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Still the top of the line

Times Staff Writer

Ford’s 2004 F-150 pickup can be had with a 300-horsepower V-8 engine. Its top speed is electronically limited to 99 mph, but you can go a little faster if you’re heading downhill and have a nice tail wind and nothing else is on the road to promote the use of brakes.

I mention this not to encourage speeding but to set the stage.

There were four of us in an ’04 F-150 Lariat SuperCrew on a long country road somewhere in the hills outside San Antonio, testing the redesigned truck during its introduction to the media in June.

We were moving at speeds that Texas law enforcement would have frowned at (it was downhill, with a tail wind) and we had all four side windows rolled down and the electronically operated sliding rear window open to let the air flow through.

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The radio was off, and we were talking.

Talking, not yelling.

At top speed, with windows down, the new F-150 was so quiet that four people could hear one another while speaking in near-normal conversational tones.

That would be a noise-damping achievement in a luxury car. In a pickup, albeit the top-of-the-line model, it is something of a miracle.

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That Ford Motor Co. pulled it off is testimony to the heights the company has reached with the new F-Series, which goes on sale in a few days.

Ford hasn’t been having the best time of its 100-year history recently, but its new F-150 pickup reaches new heights of performance, comfort and competence just as the competition has begun wearing away at the dominance of the previous-generation F-Series.

The F-150 has been the nation’s top-selling truck since 1977 and, with all of its versions collectively, the top-selling passenger vehicle in the country since 1981.

But in recent years, Dodge and General Motors Corp. have turned up the heat with redesigned Rams and Silverados and Sierras. And the Japanese have jumped into the only major U.S. market segment they’ve missed so far, with the award-winning Toyota Tundra biting a chunk out of domestic truck makers’ market shares since its introduction in 2000 and the Nissan Titan coming by early next year and threatening to take another bite out of the market.

Although that all promises great choices for consumers, it is bad news for Ford, which saw F-Series sales fall to 813,000 last year from more than 900,000 in 2001.

The company says it intends to break the 1-million-a-year mark with the new F-Series, and to get there requires something big.

That something was not just to redesign but to reinvent the F-150.

The 2004 version is a dream to drive and, with its tough big-rig styling, a delight to look at.

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On a short autocross course, the F-150 (I took several versions through the course, several times each) handily outperformed rivals from Dodge and General Motors and was the equal of Toyota’s silky smooth Tundra -- which is rated as a full-size truck but is really a seven-eighths scale version.

On an off-road course, all five trucks that now compete in the full-size segment were good, but the F-150 was the best, thanks to a much stiffer frame and body assembly, as well as a new suspension that includes wider leaf springs and shock absorbers mounted outside the frame members, close to the exterior pickup bed walls. The result: a truck with very little body roll, quick recovery from bumps and potholes and almost none of the bed shake that has been part of pickup life since time immemorial.

Safety equipment includes front air bags, larger disc brakes on all four wheels and stronger front frame rails that help absorb energy in a crash.

When I use a truck it is as most Southern Californians do -- daily transportation in place of a car, only occasionally putting it to work for the purposes for which it was invented: hauling stuff and towing.

So I asked my driving partner on the F-150 launch, Sean Holman, to weigh in on the new Ford’s truck qualities. Holman is associate editor of Truckin’ magazine, and I figured if they trusted him enough to give him a fancy title and a paycheck to comment on the trucks of the world, I could be comfortable asking him to share his expertise with Times readers.

Here’s a short version of what he had to say (his own review will be in the magazine’s special winter issue due on the stands in mid-September).

On the truck’s capabilities: “The new F-150 frame is nine times stiffer than the outgoing model. With such a sturdy chassis, the truck was given a 9,500-pound tow rating and a 2,900-pound payload rating, both best in class.”

On the engines -- a 4.6-liter Triton V-8 rated at 231 horsepower and 293 pounds-feet of torque is the standard, with a new 5.4-liter, 300-horsepower Triton V-8 rated at 365 pounds-feet of torque offered as an option on all models:

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“The big news is in the more efficient 5.4-liter, which now offers variable valve timing and aluminum three-valve heads with two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder. Both engines benefit from a new electronic throttle control,” Holman said.

Holman adds that the new F-150’s four-speed automatic transmission has been beefed up to handle the bigger V-8’s increased torque and rates the engine and transmission combination “not as powerful as some of the competition but smoother and more tractable throughout the rev range.”

Ford offers four axle ratios (important for fuel efficiency and hauling power -- one increases as the other decreases), from a highway-efficient 3.31:1 all the way down to 4.10:1, and all except the 3.31:1 can be ordered with an optional limited slip.

“My recommendation,” Holman said, “would be to get nothing less than 3.73 gears if you want to make the most of the new F-150.”

Fuel efficiency, by the way, is estimated by Ford at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway for both engines with two-wheel drive. Four-wheel-drive models typically drop at least 1 mpg for the overall economy rating.

So it appears that the F-150, long a favorite of hard-core pickup drivers who use the vehicles as workhorses, won’t lose any ground in that camp.

But Ford is hoping to attract more family users to the pickup arena with its bigger and plusher cabins and more car-like ride.

The new F-150s’ amazing interiors will help. They leap out as the best in the business, at least until Nissan rolls out the built-in-Mississippi Titan, a truck that might sport an even fancier interior, according to early spy reports.

Overall, the new F-Series bounces less, tows more, accelerates faster, turns sharper, recovers quicker, brakes better and fits more (or bigger) people inside in more comfort than its predecessor models.

And on an equally equipped basis, the ’04 F-150 will hit showrooms with a sticker price that’s just a few hundred dollars above the ’03 models.

The base price of $21,275 for the all-new ’04 F-150 XL Regular Cab includes a 300-horsepower V-8 and a four-speed automatic transmission, while the ’03 base of $19,125 gets you a V-6 and a manual tranny. Ford also will carry over two of its ’03 F-150s as ’04 models, to be called the F-150 Heritage XL and XLT, with prices unchanged, allowing Ford to say that it still has a sub-$20,000 truck (the ’04 Heritage XL will begin at $19,125).

Prices for the new-generation F-150 run quickly up the ladder to $35,570.

The lineup now offers five models, three cab sizes, three bed lengths, two bed styles and five levels of interior quality.

The last is part of Ford design guru J Mays’ belief that interior design and quality are the new battlefield in the war to win consumers’ hearts.

All ’04 F-150s will come with four doors, and will be 4 inches wider than this year’s models. The Regular and SuperCab models also have been increased in length by 6 inches, all of it in the cabs for a nice boost in space for cargo behind the seat in the regular models and for people and cargo in the SuperCab.

I spent considerable time in the rear seats of both the SuperCab and SuperCrew, on highways and off, and can testify that Ford did a good job of making sure back-seat passengers are no longer afterthoughts. The seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of leg, head and shoulder room.

With the ’04 models, Ford becomes the first pickup maker to offer three bed lengths -- and the company has raised the side walls of the beds by 2.2 inches, adding 12% to 15% to the cargo space.

The shortest bed is a stubby 5.5-footer especially well-fitted to the SuperCrew for people who want a pickup that has a full-size cabin for five and still fits in a conventional garage. There’s a 6.5-foot intermediate bed and a full-length 8-footer for those who have lots of stuff, or stuff that’s long, to haul. The SuperCrew comes with only the short bed for the ’04 model year, but Ford will offer a 6.5-foot bed after that.

The extra bed height that adds cargo volume also might make it more difficult for some to reach over the sides and grab items on the floor of the bed. But the locking tailgates are outfitted with torsion bar assist, making them fairly easy to lift: One engineer said the 34-pound tailgates take no more effort than 15-pounders without torsion bars.

Final words: Still the one to beat.


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