Photography Courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Granted, we love our Mustangs, but when it comes to a daily driver, there’s a lot be said about buying a truck to accompany our favorite steed in the garage. Also, if we like traveling long distance to a major show or event with our prized pony, driving it up onto a trailer and hitching it up to a tow vehicle often makes sense and provides greater flexibility, especially if it’s a long weekend away.
And for such purposes, Ford’s F-series trucks have long been the ideal choice (not only because they’re Blue Oval vehicles), but because they’re highly capable machines in their own right. Even today, the F-series remains one of the best selling vehicles on the road and the best selling truck in America. But with impending higher targets for fuel economy standards coming from the Feds, the folks in Dearborn have been hard at work, adding some improvements.
Most notable, for the 2011 model year has been the addition of four new engines. Base F-150s are now powered by a version of the same dual overhead cam 3.7-liter V-6 used in the regular Mustang, while a version of the new 5.0-liter V-8 is also available. In addition, Ford’s much-touted 3.5-liter EcoBoost is also available, while the high-end editions – Lariat, Platinum, and Harley Davidson are available with the Raptor’s 6.2-liter V-8.
3.7-liter V-6: Part of an integrated package
The base engine is interesting. When Ford first unveiled the current F-150, back in the fall of 2008, there were those that were surprised a six-cylinder powertrain wasn’t available, the base engine at that time being a hoary old two-valve 4.6-liter “Modular” V-8. However, a bent-six is back and after evaluating an F-150 powered by one, we have to say that it’s rather impressive. Rated at 302 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque, Ford says it’s designed to tow loads of up to 6,700 pounds, significantly higher than most V-6 trucks currently on the market. What we did find, after saddling up for a test drive, was that the 2011 V-6 powered F-150 is a serious package, not just something thrown together to provide an entry-level price point. Combined with the standard six-speed automatic transmission (no manual gearbox F-150 is currently offered), the little bent six, delivered impressive get-up and go, displaying a level of smoothness not usually seen in six-cylinder truck engines. Despite being a dual overhead cam design, it also wasn’t peaky. Aided by the truck’s twin independent cam timing and overall gearing, much of the engine’s torque was in the 3,000 rpm range where it really proved effective, even when hauling a 1,500-pound bed load up relatively steep grades. The transmission was also eager and smooth in operation, not too early to upshift, nor too aggressive in kick-down when decelerating.
5.0-liter V-8: the current staple
As impressive as the V-6 was, we couldn’t wait to sample a 2011 F-150 powered by the new 5.0-liter V-8 (must be the Mustang Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking all these years). For truck duty however, Mike Harrison’s (Ford V-8 Engine Program Manager) dual overhead cam, 32 valve masterpiece has been modified slightly, with steel manifolds instead of headers, lower 10.5:1 compression ratio, different mapping and unique intake and exhaust cams to improve torque delivery at lower rpm, though it retains goodies such as six-bearing main caps, oil jets for the pistons to limit internal friction and twin independent variable cam timing. It cranks out 360 hp at 5,500 rpm 380 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 which might seam fairly peaky, but when combined with the six-speed automatic transmission and 3.73:1 rear axle ratio, the result is a pickup that’s got plenty of useable power, but yet can be revved almost infinitely – a far cry from the old pushrod 302, last seen in the ’96 models. And out of all the new F-150s we’ve tested, the 5.0-engined truck is without doubt, the best sounding. In fact, it has one of the most melodious exhaust notes of any modern vehicle on the road – we found ourselves punching the throttle at highway speeds, just to hear that rumble.
We also felt that, even with a substantial load behind it, the 5.0 equipped 2011 F-150 XLT SuperCab was rather effortless to drive. Pulling a 6,000-pound trailer up and down grades in Texas cattle country was almost nothing for this rig and we had to repeatedly glance into those big, flat mirrors now and again, just to make sure there was a load behind us.
Ford says that a 5.0 equipped F-150 should be able to yank 10,000 pounds behind it with no issues and although we have yet to pull that much mass behind one, given our own trailer testing, it’s likely easily possible and certainly impressive, even in the modern ½-ton full-size pickup segment. At this point in the game it’s likely the 5.0 will likely be the volume engine in the F-series, though Ford is betting that with time, the twin turbo EcoBoost might make a dent in traditional V-8 sales.
3.5-liter Ecoboost: Something different
Given all the recent talk about fuel mileage and the high gas weighing on many minds, plus the upcoming Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which mandate a 35 mpg average for all automakers that sell vehicles in the United States, Ford is looking everywhere it can to boost efficiency for its best-seller without sacrificing capability.
So far, the most logical choice appears to be reducing displacement and relying on forced induction, hence a version of the 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6, found in the Taurus SHO, Flex, Lincoln MKS/MKT and now, in the 2011 F-150. For truck duty, it marks the first time this engine has been used in a rear-wheel drive configuration and Ford has gone to great lengths to promote its durability, including an advertising campaign where, among other things a single engine is subjected to 150,000 miles of severe use in a lab before being dropped in a pickup and run in the Baja 1000. Utilizing such features as six-main bearing caps, special heavy-duty pistons with steel ring carriers to withstand high boost and direct acting mechanical valvetrain, it’s clear this engine was conceived for heavy use and longevity.
Ford rates the F-150 EcoBoost engine at 365 horsepower and stump pulling 420 lb-ft of torque. Although it’s been tuned differently for truck use (around 90 percent of total torque is available at just 1,700 rpm), when you punch the throttle it hauls. During an instrumented 8th mile dragstrip run, we recorded less than 9 seconds to cross the line, while out on the highway The EcoBoost powered F-150 had no problem coping with any situation thrown at it. In terms of towing, Ford rates the F-150 EcoBoost at a staggering 11,300 pounds, which is the highest of any truck V-6 currently on the market. Although we didn’t subject our test truck to this kind of hauling – with 7,000 pounds in total weight it took everything in its stride. Like all other 2011 F-150s it comes equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission and provided your apply the throttle gingerly, you can be rewarded with close to 30 mpg – not bad for a 5,000 pound pickup! If there’s any drawback we could detect at this early stage of the game, it’s the exhaust note. It’s not as hearty as we would like it to sound.
6.2-liter V-8: Bragging rights come standard
The final engine offering, though restricted to the luxury F-150s, Lariat, Platinum and the high performance Raptor, is a 6.2-liter single overhead cam V-8 rated at 411 horsepower and 434 lb-ft of torque. A variant of that used in the F-series Super Duty, it utilizes a relatively large bore and short stroke, in conjunction with twin spark plugs for each cylinder. This configuration is designed to promote fast burning and enables the 6.2 V-8 to make maximum power and torque at relatively high rpm. In normal driving you can sense that the power is there, but it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as either the 5.0 V-8 or EcoBoost V-6. The fact that it will be limited to specialty trucks suggests this is one engine more for bragging rights than anything else, though according to Ford engineers it does match the EcoBoost for towing ability – 11,300 pounds. It also sounds impressive, bested only by the 5.0 in the exhaust note department.
Besides the new engine lineup, other significant developments on the 2011 F-150 include a select shift option on the six-speed automatic, which allows the driver to hold the truck in particular gear, for increased vehicle control, as well as a progressive range select feature to lock out the available gears when the transmission is in “drive,” plus electric power assisted steering or EPAS as Ford’s engineering department refers to it.
Another nod to fuel economy savings, electric steering dispenses with the need for an engine driven hydraulic pump, reducing parasitic loss. Because EPAS uses software based tuning to optimize steering feel, it can be more finely adjusted for different driving scenarios. We also found it easier to operate than the old hydraulic system, resulting in a more maneuverable truck at parking lot and slow city speeds, while out on the road it felt more responsive – even during crosswinds with a trailer hitched on the back, less correction was required than on previous F-150s. As for other new features, in the interests of safety, Ford has also added integrated spotting mirrors for improved visibility as well as a three-point belt and head rest for front and rear middle seat riders respectively.
When the current F-150 was first introduced as a ’09 model, many felt that it was a great truck in search of better drivelines. For 2011 that’s now become a reality and the fact is, these new engines, combined with improved steering and features such as a full boxed frame, extra long rear springs and neat features such as full foldable rear seats, built in box steps and Ford’s Work Solutions software package, make an already great truck even better – a machine that can not only handle all kinds of work chores, but one that also makes a great tow vehicle for your Mustang or classic Ford.
The F-150 is ready to tow your classic to a show, quarter-miler to the track, or haul your gear to your next job.
The interior is extremely comfortable – it’s like a living room on wheels.
It’s likely the 5.0 will likely be the volume engine in the F-series.
Ford is betting that with time, the twin turbo EcoBoost might make a dent in traditional V-8 sales.