Few vehicles are more important to Ford strategically or symbolically than the F-150. As the company's sales volume leader for more than three decades, and the anchor to the overall truck lineup, Ford knows it has to absolutely nail it when it rolls out significant updates for this model. Although the trucks received a comprehensive re-fresh for the 2009 model year, the powertrains were largely carryover, except for a new 6-speed transmission on many models. The 2011 model year completes the renewal, with a truly all-new powertrain lineup, from base model to top-of-the-line. The number of engine offerings increase as well, from 3 to 4.
And in a radical, and somewhat controversial move in the full-size truck market, Ford is positioning a six-cylinder gas engine as one of its premium engine offerings. Yes, I'm talking about the much-anticipated EcoBoost V6. I had a chance to drive all four engines, with significant seat time in two of them, which will collectively comprise the majority of sales, according to Ford's projections. I will share my impressions of each, starting with the base engine, moving to the top of the heap.
3.7L DOHC V6 - 302 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 278 lb./ft. @ 4,000 rpm
2011 Sees the return of a six-cylinder base engine to the F-150. The last time the truck was offered with a V6 was in 2008, with the 4.2 pushrod engine. That engine offered a barely adequate 202 horsepower and 260 lb./ft. of torque. Although competitive with the GM Vortec 4.3 V6 and the Ram's 3.7 SOHC base engine, it was in no way a viable alternative to a V8. Strictly filler for the "one at this price" promotions and fleet specials. With the new 3.7 multivalve V6, Ford is hoping it will no longer be an engine that buyers "settle" for, but one that they'd be truly happy with, and choose to buy. And with a full 100 more horses than its predecessor, it makes a compelling case on paper. To demonstrate the plucky six's prowess, Ford did some demonstration heads-up impromptu drags between it, and Chevy's 4.8L Vortec V8. Although close, the Ford pulled ahead. In a head-to-head run with the Chevy V6, it was simply no contest. The 4.3 was positively annihilated by Ford's high-tech six.
However, the 3.7's power delivery may be somewhat of an adjustment for traditional truck buyers. After one aggressive passing maneuver, I commented that the engine was "Honda-like." The engineer riding with me in the truck asked me if that was good or bad. I said neither, but just different, for a truck. Below 3,000 rpm, there was not a dramatic discernable difference between the Chevy and the Ford. But at higher RPMs, the Ford shines, and the Chevy simply runs out of breath. If you're looking to tow or haul frequently, and for beefy low-end torque, the 3.7 is probably not the engine for you. But if you simply like owning a truck, and only plan on loading it down with trips to Home Depot or Ikea, and maybe occasionally hauling a boat or some watercraft out to the lake, it will probably meet your needs fine.
5.0L DOHC V8 - 360 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 380 lb./ft. @ 4,250 rpm
The 5.0 is expected to be the volume leader for the F-150, and for good reason. This engine is a real sweetheart. Positioned to replace both the 4.6 and 5.4 modular V8s, the 5.0 is a substantial step up in power from the 4.6, and even a significant improvement from the 5.4 in terms of horsepower. Although conventional wisdom would lead you to believe multivalve engines are peaky, and pushrod engines have beefy low-end torque, the 5.0 is easily competitive with, if not better, than GM's Vortec 4.8 and 5.3 in this regard. The 5.0 reaches its torque plateau early, and maintains it through the sweet spot of the power curve. And with 360 peak horsepower, it's no slouch on the top-end, either. You may have noticed its displacement and specifications sound suspiciously like the 2011 Mustang GT. That's no coincidence, as the engines are nearly identical, save for some truck-specific tuning and specs for the F-150. At part and full-throttle, the musclecar character and heritage of the engine comes out, with a healthy, but not obtrusive intake and exhaust note. The 5.0 is rated to tow up to 10,000 pounds, which should cover towing duties for the majority of half-ton buyers.
3.5L EcoBoost V6 - 365 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 420 lb./ft. @ 2,500 rpm (photo at top of page)
This is the one everyone's been buzzing about. Although it's tempting to simply dismiss it as a North-South adaptation of the Taurus SHO's engine, the block is an entirely new casting to adapt it to RWD duty, and engineers did extensive testing, especially in the area of heat management, to make sure this smallish engine could stand up to the rigors of truck duty. Let me answer the one question many enthusiasts are probably wondering - What does it sound like? Well, if you're expecting a traditional V8 burble, you'll be disappointed. It doesn't sound like a V8 by any stretch of the imagination. For that matter, it doesn't sound like much of anything. It's probably the quietest engine in the lineup. That includes the traditional whistle and hiss you'd expect from a turbo engine. Unless you listen very closely with the radio and HVAC off, you'll be hard pressed to tell that it's turbocharged.
Ford has described the EcoBoost's power delivery as "diesel-like" and it's not much of a stretch to use that description. Ninety percent of the EB's peak torque is available from 1,700 to 5,000 rpm, and it's noticeable. From about 2,000 to 5,000 rpm, you feel a consistent, persistent surge of effortless torque. Never does the engine come across as breathless or stressed, even when towing. And unloaded, it simply hustles. In fact, it's hard not to chirp the tires accelerating out of a corner, even using moderate throttle. If you don't keep an eye on the speedometer when passing, you're doing 90-plus before you know it. For those of you hoping to build an EcoBoost "sleeper," the good news is this high-tech crown jewel will be available in nearly every trim level of the F-150, from the plain-Jane XL, up to the Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum models. Alas, for you hot-shoes hoping to get a regular-cab, short-box F-150 with the EcoBoost, that configuration is not available.
Your best bet for a shorty sleeper is the 5.0, which Ford said was designed with supercharging in mind. You can bet Roush, Ford Racing, Shelby or Hennessy will have a blower for it in no time.
6.2L SOHC V8 - 411 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 434 lb./ft. @ 4,500 rpm
In a tacit acknowledgement that the "there's no replacement for displacement" crowd still holds some sway in the full-size truck market, Ford has spread the availability of its new 6.2L V8 beyond the Raptor and Super Duty models. It is now the standard engine on the Harley-Davidson and Lariat Limited as well. If you're looking for traditional, old-school V8 character, this is the engine for you. It has a throaty exhaust note, and authoritative power delivery throughout the rev range. The fact that this is the only powertrain in the F-150 lineup that still uses traditional hydraulic-assist power steering, which adds a noticeable heft to the steering effort, adds to the sense of substance.
There was a rumor at one point that development of this engine was suspended for a time, and then re-started at a later date. The fact that this is the only two-valve engine in the lineup may be a manifestation of its longer development lineage. It makes one wonder if Ford isn't hard at work on a 4-valve head for this engine in the near future. The rocker-actuated overhead cam valvetrain makes for some wide, large valve covers. It doesn't seem like a direct-tappet, or even hyudraulic 4-valve valvetrain would add much, if any, to the engine's overall size. But the added power from multivalve heads would probably decisively position it as the Big Kahuna of the powertrain lineup. Although on paper, it has between a 45-50 horse edge over the other engines, on-the-road, the difference is much more subtle.
Don't feel shafted if you can't pony up the $40k+ for the higher trim levels for this engine. In my honest opinion, the seat-of-the-pants power difference between the 6.2, the 5.0 or EcoBoost, is not dramatic. All three of the higher-level engine options are very competitive, and plenty powerful for most buyers. The character of the EcoBoost's torque delivery is noteworthy in that it's flat and linear, but all three of the top engines are in the same leauge, in my opinion.
Overall, Ford impresses with both the level of technology, and the breadth of its powertrain lineup. From the class-leading, and surprisingly competent base V6, through the capable and powerful staple 5.0 V8, to the technological tour-de-force EcoBoost. And for the old-school crowd, the big-inch 6.2. This on top of Ford's already class-leading in-cab technology integration, and you've got a formidable competitor in the half-ton market. Ford's leadership in this segment just got stronger. Consider the bar raised.