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Friday, October 3, 2014

Driving the 2015 Ford F-150: "The Biggest Loser" comes to pickups


2015 Ford F-150
Somewhere in the Six Flags Fiesta Texas parking lot outside San Antonio, while trying to whip a 2015 Ford F-150 around a makeshift autocross course and in the process flinging more cones than a Dairy Queen in an earthquake, I had a thought:
It would be wrong to call this new rig the pickup Barack Obama built — but not that wrong.

Before you spew hot fire in the comments, hear me out. By 2008, Ford engineers had begun to plan this redesign of the F-150, a vehicle that’s 20 percent of its sales volume and a larger percent of profits.

The idea of saving weight by switching to an aluminum body quickly came up, but Ford needed several months of research — with suppliers, with aluminum producers and its own engineers — to ensure it could make the change, keeping a plan for a more conventional steel body proceeding along at the same time.

Toward the end of 2009, Ford decided an aluminum F-150 was possible. By then, another change had come along: Obama’s election, and his administration’s decision to require sharply higher fuel efficiency from cars and trucks sold in the United States by 2025.

New fuel economy rules were “part of the equation, but the impetus for looking at aluminum was how do we take the truck to the next level,” says Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s North American chief and the head of global manufacturing when Ford chose to switch to aluminum. The question, Hinrichs added, was always “what can we do to make the truck significantly more capable.”

Which is how I came to the Six Flags lot, part of a rolling tour Ford set up to demonstrate to journalists, dealers and ultimately its most loyal customers just how different the new F-150 is from all that’s come before.

2015 Ford F-150
2015 Ford F-150

What does aluminum do for you in a pickup? The answer comes from basic physics: for the same strength frame and body, a lighter truck has more capacity for hauling than a heavier one. By shaving some 700 lbs. across its lineup, Ford can now offer a substantially larger payload and more towing capacity at every size of F-150, with less gas burned in everyday use.

The first trick will be assuaging potential customers that the F-150’s new aluminum beds and bodies are far stronger than a Bud Light can. Ford likes to focus on how it’s using “military-grade” aluminum, which is true, although that’s just a grade of thickness. There’s no way to tell on looks alone that the truck has an aluminum body — the panels are just as stiff — unless you try to stick a magnet on.

But the benefits of losing those 700 lbs. were unmistakable from the wheel. At that Six Flags lot, Ford sent writers out through an autocross loop in the F-150 and its competitors, an exercise that felt like a square dance class with sumo wrestlers.

 Yet the Ford felt noticeably limber and more controllable than the Chevy Silverado and Ram 1500. In a brief towing loop, a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 with 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque growled while yoked to 10,000 lbs. of pig iron, but accelerated more than briskly enough to merge with 60-mph traffic.

 That wasn’t true about a Hemi-powered Ram 1500 — even though its trailer held 1,000 lbs. less, and it has 10 hp more than the Ecoboost, it had to use all available power for a similar merge, and had little in reserve on hills at highway speed. The Ram Hemi can haul 1,710 lbs. of payload; thanks to the aluminum body, the 3.5 Ecoboost can carry up to 3,180 lbs., or 86 percent more.

2015 Ford F-150
2015 Ford F-150

But after all this buildup, I don’t think the body metal swap will be the hardest sell for Ford. That laurel belongs to the newest engine in the lineup: a 2.7-liter twin-turbo direct-injected V-6, with 325 hp and 375 lb.-ft. of torque — a power-per-liter ratio that was once the realm of Ferrari engines.

 For the past four decades, full-size trucks have been sold with the mantra “there’s no replacement for displacement,” but Ford now wants to sell you an engine that’s half the size of those it once made standard.

The launch of the 3.5-liter Ecoboost V-6 in 2009 wasn’t quite so fraught, because it was seen as an efficient compliment to the two V-8s in the line at the time; as it turned out, more truck buyers than expected — up to half of Ford’s F-150 retail customers at one point — preferred it. Offering an engine smaller than 3 liters in service of such daily weightlifting sounds like a time bomb of turbo bits waiting to explode from cardiac arrest.

Yet this isn’t a normal V-6. Instead of an all-aluminum engine block like most modern engines, Ford designed a unique two-piece block from compact-graphite iron — a type of metal found in diesels and NASCAR V-8s — with an aluminum base. The result, Ford contends, is a smaller mill that has both the power and durability of a V-8, but far lower fuel consumption.

2015 Ford F-150
2015 Ford F-150

Ford has high hopes; at launch, the 2.7 will cost just $495 more than the unboosted base 3.5-liter V-6, and it expects to sell up to 30 percent of new F-150s with the motor, roughly equal to the 3.5-liter Ecoboost and the carryover 5-liter V-8. And I can see why.

 At 2,250 lbs. of payload, the 2.7 has a larger capacity than the Chevy Silverado with a 5.3-liter V-8. In my drive of the 2.7 through the hill country outside San Antonio, I never felt at a loss for power.

 I could sense a brief bit of turbo lag at initial acceleration, but I was also on the lookout for it. If you drove the truck with no idea what was under the hood, the only major sign of something other than a V-8 would be the lack of exhaust burble.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports tested the 2.7-equipped F-150s towing abilities, and I found no reason to doubt their results; the torque curve was flat and accessible, and the transmission held gear under load even to redline.

 The 2.7 also comes with stop-start for additional fuel savings, which is more noticeable in use than in a sedan but not unpleasant, and it doesn’t engage when the truck is in tow/haul mode.

While the looks of the truck haven’t changed much — maintaining the techno-locomotive look with a few cues from the Atlas concept and a larger greenhouse — Ford has brought a load of new technology and options along.

2015 Ford F-150
2015 Ford F-150

The keyless locks are physical buttons instead of touchpads so you can more easily use them while wearing work gloves. The optional “man step” has been redesigned to fit inside the tailgate itself, and the tailgate can now be dropped remotely from the key fob.

 Up to six cameras provide a 360-degree view on the dash, lane-departure warning services and a dashed line in the rearview to guide a tow hitch into place. The King Ranch and Platinum have been blessed with LED lighting throughout and heated/cooled seats which can massage your lower back and gluteal area with the force of a hockey trainer.Oh, and the thing can parallel park by itself.

The trim-level lineup has been culled to XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum; the ZX4 off-road trim with skid plates and other fun stuff has been turned into a package that can go on any other trim level. (Consider that Ford builds 26 varieties of F-150 frames and you have an idea of how complicated ordering can be.)

The one piece of information Ford would not release yet: Fuel economy figures, saying the trucks were still being tested and the data wouldn’t be available until November.

 It did claim that the improvement across the board would range from 5 to 20 percent; the betting line around Detroit says the trucks will be impressive, but may not top the Ram EcoDiesel’s figure of 19 city/27 highway. Over a mostly highway-speed drive of 90 miles with some lead-footed tesing, my 2.7-liter equipped truck posted a combined 18 mpg.

As for prices: Yes, they’re going up — but by how much depends entirely on each of the thousands of potential variants. The price of a no-options regular cab XL model rises $395 to just under $27,000, while higher-end models like the Lariat and King Ranch see a $3,900 hike in sticker, with Ford contending it’s added more than that in new features.

 The horse traders that want nothing but the fully loaded F-150 Platinum Crew Cab may see a final price of $61,000. The F-150 XLT 4x4 SuperCrew I spent part of a day in had most of the electric geegaws — power-sliding rear window, fold-out steps both in the tailgate and behind the cabin— along with the 2.7-liter engine, but cloth seats. Its sticker: $46,600.

And yet: People who buy and sell trucks know that the sticker is just a starting point, that incentives and monthly payments make or break a deal. In those regards, the new F-150 will inevitably cost more; automakers always reset their incentives during the launch of a redesign, avoiding bennies like zero-percent financing or special rebates as long as possible, but keeping their eye on how a typical customer will get to yes if they’re trading in an old F-150.

 In that light, this week’s news that Ford Credit would soon start offering 75-month loans feels like a strategy rather than a coincidence.

It's possible Ford would have built these trucks without fuel standards looming over it, but it's worth noting that when it starts tallying the efficiency of all its 2015 models, for the first time the F-150 will improve the corporate average under those new rules rather than lower it.

There are many questions I can't answer about this truck based on a few hours drive: how well it holds together over a couple of years of rough work, whether Ford's issues with higher-than-average number of defects and recalls has been solved.

 Yet I'm confident in saying this won't be the last time a major automaker switches bodies from steel to aluminum. By being the biggest loser of weight in its class, the new F-150 wins.

Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article. Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.