2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost Review

EcoBoost V6 has the power and capability, but durability still a gamble

2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost Review

Ford’s truck spec Ecoboost V6 has been garnering a lot of attention, but it is it really up to the job?

That’s no doubt a question that many truck buyers are currently asking. With the recent spikes in fuel prices and impending Corporate Average Fuel Economy targets that now include light trucks as well as passenger cars, saving gas has moved from the back to near the top of the list when it comes to pickups.

FAST FACTS

1. EcoBoost V6 models make 365-hp and 420 lb-ft of torque, with 90% of that torque at 1700 rpm.

2. Equipped with the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6, an F-150 has a maximum payload capacity of 3,060 lbs, which currently surpasses all other ½ ton full-size pickups.

3. Max towing is rated at 11,300 lbs – 1,300 more than the 5.0L V8.

4. The EcoBoost engine comes with a $1,055 price premium over the 5.0L V8, which costs $1,000 more than the base 3.7L V6.

5. Ford has yet to announced fuel economy numbers for the EcoBoost V6.

How automakers will meet an average fleet fuel consumption target of 35 miles per gallon for their passenger cars and light trucks remains to be seen. Some pundits predict more use of lightweight materials and the possibility of diesel engines in ½ ton pickups, but Ford’s short-term solution is to employ twin turbocharging, variable cam timing and direct injection.

The result is of course the so-called EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, rated at 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. Naturally, the Blue Oval boys and girls have been going to great lengths to convince F-150 buyers (and there are lots of them), that this engine represents a bridge towards the future, combining V6 fuel economy with V8 power and torque.

DIESEL-LIKE TORQUE CURVE

Compared to Ford’s own new 5.0-liter V8, which in the 2011 F-150 is rated at 360 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque and also boasts independent twin variable cam timing; the EcoBoost might not seem that much of a big deal, especially in view of the fact that it requires an additional $1,055 to upgrade from the 5.0 to a motor with smaller displacement and force induction (which traditionally means more complexity and a greater risk for things to go wrong).

However, it’s the way in which power and torque are delivered that makes this engine stand apart from the herd. During the original long lead introduction last year, AutoGuide got a chance to sample all of the 2011 F-150’s new powertrain combinations, and while it was the 5.0-liter V8 that won us over with its wonderful sounding exhaust note and strong throttle response right through the rev range, the EcoBoost quickly cast its mark.

The combination of small diameter twin turbos and direct injection give the EcoBoost an almost diesel like torque curve.  “It means that this engine generates around 90 percent of its torque at just 1700 rpm,” said Ford spokesman Michael Lord during a press conference. And that peak torque is available all the way through 5500 rpm – essentially the normal operating range of most pickups in daily use.

Compared with Ford’s other V8s, this makes a great deal of sense, especially for those that will be hauling or towing regularly. For comparison’s sake the Ford 5.0-liter makes its maximum 380 lb-ft at 4250 rpm and the big 6.2-liter makes 434 lb-ft at 4500, while Chevy’s 5.3 Vortech V8 delivers 338 lb-ft at 4400 rpm and Ram’s all-conquering Hemi puts out 407 lb-ft at 4000 revs.

Ford is also keen to point out that its engineers spent a great deal of time tuning the software for the engine and six-speed automatic transmission (now standard in all F-150s) to ensure that the truck achieves a harmonious blend between engine speed and gear selection.

And on our test loops, the little V6 was hard to fault. It felt almost as strong and as willing as any ¾ ton diesel pickup we’ve driven, particularly when hitched to a trailer or with a full load in the back of the bed. In fact, when towing a 6,000 lb twin-axle trailer there were times where we barely noticed the load behind us.

FUEL ECONOMY STILL UNCERTAIN

Another advantage is that, unlike many turbo engines the EcoBoost doesn’t even require premium fuel, despite a 10.0:1 compression ratio; just pull in to any gas station, fill ‘er up with your average 87-octane treacle and you’re good to go.

In terms of fuel economy, Ford rates it at best in class, but has been reluctant to publish actual figures. During an economy test run, we managed almost 30 miles per gallon out of one, but that was literally by feathering the throttle, under normal driving conditions, expect a maximum of around 17 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway. Although a significant advancement in pickup truck powertrains, the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6, even with the six-speed automatic, is currently more ‘Boost’ than ‘Eco,’ especially considering the base 3.7-liter V6 almost matches those numbers 16/23.

DURABILITY TESTED, BUT NOT PROVEN

Another question is how this twin-turbo, direct injection, technological wonder will fare in the long run, especially considering that many pickups are on the road for years (count the number of ‘80s era F-150s and even Chevy ½ tons you see next time you’re out driving). Yet although EcoBoost was primarily designed for passenger cars and those with front-drive architecture at that, Ford is quick to point out that the F-150 EcoBoost engine was conceived from the outset for duty in a pickup.

“It’s not really the same engine at all,” said company spokesman Michael Lord. “There are hardly any components shared between this engine and those found in the Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKS/MKT. We designed this one to specifically cope with the demands of truck use.”

And he means very hard use too. In an effort to promote the engine’s strength and longevity, Ford instigated a highly publicized durability test, in which it randomly selected an Ecoboost V6 and subjected it to over 10,000 hours of dyno torture, including extended full-throttle runs and extreme cold and heat, before dropping it in an F-150 SuperCrew and sending the truck up to the Pacific North West for hauling logs. Then that same truck was taken down to Daytona Raceway in Florida, hitched up to a trailer with two stock cars on it (totaling the truck’s maximum 11,300 lbs towing capacity) and run around the course for 24 hours, stopping for just fuel and tire changes.

Then that same engine was pulled out and installed in a F-150 desert racer, which was entered in the grueling Baja 1000. After finishing the event, the engine was sent back to Detroit and at this year’s North American International Auto Show; pulled apart and inspected. The result? Well let’s just say that hardly any wear was showing on the moving parts, even after more than 160,000 grueling miles.

Yet as Ford and others well know, you can do tests like this until you’re blue in the face, but even still, it can be hard to sway the buying public. And the fact remains that the idea of twin-turbos and complexity in a pickup engine goes against the traditional grain. Yes modern V8s employ all kinds of whiz-bang features, but at the end of the day they’re still normally aspirated V8s and go together with a ½ pickup like apple pie does ice cream.

But there are signs that this EcoBoost thing might just be gaining traction. During the ‘Built Ford Tough’ nationwide F-150 driving tours, where the public gets to sample the new trucks firsthand; the engine has been gaining a deal of interest. In Canada in particular, where gas prices are slightly higher, there seems to be a lot of curiosity. In fact, having done stops on both the U.S. and Canadian events, we discovered that on the latter, during its time in Toronto, over 500 people had signed up to experience the F-150 EcoBoost in just one day.

Dealers, although in some cases struggling with supply of the new trucks, are also reporting quick turnarounds. One source told us that when one of the new EcoBoost trucks comes in, it’s out the door in less than 48 hours. And although the $1,055 cost above the 5.0 might initially seem steep, especially among fleet buyers and those placing multiple orders, Ford reports that the projected fuel economy savings (a 5.0 equipped truck will do 15/21 mpg city/highway) will likely make the EcoBoost a smarter buy in the long run.

THE VERDICT

Under a wide variety of different driving conditions, there’s no question the EcoBoost is a highly capable piece. Besides its excellent driveability characteristics, it’s remarkably smooth and refined for a truck engine and the added premium over the V8 is entirely reasonable when you consider the torque curve.

But while fuel economy is also reasonable, at present, the nagging questions of its complexity and ultimate durability remain. Precisely for that reason, the cheaper and far nicer sounding 5.0 will likely command the bulk of F-150 sales, at least in the short term.

RELATED READING

2011 Ford F-150 Review – First Drive 2009 Chevrolet Silverado 2009 Dodge Ram 2009 GMC SIERRA 2010 Toyota Tundra 4×4 Double Cab 4.6L Review

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