When you’re a centenarian, common sense suggests that you’ve little time to waste. Accordingly, the Ford Motor Co., which turns 100 years old on June 16, 2003, has wasted no time at all embarking upon its second century. On the morning of Jan. 6, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford VP Jim Padilla lifted the wraps off what is, for all intents and purposes, the backbone of his company’s past, present and future. With the revelation of the 2004 F-150 pickup to an assembled throng of auto writers and industry executives, Ford is pinning its corporate hopes simultaneously on tradition and change. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a strategic gamble that will largely shape the fortunes of the company’s second 100 years.
Why so dramatic about all this? In the first place, the Ford F-Series pickup is the most prolific vehicle in automotive history. From a debut in 1948 as the F-1 Pickup Truck, this line of vehicles has sold some 27,500,000 units. Celebrating its own 55th birthday in 2003, the Ford F-Series has been the world’s best-selling truck for the last 25 years; and for each of the last 20 years, it has been the best-selling vehicle of any kind.
There is, in short, nowhere for Ford to go with the F-150 but down. There is also no shortage of challenges to complicate Ford’s determination to retain its crown. On the short-term horizon, Ford’s rivals, far from being cowed by the F-150’s success, are hungrier than ever to swipe pieces of the profitable pie that the full-size truck market has become. Not only is traditional rival General Motors perennially nipping at Ford’s heels with its Chevrolet and GMC trucks, but now there’s also Chrysler with its rejuvenated Ram pickups. And no longer content to surrender big trucks to the Big Three, both Toyota and Nissan have muscled into the market with the Toyota Tundra and the newly announced Nissan Titan, both featuring V8 power and big payload capacities.
The longer-term challenge may be more daunting yet: In elite media circles, big trucks are slowly but surely acquiring pejorative reputations once reserved for “right to bear arms” partisans and anti-abortion activists. According to this line of thinking, big trucks hog our fuel, clog our roads and smog our environment. Just last week, in fact, a bunch of well-meaning socialites and opinionators who rarely haul anything heavier than a laptop or a latte for a living launched a series of ads equating owners of heavy-hauling big trucks with collaborators of al Queda. Bill Ford reads the papers. His executives are taking the public pulse. If Ford’s crown jewel is to retain its lustre at the onset of the company’s second century, the F-150 had better become kinder and gentler even while continuing to perform the myriad heavy-duty jobs its owners are expecting it to do.
And so, for 2004, the F-150 has undergone a complete rebirth. Exterior styling is angular and chunky, inspired by a concept vehicle called the “Mighty F-350 TONKA.” With a cargo box now two inches deeper, the new F-150 hauls 13 percent more cargo volume than before. A completely new 5.4-liter, three-valve “Triton” V8 delivers 300 horsepower and 365 stout ft.-lbs. of pulling power. And a redesigned and fortified frame is improved 900 percent for bending stiffness and 200 percent for angular
But even as the exterior gets brawnier, the interior becomes more car-like. Adopting the living-room motif of Lincoln’s Navigator, the F-150 hardly resembles a truck from the inside; it’s more like an office for some, a den for others. Every F-150 now comes standard with four doors, so even the single-bench-seat trucks have accessible indoor cargo storage behind the seats measuring some 15 cu. ft. The most eye-catching innovation is a modular rack system overhead, into which you can clip and unclip all manner of gadgets from cellphone holders and DVD players to rods for hanging clothes.
Even though the cargo bed is enlarged, it’s easier to access because of a “lift-assist” tailgate that feels almost weightless thanks to special springing. The new V8, although more powerful, is also more efficient thanks to variable valve timing and an electronic throttle that interfaces with the electronic four-speed transmission. The result is a cleaner burn and better mileage than other engines making similar power. And because the 5.4 Triton V8 produces 80 percent of maximum torque at a mere 1,000 rpm, this new F-150 gets more work done with less effort and therefore less of al Queda fuel.
Improved occupant safety is a natural byproduct of the F-150’s stronger, stiffer architecture. But the new pickup is also designed with car-compatible bumper and frame dimensions that match the generally lower contact points of other passenger vehicles. Should the unimaginable happen, in other words, the F-150 is meant to favor not only its own strengths in a crash but also those of the vehicles in contact with it.
When the ’04 F-150s hit the showrooms at midyear, there will be five styles available. The entry-level XL is Ford’s basic work truck with a 4.6-liter Triton V8 making 231 hp; the STX is a slightly more refined work truck with a first layer of add-ons. At the heart of the line is the well equipped XLT, Ford’s avowed “family truck” and its traditional best seller. Lariat is the name of the leather-and-gadget laden luxury flagship, and the FX4 is the mighty, macho image truck available only with four-wheel-drive and the big V8. Only time will tell, of course, whether Ford has guessed right in catering to its loyalists while simultaneously attempting to address critics of The Big Truck. But one of the perks of reaching 100 years old is that you get to congratulate yourself for your own good luck in hopes that you haven’t yet exhausted the lot.
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