work, however, took place on the 5.4-liter V8. “The block and head have been thoroughly revised,” says Harold Lowman, Powertrain engineering manager. “Reinforcements were added to the block to dampen vibration and cut noise, and refinements made to the oil pan gasket.” More importantly, the old two-valve head design was thrown out the window–“it was big, bulky and comparatively inefficient,” says Lowman–and replaced with a three-valve unit.

“We get very close to four-valve performance,” says Lowman, “while using one cam per bank. Air flow through the two intake valves is about 350 ft3/min, compared to 250 ft3/min for the two-valve design, and torque output (365 lb-ft @ 3,750 rpm) is much flatter with 80% of peak available from 1,000 rpm to the engine redline.” Variable valve timing (via cam phasers with 50°º of adjustment on each bank), electronically controlled intake butterflies, and equal-length intake runners help make this possible.

The integrated air-fuel module is delivered into the engine assembly area as a complete unit. Made of plastic, it includes the fuel rail, air cleaner (with a slide-out drawer for easier service), throttle body and PCV valve. “All the person on the line has to do,” says Lowman, “is make the electrical connections and bolt it into place.”

The +300-hp 5.4-liter engine (Ford is being very cagey about actual output prior to the F-150’s introduction this summer) mates to the 4R75E four-speed automatic transmission. It has greater torque capacity than the 4.6-liter V8’s 4R70E, but not the fifth gear expected. “With the combination of variable valve timing, charge motion control valves (the electronically controlled intake butterfly valves), and electronic throttle,” says Lowman, “we can launch the vehicle off the line and manage torque so well that the fifth gear isn’t necessary right now.” And while he admits the competition has Ford beat in terms of cots with their pushrod engines, “I believe we have a greater opportunity to manage the engine and transmission as a system, while being not that far behind in terms of cost.”

Cost, or more accurately value, may determine whether or not the 2004 F-150 will continue at the top of the pickup truck mountain. Insiders said the cost per unit of the new truck was approximately $1,000 above the old design before Ford started its latest round of cost cutting; a competitive disadvantage, but not entirely surprising when viewed in light of its greater equipment and safety level. However, Ford’s previous late inning cost cutting measures often adversely affected quality–the oft-recalled Focus comes to mind–though it remains to be seen if the new truck will have similar problems. If it does, it won’t matter how well equipped, capable, or price competitive the F-150 might be.