I've got to think that when Bill Ford goes to bed at night he says a little prayer of thanks for the F-150 pickup truck. That's because Ford's chairman and chief executive knows that for the past 30 years the F-150 has been the nation's top-selling truck -- and the top-selling vehicle of any type for 25. My test truck had a sticker in the corner of the windshield proudly proclaiming that it was made at Ford's Dearborn, Mich., truck plant. There's something very satisfying about driving a vehicle made by union workers in a domestic factory and knowing that it's one of the best products around.
I'm not the only one who would love to own an F-150, either. Car and Driver magazine recently declared the F-150 the best pickup truck on the market. And if present trends continue, Ford will sell more than 900,000 F-Series pickup trucks again this year -- the third consecutive year -- with the F-150 accounting for about 60% of the total, or roughly 550,000 units. To put that into perspective, last year Toyota only sold 431,703 Camrys, the nation's best-selling sedan.
The F-150 continues to kick butt, even as gasoline prices soar and sales of other pickup truck models suffer. Ford doesn't break down its full-size pickup sales by models (which also include the bigger F-250 and F-350). But based on the numbers it does provide, F-150 sales are up about 10% in the first three months of this year, to roughly 120,000 units (Camry sales, by the way, are off 4.8% so far this year). The increase is coming entirely from high-priced, club cab versions of the truck. Ford says sales of F-150s with the biggest, "SuperCrew" cab were up 26% in March.
Still, I can't help having some nagging worries that the F-150 may be cruising into some very bumpy terrain. There's tough new competition coming out later this year when Toyota plans to debut a bigger, fancier version of its Tundra pickup (with a maximum 10,000 pounds towing capacity, equal to the F-150's). Also, General Motors is coming out with redesigned Silverado and Sierra models.
The Dodge Ram has already taken the lead in cab size with its hot-selling Mega Cab. In what may be a troubling portent of things to come, Ford is offering cash rebates of up to $3,000 on F-150s right now. That's great for consumers, but it also means the company may rely on price-cutting to keep sales up.
Meanwhile, there are indications that the F-150's quality is sliding a bit. J.D. Power & Associates (MHP) gives the truck a solid three stars for the quality of its mechanics, body and interior, and performance, and five stars for features and accessories. But Consumer Reports has this to say about the truck in its 2006 Buyer's Guide: "Reliability has dropped below average for the two-wheel model and the four-wheel drive model has remained below average."
Even so, the F-150 remains the full-size truck to beat, as far as I'm concerned. Climb behind the wheel, and you immediately understand why it's so popular. There's absolutely no doubt you're in a truck when you drive this vehicle. The ride is smooth and comfortable -- there's no bouncing at highway speed -- but solid and truck-like. The engine has a growl that's very appealing (rather than annoying, like the whine of the engine in the Nissan Titan).
Handling is tighter than in other pickups, something Car and Driver attributes to the structural rigidity Ford has built into the F-150's frame. Ford, the magazine says in its March issue, has "contrived to make its body-on-frame F-series feel as rigid as the most solid sedans, and this provides a sense of quality and confidence that no other truck can match."
Ford did a major redesign on the F-150 in 2004, and both the external and interior styling are very appealing. The front end has an aggressive look to it that I prefer to any other pickup. Fit and finish is good, too: the gaps around the doors and hood are uniform and tight. The F-150's big advantage over its Japanese rivals is the wide variety of available styles and drivetrains.
There are three available engines: A 202-horsepower V6, and 231- and 300-horsepower V8s. Body styles include a regular cab, extended cab, and the roomy SuperCrew cab. All F-150s have four doors so there's easy access to the storage space behind the seats, even in regular cab models. Bed lengths range from five-and-a-half feet to eight feet.
The interior is beautifully made and features a new system of moveable overhead storage bins for holding gloves and other stuff that would clutter up the cab. Buyers have numerous interior styles to choose from, ranging from a plain bench seat with cloth upholstery to the luxurious Lariat models with leather and wood trim. At the very high end, the "King Ranch" F-150 has even more wood and sumptuous saddle leather upholstery.
Ford continues to add new styles, too. The new Harley-Davidson edition I test-drove is half-macho, half downtown-Manhattan hip. It comes with a sinister black paint job, stitched black leather throughout the interior, and distinctive angular chrome inside door handles and highlights around the air ducts. The dash forms a wide expanse of black leather with a big tray in the middle like the ones a lot of guys have on their bedroom dressers to toss their wallet and keys into at the end of the day.
There's Harley-style pinstriping on the truck's flanks, and a plaque on the dash with the number of your vehicle (mine was No. 01035). The instrument dials have a motorcycle-style patterned aluminum background and needles colored Harley-Davidson orange.
With more than 40 styles to choose from, the F-150's pricing covers the gamut, too. The basic two-wheel drive, regular-cab version with the V6 is pretty cheap, starting at $19,805, though you can get a base Silverado for a couple of grand less. The midrange XLT starts at around $29,000 with an extended cab, and $31,000 with the SuperCrew cab.
Among the fancier versions, the Harley-Davidson edition -- which comes standard with leather interior, captain's chairs, and spoked wheels, and is the first F-150 that can be had with full time all-wheel drive -- starts at $35,645. Lariat versions -- which have leather seats and wood interior highlights -- start out at $34,015, while the top-of-the-line King Ranch version has a minimum price of $37,180.
Available options include a rear-seat entertainment center ($1,295), a moonroof ($995), heated seats ($645), chrome running boards ($495), satellite radio ($195), and power adjustable pedals ($120).
With basic two-wheel drive, F-150 is rated to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 20 on the highway. But mileage isn't great in powerful big-cab models, which weigh as much as 5,700 pounds. They're rated to get about 14 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway, but in a stretch of 160 miles of mainly highway driving I only got 14 mpg in my Harley-Davidson version with a big V8. F-150s take regular gas, and you can get a flexible fuel V8 (that can run on 85% ethanol fuel) in some models for an extra $895.
NO TIME TO SKIMP.
In addition to the reliability doubts raised by Consumer Reports, the F-150 has a few downsides. Acceleration is quite sluggish, even with the biggest V8 engine. A loaded-up F-150 goes from zero to sixty in around nine seconds by my count -- vs. just around seven for the Nissan Titan. The F-150 earns top marks in front and front-offset crash tests, but doesn't come with side or side-curtain airbags -- not even as an option. That makes me worry that Ford isn't investing enough to keep the F-150 at the cutting edge of technology.
Still, when I think back on driving the F-150, I want one -- and that's what counts. I just hope Bill Ford is putting enough money into his franchise truck to keep it the best it can be.