You may have heard that the 2015 Ford F-150 wears an aluminum body. And the truth is, the use of aluminum in a mass-produced pickup is a really big deal, one that “cost a few dollars,” says Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford Americas.
Nine months after the 2015 Ford F-150’s debut at the 2014 Detroit auto show, we’ve come to Texas to learn something more basic about this aluminum truck: Is it any good?
The Ford F-150 remains the best-selling vehicle in America, but it has trailed competitors in refinement and driving dynamics for some time. Has Ford improved the basics of its venerable pickup even as it discovered the wonders of aluminum extrusions, structural adhesives, and rivets (some 2700 rivets, in fact)?
Business as usual in an F-150
The 2015 Ford F-150 has had an unusually long gestation period that dates back to 2009. That’s how long it takes to engineer a new frame and body, retool a factory (say hello to Robot the Riveter), and train thousands of body repair shops in the art of aluminum repair.
For all that time and effort, the 2015 F-150’s styling looks like just a mid-cycle refresh. The minor changes include a more rounded grille, and the look is even less significant as we fall in with swarms of late-model F-150s around San Antonio. Upper trim-level models of the new truck will be more recognizable at night thanks to their LED headlights and taillights. Other changes are similarly subtle and purposeful. For instance, did you notice that the indentations behind the door handles are deeper to make it easier to enter the truck while wearing gloves? Or that there are now (optional) loading ramps latched onto the side of the bed? Or the larger tailgate step?
An evolutionary, function-before-form approach also informs the cabin design. Those capacitive controls Ford has been touting for years? Won’t find ’em here. Instead you have logically laid out, XXL-size buttons and knobs. The changes “are all about evolution, not revolution,” says human factors engineer Cary Diehl.
The shift lever on the center console still looks like a big ole’ shifter, just like you’d expect in a pickup, but Diehl points out how it supports our arm while we tap at the touchscreen for the navigation system. Even the location of the new electronic parking brake -- to the left of the steering wheel -- has been carefully considered to not upset customers who have spent years learning the cockpit layout of the F-150. It’s all very sensible, but we wish the cabin looked nicer -- neither the design nor the materials match what’s offered in the Ram 1500.
EcoBoost is the modern way
We begin our time in Texas by driving some variants of the 2015 F-150 that feature the twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6, starting with the new 325-hp, 2.7-liter version pictured below. This EcoBoost engine feels plenty responsive, with little turbo lag and plenty of passing power at higher rpm. It never sounds breathless, even as we climb some of the hills that give Texas Hill Country its name. And the carryover six-speed automatic transmission doesn’t hunt for gears either.
For its part, the 365-hp EcoBoost V-6 feels downright fast. With the 6.2-liter V-8 now reserved for Super Duty trucks, this twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 is now the top engine you can get in the F-150 lineup, and it feels up to the task. (A normally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 and a 5.0-liter V-8 will still be offered for the F-150, though.) Throaty engine intake noise from the turbo V-6 is piped into the cabin to approximate V-8 sound, but really, there’s no need to apologize for the cylinder count. Ford says the engine has already accounted for 44 percent of F-150 sales in 2014.
Of course, part of the F-150’s performance owes to the fact that these engines have less truck to lug around. Ford says the aluminum body, along with a stiffer and lighter new frame composed of more high-strength steel than before, cuts some 700 pounds from the weight of the previous-generation F-150. Ford has yet to publicize fuel economy numbers -- the raison d’etre for the aluminum body -- but promises they’ll be up to 20 percent better.
Light on its feel as you’re driving down the road
Weight loss also contributes to an improvement in ride quality, another major goal of the program for the aluminum-bodied 2015 Ford F-150, according to chief engineer Pete Reyes. Specifically, Ford wants to eliminate the secondary shake that most pickups experience when they ride over bumps. The F-150’s rear suspension continues to use leaf springs -- coil springs like those in the Ram 1500 are a “bad choice,” says Ford truck marketing manager Doug Scott -- but the geometry has been revised to limit rear-axle movement. Reyes also credits a wider, more rigid frame and retuned hydraulic body mounts for the reduction in body shake.
No surprise, an aluminum pickup still drives like a pickup. The 2015 Ford Ford F-150 is much better, though. The steering effort is a bit light for our taste, but the steering action is quick and direct, and it commands predictable dynamic responses from the truck. When we speed through the corners, the front and rear wheels feel as if they actually belong to one vehicle, instead of that feeling like you’re in a cab that’s pulling a trailer.
This is true even when we actually pull a 9000-pound trailer. The 3.5-liter V-6 has no trouble accelerating to and maintaining highway speeds. More aggressive engine braking in tow/haul mode mitigates the "oh s----" moment when you reach a traffic light or downhill stretch and remember there are an extra 4.5 tons to stop.
Better because it’s aluminum; better because it’s better
It’s easy to drive the 2015 Ford F-150, shrug, and think, “Yup, it’s a Ford F-150.” Nevertheless, the Ford development team considers this a huge victory. They have spent years making sure an aluminum F-150 will continue to appeal to the legions of customers who have been very happy with their steel F-150s.
In this respect, the new truck reminds us of a very different aluminum vehicle, the 2004-2009 Jaguar XJ (which, Ford reminds us, was developed with help from engineers who still work in Dearborn). Like that car, the new F-150 does its very best not to advertise how modern it is. But don’t be fooled. In its construction, its cabin, and in the way it goes down the road, the 2015 Ford F-150 is a much more refined tool than the one it replaces.
2015 Ford F-150 Specifications
Engines:3.5L V-6/283 hp, 255 lb-ft; 2.7L twin-turbo V-6/325 hp, 375 lb-ft; 5.0L V-8/385 hp, 387 lb-ft; 3.5L twin-turbo V-6/365 hp, 420 lb-ft
Layout:3-6-passenger, 2- or 4-door, front-engine, RWD/4WD truck
L x W x H:209.3-250.5 x 79.9 x 75.2-76.9 in
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