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Ford F-150: Nothing left to prove

As the redesigned 2009 Ford F-150 pickup starts rolling into dealerships, Ford marketing executives are eschewing those elaborate TV commercials in which trucks swing by their tow hooks in giant centrifuges, race through gantlets of flying steel pendulums or chatter their brakes to the edge of a precipice while trying to stop a 10,000-pound trailer.

I’m sorry, but those commercials are awesome.

They do need a little updating. Can we see how many unsold copies of the new Guns ‘N Roses album “Chinese Democracy” the new F-150 can hold? (Not nearly enough.) Can we see a truck grinding up Pike’s Peak pulling a trailer full of deposed congressmen stacked like cordwood? Can two Ford pickups tug Madonna’s face any tighter?

A $100 bill weighs 1 gram. The new F-150 has class-leading hauling capacity of 3,030 pounds. It would take a fleet of 181 F-150s to transport $25 billion in bailout money from the nation’s capital to Dearborn, Mich. I’ll help drive.

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I guess these are inauspicious days to launch a pickup. The light-vehicle market has gone China Syndrome; the chief executives of the Detroit Three are groveling in their pinstripes on Capitol Hill; and there is, in the air, a diffuse but real sense of repudiation toward full-size pickups. The F-150, perennially the bestselling vehicle in America, has fallen on hard times. Sales are down 26% this year, and Ford will be lucky to move 500,000 F-150s this year, down from about 700,000 in 2006.

Nearly gone are the high-riding carbon cowboys in their shiny pickups, the all-hat poseurs, the “never-never” buyers (never tow, never haul). Pickup trucks have an ideology and that ideology is conservative, Red State Republicanism.

Pickups just lost the White House.

Yes, Dearborn has its troubles but this is the best pickup truck on God’s little acre. Yes, the Japanese have beaten up on the domestics, but Toyota and Nissan only wish they knew how to build a full-sizer as tight, as tough, as well-sorted, as keen and mean as the thing behind the Blue Oval. I mean, people, it isn’t even close.

My Car of the Year is a truck.

I don’t own a gun rack and I’d like to shoot Toby Keith out of the nearest cannon, so a pickup truck has to go a long way to blow my mind. What the Ford does is simply exceed expectations by a few degrees in every category.

It rides a little more smoothly. It’s a little quieter. It’s more agile in day-to-day driving and more of a draft horse when you need it to haul or tow. It’s better equipped. When you add all those margins up, the Ford is vastly better than anything else in its class.

Take, for example, its bronze-bell solidity. Ford isn’t the only truck maker to use hydro-formed, fully boxed high-strength frame rails in the chassis. But it might be the only one that laser-welds the roof seams and body side panels to the truck’s superstructure.

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Compared with robotic spot-welding, seam welding essentially turns the various welded parts into a single piece of steel. The resulting sense of foundry casting isn’t something you can exactly measure, or even describe. You slam the door and nothing trembles or rattles. You mat the throttle on the open highway and what you hear in the cabin is a deep, pleasant timbre. Between the fancy engine mounts, the clever tuning of bushings and chassis mounts, and acres of sound deadening, the F-150 has the noise-vibration harshness of a luxury car.

The pickup proprieties have been observed. Three cab styles, four box styles and seven trim levels are available, including the new Platinum series (electronics galore, 20-inch chrome wheels, brushed alloy trims in the cabin, power-deployable running boards, heated/cooled seats, and loads of mirror-polished metal). The F-150 XL regular cab starts at $21,320, while a loaded Platinum series SuperCrew 4x4 will approach $50,000.

Three V-8 engines are offered: a 5.4-liter three-valve (320 horsepower); a 4.6-liter three-valve (292 hp); and a 4.6-liter two-valve (248 hp). Mileage is up across the line. The 5.4-liter, backed by a six-speed automatic, returns 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, largely thanks to the new six-speed automatic (the 2008 F-150 got 14/17 mpg). Ford is also offering something called the Superior Fuel Economy package that, with the help of a friendlier rear-axle ratio and low-rolling-resistance tires, gets 15/21 mpg in city and highway driving, respectively.

Three quick hits:

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* The SuperCrew (four-door) configuration is 6 inches longer in wheelbase and overall length, and that extra room is used to enlarge the rear doors and rear cabin. With the rear seat flipped up, the truck has 57.6 cubic feet of enclosed cargo space -- more than a lot of mid-size sport utility vehicles or wagons. The rear seating is the size of a squash court.

* Ford rules the cargo box: Among the many fun features are a deployable side step (to help reach inside the truck); a fold-out tailgate step with assist handle; and a set of slide-out tool trays or drawers built into the lower quarter panel.

Also, Ford is offering a package called Work Solutions. Designed for the truck-based entrepreneur, the system offers high-speed Internet access, navigation, fleet tracking and PC programs such as Microsoft Excel and Word, all built into the dash-mounted LCD display. With a wireless keyboard and printer, you can type out and print invoices right there in the client’s driveway.

The system also includes Tool Link: You can put radio-frequency identity (RFID) tags on your tools, and the truck will electronically inventory them every time you start the engine and remind you if a tool is missing. Also handy is a heavy-duty, self-spooling cable lock that keeps tools from walking off.

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* Trailering: The F-150 is rated for 11,300 pounds of towing, which is 600 pounds more than a comparable Chevy 1500. Stability control is standard, as is trailer-sway control (the system will null out uncontrolled oscillations in the trailer using selective braking).

Integrated trailer-brake control is also offered, replacing those clunky plug-in modules that you install under the dash. In my half-day test drive, towing a 5,000-pound box of something, the trailer-braking action was far smoother and more integrated than that provided by the usual auxiliary modules. Another option: a reverse camera. Don’t back up in the Whole Foods parking lot without it.

Aesthetic and athletic, with tremendous build quality and dozens of fall-in-love features, the F-150 refutes the easy dismissal of American automaking as somehow feckless and inefficient. These days, selling lots of pickups may be harder than swinging in a giant centrifuge or jumping lakes of fire. But I do believe the F-150 will survive just fine.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2009 Ford F-150 4x4 SuperCrew Lariat

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Base price: $37,990

Price, as tested: $44,600

Powertrain: 5.4-liter, 24-valve single overhead cam V8 with variable valve timing and deceleration fuel shut-off; six-speed automatic transmission; four-wheel drive with two-speed transfer case and limited-slip differential

Horsepower: 320 at 5,000 rpm

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Torque: 390 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm

Curb weight: 5,628 pounds

0-60 mph: >8 seconds

Wheelbase: 144.5 inches

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Overall length: 231.7 inches

EPA fuel economy: 14 mpg city, 18 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Keep on truckin’


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