2011 Ford F-150 Review – First Drive

With four new powertrains to choose from, the 2011 F-150, has raised the bar considerably in the pickup segment

2011 Ford F-150 Review – First Drive
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When you’ve got a best-selling vehicle on your hands, it’s conventional wisdom to try and stay ahead of the competition every way you can. And in the case of the venerable F-150, Ford’s been doing everything in its power to do just that.

FAST FACTS

1. The V6 returns as the base engine in the F-150 with the 3.7L making 302-hp and 278 ft-lbs, and rated to tow 6700 lbs.

2. Ford’s EcoBoost twin-turbo 3.5L V6 is also offered for 2011 with 365-hp and 420 ft-lbs and capable of towing 11.300 lbs.

3. Two V8s also joint the lineup, the new 5.0L block with 360-hp and 380 ft-lbs with a 10,000-lb tow rating, while the Raptor’s 411-hp/434 ft-lb 6.2L is also available.

4. Ford is the first to market with electric power steering on a full-size pickup, plus all new 2011 F-150s get a 6-speed automatic.

5. 2011 F-150s will become available in the final quarter of 2010, with EcoBoost models coming early next year.

When the current generation truck was launched for the 2009 model year it raised the bar for the segment in many ways – features such as standard trailer brake control, unrivaled towing capacity, plus software stuff like SYNC and Ford Work Solutions, ushered in the next generation of full-size, half-ton pickup. Yet, along with the improvements to the frame, suspension, cab, box and steering, there was one aspect that perhaps lagged behind – powertrains.

As launched, the 2009 F-150 was only available with two engines, the venerable 4.6 and 5.4-liter V8s. They were decent enough, but at the time represented part of the F-150’s past, not its future. Now, for 2011, it has become apparent they were little more than a stopgap with the Blue Oval having now introduced four new engines, each coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission. This represents an industry first – something the automaker is keen to point out.

TWO V6 AND TWO V8 OPTIONS

Perhaps not surprising, and given the impending 35 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, a V6 engine returns as the base motor in the F-150 for the first time since the 2008 model year. But it’s no hoary old pushrod engine; instead it’s a thoroughly modern 3.7-liter all-aluminum dual overhead cam piece – and what a motor it is! Featuring twin independent variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts, it’s rated at 302 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 278 ft-lbs of torque; the latter coming in at 4000 revs per minute. Whereas previous six-cylinder engines in the F-150 were considered little more than an afterthought and generally resulted in a pickup that was underpowered, the 3.7 is quite the opposite. In fact, combined with the six-speed transmission’s gearing calibration, it’s actually quite the performer.

During a roughly 1/8th mile dragstrip test, in a Super Cab F-150 equipped with this motor/trans combination, we were able to blast through the traps in around 9-10 seconds and on the first/second upshift, the thing almost bounced off the rev limiter. It’s also more than an adequate for towing – Ford rates at a maximum capacity of 6,100 lbs, which means yanking a pair of snowmobiles or jet skis behind it, or even a collector car or horse box shouldn’t pose a problem.

The step up engine in the 2011 F-150 is the new 5.0-liter V8 and marks the first time an engine of this hallowed displacement has called the F-150 home since 1996. However, it’s a far cry from the old 302 Windsor engine, instead being a state-of-the-art, high performance piece that debuted in the 2011 Mustang GT. For truck use it’s been modified somewhat, sporting traditional exhaust manifolds instead of headers and a different state of tune – but it still incorporates all the goodies like six-bearing main caps, oil jets for the pistons to reduce friction and free breathing cylinder heads with twin variable valve timing.

In truck tune, it’s rated at 360 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 380 ft-lbs of torque at 4250. It’s a highly polished piece, with smooth, progressive power delivery almost right through the rev range. It’s also got one of the most fantastic exhaust notes of any modern pickup and it’s a harmonious match with the six-speed automatic transmission – shifts are crisp and precise and unlike the old 4.6 or 5.4 this is one engine that never feels like it’s running out of breath. A 10,000-lb. tow capacity rating is simply the icing on the cake.

ECOBOOST V6 PACKS PLENTY OF TORQUE, TOWING CAPABILITY

Perhaps the most significant engine in the 2011 F-150 is Ford’s 3.5-liter ‘EcoBoost’ twin-turbo V6. It’s already been employed in various Ford/Lincoln passenger cars and crossover utilities, but this marks it’s first application in a traditional rear-wheel drive format.

Rated at 365 horsepower and a whopping 420 ft-lbs of torque, it’s been conceived to combine the best attributes of power one expects in a modern pickup, with significant gains in fuel economy. It’s tuned slightly differently than in the passenger cars, but nevertheless, 90 percent of peak torque is available at as little as 1700 rpm and despite the considerable girth of the F-150, it’s still a veritable hot rod engine. It’s got no problem chirping the tires in first through fourth and reminds us of the old F-150 supercharged Lightning with a tune and a pulley swap.

During timed acceleration runs, it blasted through our 1/8th drag strip in under eight seconds and because the torque spread is across such a wide rpm range, (all the way up to 5000 rpm – peak is at 2500), despite its displacement, it’s a great tow engine. We hitched an EcoBoost F-150 to a 6,700-lb trailer and it had now problem traversing hills or accelerating up steep freeway on ramps.

Because turbo engines are still often equated with spotty reliability, Ford has gone to great lengths to ensure the 3.5 EcoBoost is as durable as they come – including tests that comprise 150,000 miles of severe duty use and 13,000 hours in the dyno lab (including extended runs at full throttle and extreme temperatures). Features such as a die-cast block and oil pan, six-bolt main bearing caps, pistons with steel ring carriers and direct acting mechanical bucket valvetrain, were all conceived for optimum durability. It’s also the only V6 engine in a truck that’s rated at a maximum 11,300-lb towing capacity and can achieve decent fuel economy, though don’t expect more than 25 miles per gallon average under normal driving conditions – less if hauling a load or towing.

The final engine in the 2011 F-150 roster is Ford’s 6.2-liter V8. Used in the Raptor and higher end F-150s like the new Lariat Limited, Platinum and Harley Davidson editions, it is unlike the others in that it’s a single overhead cam design. But it’s still the most powerful in the lineup – rated at 411 horsepower and 434 ft-lbs of torque. Like the others, it’s coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature that uses buttons mounted on the handle and delivers strong, satisfying throttle response – particularly in the mid range. As it’s the standard engine in the larger Super Duty trucks it also makes the gilded edge F-150s highly capable vehicles in their own right and 22-inch wheels or not, a Lariat Limited or Harley Davidson edition can still yank up to 11,300 lbs.

ADDED UPGRADES INCLUDE ELECTRIC POWER STEERING

While engines are the big thing for 2011, there are other changes as well. On all F-150s, except those powered by 6.2-liter engines, Ford has adopted electric power assisted steering or ePAS. Instead of using a conventional hydraulic pump to boost the steering at all times, it relies on an electric motor and software based tuning, considerably reducing parasitic loss. The result is said to be around a four-percent increase in fuel economy, since ePAS is an on-demand system. It’s also specifically tuned for each configuration of F-150, designed to deliver maximum feel and maneuverability, whether turning at slow speeds in parking lots or out on the open road. It’s also speed sensitive and is designed to help correct irregularities on the road, such as crosswinds, camber changes or bumps. Compared to some electric systems we’ve tried in passenger cars and SUVs, it feels smooth and responsive, further enhancing the F-150s directional control, which was already just about the best in a half-ton pickup.

Other features for the 2011 models include the addition of off-road packages to the XLT and Lariat trim levels, with specific off-road shock tuning, skid plates and an electronically locking rear differential, plus there’s the high-zoot Lariat Limited. Offered in just a single exterior color, White Platinum tri-coat, it sports a unique grille, powered retractable running boards, chrome tie down hooks, monster 22-inch chrome wheels and a specifically tuned suspension. The FX2 and FX4 packages also share a greater commonality – now sporting the same grilles, standard 18-inch wheels, body colored mirrors and door handles.

Additional equipment includes a standard, factory installed remote start, larger 4.2-inch center stack screen and bigger rear view mirror back up camera display. Plus there’s a 110-volt power outlet, express up/down front door windows and a three-point seat belt harness for the center rider on bench seat equipped trucks.

THE VERDICT

Ford has yet to announce official pricing or fuel economy ratings for the 2011 F-150, although it does say the new truck will be priced competitively, (possibly slight less than the equivalent 2010s) and deliver up to 20 percent better fuel mileage. If Ford delivers then we can unequivocally say 2011 F-150 has raised the bar in the segment once again.

The performance from all four engines is outstanding; particularly the two V6s, while the V8s are strong both on acceleration and charisma. Based on our observations, fuel economy is also rather impressive too, especially as some rivals (notably Ram) frequently struggle to reach an average of 20 plus miles per gallon in regular driving. Combined with improvements in steering response, transmission shifting feel, a high payload and towing capacity, plus a trim level and features to suit nearly every budget, Ford’s latest F-150 has enough tricks up it’s sleeve that the competition will face a tough time matching it for the foreseeable future.

LOVE IT

  • Impressive acceleration from all four engines
  • Good steering response, ride and handling
  • Many options and features to choose from

LEAVE IT

  • Turning radius still not that great
  • 3.5-liter still more ‘Boost’ than ‘Eco’
  • Size

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