The Good: Better fuel economy, quieter ride, bigger crew cab, rebates
The Bad: No hybrid version, engines still not as powerful as rivals'
The Bottom Line: America's top-selling vehicle gets better for '09
There's one market in which the Detroit Three remain the clear leaders: full-size pickup trucks. In small pickups, Toyota's (TM) Tacoma has all but destroyed the domestic competition: Last year, Toyota sold 144,655 of its little pickups despite a 16.8% drop in sales, only slightly less than the combined total sales of Ford's (F) Ranger, General Motors' (GM) Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and Chrysler's Dodge Dakota.
The situation is reversed when it comes to large pickups. Last year, Ford's F-Series was once again America's top-selling vehicle, even though sales fell 25.4%, to 515,513. The Chevy Silverado was No. 2 at 465,065, down 24.8%, but if you include the very similar GMC Sierra, GMwas the leader with full-size pickup sales of 633,609. Dodge was way behind but still managed to sell 245,840 Ram pickups last year, down 31%.
The best-selling non-Detroit model, the Toyota Tundra, is an also-ran by comparison. Last year, the Tundra's U.S. sales fell 30.4%, to a mere 137,249, even though the Tundra is newly redesigned and made in Texas. The other main contender, Nissan's (NSANY) Titan, saw its sales drop by almost half, to just 34,053. And no car model came close to matching the F-Series: Toyota sold only 436,617 of the No. 1 Camry last year.
So, if you're shopping for a full-size pickup, should the newly redesigned '09 Ford F-150 be at the top of your list? In a word, "Yes." Ford did a masterful job of improving the F- Series (which also includes the heavy duty F-250, F-350, and F-450) without making any radical changes that might alienate loyal longtime buyers. The styling is more macho, the interior a bit nicer, the engines slightly more powerful, mileage an average of 8% better, and the ride noticeably smoother. The company also added a number of cool new features while maintaining the F-150's enormous number of combinations of features, bed lengths, cabin sizes, and four-wheel versus rear-wheel drive.
There are three choices of engine in the '09 F-150, all V8s. The previous entry-level V6 has been replaced by a 4.6-liter, 248-horsepower V8 paired with a four-speed automatic. Far more desirable for most shoppers are a 4.6-liter V8 that generates 292 hp and a 5.4-liter V8 rated at 310 hp, both coupled with smooth-shifting, fuel-efficient six-speed automatics.
Starting prices range from $22,540 for an entry-level rear-wheel-drive XL with the small engine to $45,330 for the luxurious Platinum F-150 with a crew cab, four-wheel-drive, and the big engine. However, you'll pay less than list price if you buy anytime soon because Ford is offering $3,000 rebates on the '09 F-150 through March 31.
Ford claims the F-150 is now the safest truck in its class. The '09 earned five-star government crash-test ratings in every category except rollovers, where it got only three stars. It comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock brakes, and a full complement of airbags, including head-protecting side curtain bags.
The base model F-150 is rated at 14 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the highway, rising to 15/21 with an optional SFE (Super Fuel Economy) package. A typical extended-cab/four-wheel-drive version of the truck is rated at 14 mpg in the city, 18 on the highway. However, in 385 miles of winter driving I got only 14.7 mpg in a fancy King Ranch F-150.
Plans for a 2010 launch of a diesel-powered F-150 have been postponed, a spokeswoman says. She wouldn't say if the company has any plans to introduce a hybrid F-150 to match the new gasoline/electric versions of the Silverado and Sierra, which average more than 20 mpg.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
Everything about the new F-150 says "big truck." It's decidedly more aggressive-looking than before, with a squarer, slab-like side profile and an imposing new front end dominated by Ford's trademark three-barred front grille. In low-end models, the grille is a sinister-looking black, and gains chrome as you move up the line.
The F-150's cabin is quieter and the ride smoother than before, partly because Ford stiffened the truck's frame and gave it a new, double-wishbone front suspension. The F-150 remains rugged, but is also quiet and comfortable on the highway. You can switch in and out of four-wheel-drive on the fly at the flick of a knob.
The F-150 isn't as quick and powerful as the Toyota Tundra, but it's plenty fast if you go with the big engine. I clocked my extended cab King Ranch test truck with the big engine at 7.9 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, about a second slower than a comparable Tundra but nearly a second faster than a comparable Silverado. Acceleration at highway speed is excellent.
The cabin remains truck-like, with a squared-off, nearly vertical dash-front and big, easy-to-use knobs. The interior can be upgraded with numerous niceties, including wood trim, leather seats, a power moonroof, and navigation and backup systems. An unusual techie feature is a small, color LCD screen integrated into the rearview mirror that displays the image from the backup camera. One convenience option that's conspicuously missing: There's no rear-seat entertainment system in the F-150, as there is in the Ram, Tundra, and Silverado.
Buyers have the choice of a regular cab, extended cab, or a crew cab that is now roomier and a half-foot longer than before. The captain's chair front seats in my test truck were downright luxurious, and leg space in the back seat was impressive. Rear leg-room is rated at 43.5 inches, more than any model expect the Tundra. The rear seats also fold up against the back wall of the cab, creating a space for hauling big objects inside the cabin. The F-150 is the leader in towing capability, with a maximum capacity of 11,300 lbs.
The bed in the new F-150 may be the most practical of any full-size pickup. Among the truck's handy new features is an optional step integrated into the rear lift-gate that allows one to step up into the bed with a minimum of strain. Other options include power retractable running boards, a retractable step on the bed's side, a stowable bed extender that allows for hauling stuff in back with the lift-gate down, and an innovative optional cargo management system for anchoring loads in place.
BUY IT OR BAG IT
Pickup trucks of all types are great bargains right now. If buyers can get by with a compact model, entry-level Tacomas, Rangers, and Colorados sell for less than $15,000 and average around 22 mpg.
If the big-league towing and hauling capacity of a full-size is really needed, it's also a great time to go shopping: The average cash rebate on '09 full-size light duty pickups is $3,264, according to the Power Information Network. The short take on the F-150's main rivals: The Ram has a smoother ride, the Tundra is quicker, and the Silverado has a nicer cabin and more refined ride. But as a total package the Ford is highly competitive, especially if towing and hauling are priorities.
Even after rebates, however, the new F-150 sells for a relatively high average price of $31,256, according to PIN, $2,250 more than the average for the segment. By comparison, the Silverado goes for an average of $27,260, the GMC Sierra for $28,386, and the Dodge Ram for $29,925. Reversing the usual situation, in which Toyota's reputation for quality and durability commands a premium price, the Toyota Tundra is the bargain alternative with the lowest average price, according to PIN: $26,246. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.)
Price also varies widely depending on which version of each truck you buy. For instance, the crew cab versions of the F-150 sell for an average of $34,885, according to PIN, compared with $28,302 for all-wheel-drive extended-cab versions and just $20,828 for regular-cab versions.
I'm a Ford guy at heart, so I'd probably go with the F-150. Others should test-drive one or more of the rival models before buying. They're gas-guzzlers, but otherwise they're all good.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Ford F-150.
Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.