Smooth and quiet, the Ford F-150 is comfortable on bumpy streets around town, over rugged terrain at construction sites, around farms and over utility roads, and on the open highway. Its steering is nicely weighted and requires little correction on the highway making it nice for long cross-country tows. The cabs are comfortable, whether ordered with leather or cloth.
The 2012 Ford F-150 lineup offers a plethora of models in dozens of permutations. All are highly capable trucks, even those loaded with luxury features. The F-150 was completely redesigned for 2009. For 2011, the F-150 received a new engine lineup and electric-assist steering on all but 6.2-powered Crew Cabs. For 2012, the Lariat Limited model is no longer offered, but one of the nine F-150 versions should be close enough.
A new FX appearance package is for 2012 F-150 FX2 and FX4 models that includes 20-inch wheels and lots of flat-black trim inside and out. The FX Luxury package adds cooling to the heatable front seats.
Other noteworthy changes include electric shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive for 2012 F-150 XL up to Lariat models, while 2012 F-150 Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum offer a 4×4 auto mode that requires no driver action and hill start assist. All 2012 F-150 4WD models can now be flat-towed behind another vehicle, like a motorhome or larger construction truck. And a new locking rear differential for 2012 is offered on more axle ratios and 2WD models than the old limited-slip was.
The F-150 lineup runs the gamut from wash-off vinyl flooring and a two-door Regular Cab to leather-lined premium four-door models with as much rear-seat legroom as the front of most luxury sedans: Within those extremes lies something for everyone. Yet even the least-expensive F-150 isn't boring; it leaves room for customization, does the work required, and keeps overhead down.
With one of the deepest beds in the segment, the F-150 has generous cargo volume out back and a maximum payload rating of 3,060 pounds; most versions carry 1,550-2,100 pounds. Any cab model F-150 can be optioned to tow more than 11,000 pounds; the range varies from 5,500-11,300 pounds. (The Ford Super Duty line of heavy-duty pickups is covered in a separate New Car Test Drive review.)
Two V8 and two V6 engines are offered, all with 6-speed automatic transmissions. Standard on 2WD is a 302-hp 3.7-liter V6. Other choices include a 360-hp 5-liter V8, the only engine offered on every cab/bed combination, a 411-hp 6.2-liter V8 on SuperCrew short beds, and a 365-hp twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 on all but regular cab short beds. Each engine except the 6.2 offers multiple axle ratios.
Many years the best-selling pickup, the F-150's had a target on it for those same years. So it has to stay competitive: The standard V6 is more powerful than any other pickup V6 and the same horsepower as Chevy's 1.1-liter-larger V8; the 6.2 offered in Crew Cabs and Raptor is more powerful than any half-ton pickup engine; it's the only pickup that comes with a 6-speed automatic in every model. And its maximum payload and weight ratings are competitive in a world where numbers and rankings often change monthly.
Like any full-size pickup, the key to an F-150 is assessing your needs accurately and choosing the best one among all the permutations. Also like any pickup, remember that maximum payload and maximum trailer weight don't go together, are available only on a few of the 50-plus versions, and often decline as soon as you check an option box other than paint or aluminum wheels. Also remember the EPA ratings are only that, for empty trucks, and you are moving around at least 5,000 pounds. Do that, and you should be quite happy with any F-150.
The angular lines of the Ford F-150 mean it's easier to clean, easier to park, and gives maximum inside volume for outside space. Some bulge to the hood and large grille openings imply power, as does the higher altitude of 4WD models; many models have big graphics to ensure everyone knows what it is. The F-150 is easily recognized by substantial blue ovals, stepped front window ledge, and the tall bed.
The front door edge that allows a lower glass line at the front is stylish but also very useful; it allows a better view of front quarters near the truck and means you can have a good-sized mirror that doesn't limit forward vision because you look over it rather than around it. The view rearward can be aided by extendable towing mirrors, a rear camera, and a power sliding rear window. We found the towing mirrors work very well.
Pillars between the doors (called B-pillars) and the rear hand-hold on the pillar may yield an awkward blind spot for some drivers, but everyone should appreciate the windshield pillars (A-pillars) shaped to help preserve forward vision. Relatively square shoulders on the hood make it easy to see the edges of the truck, a bonus for tight parking lots, plow operators, and squeezing between trees or rocks en route to outdoor recreation.
With all beds you can get a locking tailgate and tie-down points. On many models you also get a bed extender and tailgate step (rated 300 pounds); the tailgate step makes stepping into the bed easier but it makes the tailgate feel heavier than some petite drivers will want to open or close. Some models offer a box-side step rated at 500 pounds; a pop-out, under-bed step behind the cab, but we needed considerable effort to return it and wonder how it will work after grounding on a rocky trail, having mud or snow thrown at it, or in freezing weather. Refueling is done with Ford's capless filler system so you will never lose another gas cap.
Most F-150 models have Ford's family-face horizontal three-bar aspect to the grille and the tailgate styling; the larger grille, squared headlights and more heavily contoured hood all add to the imposing size, though it isn't as imposing as Dodge's forward-leaning grille setup. On higher-level models the chrome is considerable, and extends to the front tow loops on 4WD.
The FX model has a multi-ribbed grille, blacked-out trim, plenty of decals and real truck tires if you choose the 17-inch off-road tire option. The chassis on 4WD models doesn't have anything mounted much lower than the frame rails, but if you intend to use four-wheel drive for anything more than snow or muddy roads the skid plate package should be considered. The FX appearance package's flat-black 20-inch wheels have contemporary style, but we find them far more apropos the FX2 than the FX4.
Models with the heavy-duty payload package come with 17-inch wheels with seven bolts holding each on. More attachment points are frequently used as truck weight increases but 7 bolts is an uncommon pattern and may limit your choice in aftermarket or replacement wheels.
Ford has all bases covered inside the F-150, with plenty of patterns, textures and finishes, and the choice of a 40/20/40 split-bench front seat or captain's chairs in many models. On those trucks with a bench seat, the middle passenger should be of a smaller size for both knee clearance and the narrow space between seat and belt brackets.
Mindful that you can't have everything for $23,000, the basic XL is quite respectable and a good value given a single option tab on a bigger pickup can be nearly half the XL's purchase price. Fleet drivers will appreciate that air conditioning is standard and the truck is quieter and more refined, in part due to a smoother 60-degree V6 and not one derived from a 90-degree V8.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Platinum is like a Lincoln Navigator with a pickup bed. The King Ranch chairs may look like a fine saddle (and require the same maintenance in some climes), but you'll want to ensure the jeans are clean and spurs off before you climb into this cowboy clubhouse.
Virtually everything you might need is either standard or available, and much the same degree of luxury in a more subdued style can be found in Lariats, which follow a more eclectic approach to decor and make one wonder if seven colors and surface textures on a rear door alone might be one or two too many. The speaker grilles on high-line models that look like metal really are (with the three horizontal bar theme molded in), and in some cases the trim is real brushed aluminum. The wood is faux but well done, perhaps to save trees.
The front bench is still split three ways: The center section flips down to reveal a console with storage and cup holders. The console is flat, so you can put a clipboard on top of it and it won't slide off until you stop, start or change direction quickly. Captain's chairs on FX and Lariat models, especially with power adjustment and the optional adjustable pedals (the switch is often hidden on the steering column), provide good driver positioning for virtually everyone. We found the seats didn't suffer from our earlier criticisms of lacking thigh support and aggressively tilted headrests.
Front and rear-seat room is very good; the SuperCrew's rear is a vast, spacious area for three adults with a flat floor all the way across and full roll-down windows. On the down side, it could take a while to heat up or cool off in climate extremes, and the floor mats cover only a third of the carpet by our tape measure.
The rear seat cushions lift up to stow vertically, with four grocery bag hooks on the underside of the wider driver-side seat and, if equipped, the subwoofer for the Sony sound system under the right rear seat; rear cabin storage seats-up amounts to nearly 58 cubic feet. With captain's chairs up front there are vents in the back of the center console. There are three tethers and two anchor sets for baby seats, outboard rear headrests raise enough to protect tall passengers, and a smaller center rear headrest to preserve vision for those who use the window; you can also get a power sliding window with defrost.
We sampled a couple of trims, one with bucket seats and white-stitched black leather, the other a 40/20/40 bench in tan leather; the lighter color interior looked richer, but also busier since it had dual colors for the dashboard where the black truck didn't. Either seat is comfortable, the advantage of the bucket being goodies like heating/cooling on higher trim models. Most of the touch points on Lariat felt good, with a sort of rubberized texture to the door armrests, but there is still plenty of hard plastic in pillar covers and lower doors to ease cleaning.
The cloth upholstery in the STX feels comfortable and durable; in temperature extremes we'd prefer it to the leather on upper trims. Apart from seat coverings and the steering wheel, the STX doesn't feel budget conscious.
All models use the same basic dash layout, with tachometer to left (no marked redline), speedometer to right, and oil pressure, coolant temperature, fuel and transmission fluid temperature lined up between. On lower-level models the gauges are more traditional white-on-black and, on higher-line models, silver faces with dark numbers that light up green and are often easier to read at night than in daylight. The ancillary gauges are quite lethargic so you need to heed warning lights even if a gauge doesn't quite agree.
The new central screen provides a wider array of information called up by a thumb-switch on the steering wheel, including but not limited to transmission fluid temperature, fuel economy/range, gear selected, trailer profiles, and tire pressures.
Trucks with the Sony navigation/audio system have arguably simpler controls than those without it by virtue of the voice command, logical operation and system integration. Trucks without that option aren't bad, but even on some lesser trims we found plenty of white-on-black buttons on the center panel which could require some familiarization. Window switches are all lift-to-close but the power door lock bar is horizontal so if Rover puts his paw on the right part of the switch you could get locked out.
Bench seat models use a column-mounted shift lever, while most bucket seat models use a bigger console shift lever, both with a Tow/Haul mode. The floor-shift requires a button-push from D to N as you might at a long light or rail crossing, and the column-shift has a light detent so it's easy to go one-to-two gears too far. Manual gear selection requires engaging the M position and using a +/- thumb toggle to change, like GM's approach, but Dodge's layout is simpler and just as effective. Liberal chrome on the console can produce some distracting glare.
Headlights are to the left, four-wheel drive and the integrated trailer brake controller are to the right; the power adjustable pedal switch on the left side of the steering column is harder to find than dash switches but does keep you from leaning forward while trying to adjust your driving position. Four round omni-directional vents ensure airflow where you want it, front seatbelt anchors are height-adjustable, and our only ergonomic complaint was the lack of a sun visor that covered the length of the side glass.
The Sony navigation/sound system and Ford's SYNC system bring infotainment to a new level, integrating Bluetooth-enabled devices, 911 Assist, Vehicle Health report, Sirius travel link with real-time traffic, weather, 4500 movie theater listings and show times and 120 gas stations with fuel prices. Power points, a USB port and MP3 input jack are in the lower center dash. The Sony 700-watt 5.1 channel sound system provides very good sonic quality, even if the impact didn't feel like 700 watts. It has the usual assortment of graphics nonsense like the oxymoronic-titled audio visualizer, which we could live without.
Pickups without space are pointless and the F-150 won't disappoint. The Regular Cab is roomy enough to fit three adults across and has plenty of space for the miscellaneous debris and detritus that tends to accumulate in trucks. SuperCabs have a full-width back seat best-suited to kids and short rides for bigger adults since legroom is the squeeze point; it's similar in size and intent to the Chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra extended cab or the Titan King Cab. For larger families or routine four-passenger service, the SuperCrew's room and regular back doors will be welcome, with as many as 30 different places to put things.
The Ford F-150 is among the heavier trucks in its class, contributing to a solid feel and none of that empty metal box bang-and-clang that characterized pickups of old. There's an impression of substance and tight construction regardless of the road surface or the model.
What stands out most driving the F-150 is the relative refinement. Ford attributes much of this to the Quiet Steel laminate used in some body panels.
The standard F-150 engine is a 3.7-liter V6 with contemporary technology like variable timing for the four cams and four valves per cylinder. This engine was in service in front-drive platforms and the new Mustang before it came to F-150, so it's not unproven. In the F-150 it's rated at 302 hp at 6500 rpm and 278 lb-ft at 4250 rpm, just 8 hp less than the 2010's biggest engine. You have to get the revs up to get the best work from it but the transmission is well calibrated, so it's a realistic choice where cost or fuel economy are paramount and work is limited to relatively light towing or hauling on fairly level ground.
Also adapted from the Mustang but not revving as fast in the truck application is the 5-liter V8 of 360 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, more than GM's 4.8 and 5.3, Ram's 4.7, Titan's 5.6 and Tundra's 4.6; the Ram Hemi and Tundra 5.7 rate higher power. The highest-payload F-150s use this workhorse, it can tow up to 10,000 pounds, and it sounds like a muscle-car, more authoritative than even the 6.2-liter.
The 6.2 debuted in the SuperDuty pickups, that's why it's the only iron-block engine (and hydraulic steering assist) in the line. In F-150 applications it rates 411 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm, the most powerful half-ton pickup engine, but is available only in short-bed SuperCrew trucks and the Raptor. GM's 6.2 is rated slightly lower and also limited to certain configurations.
The most impressive engine choice is the twin-turbocharged, direct injection EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6. Horsepower is 365 and torque is 420 lb-ft at a nice low 2500 rpm so unless you need the rumble of a V8 it's by far the best combo of performance and economy. There is no lag waiting for power to come up, it's the quietest engine with just a hint of whistle at moderate throttle (talk-radio would mask it), its at-altitude performance will be better than the others and it often carries more than 6.2 V8 trucks because the engine is lighter. You can't use boost and get good economy at the same time, but you can have both to work with in the same truck. The only negatives are it costs more than the 3.7 or 5.0 and it's grunt sometimes overwhelms rear traction when towing resulting in axle-tramp, a rough up-and-down motion of the rear axle until traction control intervenes or the driver lifts off the throttle. On 4×4 models it comes with a 36-gallon fuel tank but 4×2 are limited to a 26-gallon tank.
The 6-speed automatic works smoothly, and is not overly anxious to get into that fuel-saving top gear as soon as possible; engaging Tow/Haul mode will stretch out the shift points, not require a mat-flattening mash of the pedal to affect a downshift and provide some engine braking on descents.
The F-150 has a fully boxed frame, which is quite stiff and resistant to both bending and twist. The front suspension is a dual ball-joint design pioneered and still used by BMW and found on the Expedition sport-utility, while the rear suspension has long leaf springs and outboard shocks.
Electric-assist steering is used on all F-150 except those with the 6.2 V8. It makes for lighter effort at low speeds, better weighting at road speeds, never loses assist in extensive maneuvering as when backing a trailer, and is programmed to reduce fatigue from crowned roads or crosswinds. It should simplify engine service, requires no service of its own, and can add up to 4 percent in highway fuel economy. However, the electric-assist steering is not rated for snow plowing, and the hydraulic-steering 6.2 V8 is only in Crew Cabs also not recommended for plowing.
The sheer mass of the F-150 combines with the suspension to deliver a very good ride (by pickup standards) and quiet composure. Sure, it will skip on bumpy corners and move around over dry wash scrabble at speed but it doesn't get upset or noisy. Longer wheelbases will bob or pogo-stick on some expansion joints and expressway surfaces but it never becomes fatiguing. As is often the case, the standard-size wheels produce better ride quality and less road noise than the 20- and 22-inch packages.
Brakes get the job done with their ultimate performance based as much on tire choice and weight in the bed as anything else. Electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes are standard across the board. A locking rear differential is optional for the best traction and available even on some 2WD models, and in many cases the suspension tuning on an FX produces the best ride quality over marginal roads and city potholes.
Some of the factors that aid visibility also hinder it. The high stance of a pickup is good for more distant views but hides things behind the tall tailgate and this is a wide piece of equipment. Extendable towing mirrors include a flat upper element and separately adjustable wide-angle element for a superb view rearward and safe towing but they are big and will be easily smacked off if you forget they're extended or don't leave space for that motorcyclist.
The rearview camera is good for the view behind the tall tailgate and on the navigation screen has colored lines to indicate the width of the truck and centerline for hitching a trailer; however, this display is not predictive and does not move the colored lines with the steering wheel so it applies only in straight reversing. Rear park sensors also aid maneuvering in tight quarters, raising the frequency of audible beeps as you move closer. You'll want to turn that off when backing up to a trailer or in other situations, but that involves going through a couple of menus on the information screen, more tedious than the simple defeat buttons used by Toyota and others.
The payload rating for the F-150 models varies from about 1,560 pounds to 3,060, but that includes occupants other than the driver. A construction crew of four 200-pounders in a SuperCrew might have just 700 pounds of rated capacity left for tools and materials. The highest gross combined rating (truck, trailer, cargo, passengers) for any F-150 is 17,100 pounds and these pickups are among the heaviest half-tons.
Maximum tow ratings for most F-150 cabs range from 11,000-11,300 pounds. These highest ratings are similar to the Ram 1500 HD which uses heavy-duty components including stronger (but more common 8-bolt on the Ram) wheels. Remember these maximums apply to an unloaded pickup; if you foresee towing more than 7000-8000 pounds behind a loaded F-150 you should consider stepping up to Super Duty.
The integrated trailer brake controller option is the ideal choice for smooth braking. We've tested it and it works much better than aftermarket systems. But verify that the integrated controller will work with the brakes on your trailer; some electro-hydraulic trailer systems are not compatible.
The Ford F-150 delivers a strong combination of style, interior comfort, performance, ride and hauling ability. The new engine lineup moves Ford from follower to leader in power and alternatives. With multiple choices in trim, drivetrains and body styles, there's an F-150 for every type of pickup owner.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Dallas, Dearborn and Los Angeles after test-driving many F-150 models.