F-series is one of the most important nameplates in the automotive universe, and we all know why: for most of the past three decades, the F-series has been in the number-one spot on the U.S. sales charts. If you thought that Ford would veer from its proven formula for the 2009 F-150, think again. After all, it was designed and engineered long before last summer's gas-price-induced market meltdown.
Yet Ford is doing its best to position the F-150 for the new reality. Just before the 2009 model's launch, the company cobbled together the new, more fuel-efficient SFE model, which is rated at 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. And rather than apologizing for the F-150's size (and trust us, it's big, and it's an inch taller than before), engineers highlight the truck's increased capabilities by implying that it would make a good replacement for an aging heavy-duty pickup. Well, OK. The flip side of that message, though, is that if you aren't looking to tow a trailer or haul heavy loads on a regular basis, the new F-150 might be too much truck for you. The coil-sprung 2009 Dodge Ram is much more comfortable for daily driving and offers all the capability that most people will ever need in a half-ton truck.
Still, bragging rights are bragging rights, and the Ram can't hold a candle to the F-150's 11,300-pound maximum towing capacity, which is achievable when you pony up for the 5.4-liter V-8 and its six-speed automatic transmission. The upside of that powertrain is 310 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque. The downside is an EPA rating of 14/18 mpg in four-wheel-drive guise.
Another bragging point is the pickup's well-turned-out cabin, which is almost as quiet as a luxury car's due to extra sound insulation. The King Ranch model returns for 2009, but its place at the top of the F-150 pecking order has been taken by the sumptuous new Platinum model. With the most luxurious truck interior on the market, featuring brushed-aluminum accents and wood trim, the Platinum ought to placate buyers who mourn the demise of the Lincoln Mark LT, if such people exist.
Ford's Sync system, a new option on the F-150, now includes the ability to dial 911 in the event of an accident and offers a vehicle maintenance report in addition to the usual Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. The navigation system can join forces with Sirius Travel Link to locate the cheapest fuel, give real-time traffic information, and provide weather reports. Like the systems in the new Ford Flex and the Lincoln MKS, this setup looks and works about ten times better than Ford's previous sat-nav efforts.
On paper, then, everything looks pretty rosy for Ford's star seller. You're looking at class-leading fuel economy and capability, along with almost limitless configurations of cab size, bed length, and interior trim. But then you get behind the wheel, and the new F-150 doesn't feel significantly different from the 2008 model. Engineers boast about weight reduction (up to 100 pounds less than the previous truck, depending on configuration), but dropping 100 pounds from a 5000-plus-pound behemoth doesn't exactly lend it razor-sharp reflexes.
If you're a die-hard fan of Ford pickups, the 2009 F-150 is everything you'd expect, but the bottom line is that it isn't that much different from the '08 model. Everything from the design to the powertrain has evolved slightly, but there aren't any brilliant advances beneath the sheetmetal. Whether that's enough to keep the F-150 in the running for the sales crown remains to be seen.
On sale: Now
Engines: 4.6L V-8, 248/292 hp, 294/320 lb-ft; 5.4L V-8, 310 hp, 365 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
Every Mile Per Gallon Matters
Automakers are scrambling to deliver better fuel economy across the board, even in pickup trucks. According to Ford, fuel economy moved from tenth place to third in a list of buyer considerations when purchasing a new truck.
Last summer, General Motors introduced the 2009 Xtra Fuel Economy GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado, which use a combination of cylinder deactivation, taller final-drive gearing, slight aerodynamic enhancements, low-rolling-resistance tires, and reduced mass to squeeze EPA ratings of 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway from a 5.3-liter V-8 with a six-speed automatic.
A month later, Ford conveniently released information on the Superior Fuel Economy F-150, which is equipped with a 4.6-liter 24-valve V-8, a six-speed automatic transmission, and taller gearing. Its EPA fuel economy ratings match those of the extrafrugal GM trucks.
Both the XFE and SFE trucks are available only as rear-wheel-drive crew cabs and feature prominent badges to identify them as new models, which qualifies them for a standalone EPA rating (since there are similar models with the same drivetrain and worse fuel economy ratings).