If you want to tackle snow, Charlevoix, Que. in February is the place to do it. And that is exactly where Ford brought a bunch of autmotive journalists to show us how its all-new F-150 does it.
It’s pretty much a no-brainer, of course: put good tires (in this case, the equally new BFGoodrich All/Terrain T/A KO2) onto a truck with four-wheel drive (as all of our testers were equipped), and there’s not much that’s going to stop you. Still, it was a good opportunity to have a look at this truck, which is primarily making the news for its all-aluminum body but has several other improvements as well, along with a refresher on how it all helps gets you through snow and off-road conditions.
Ford’s decision to use aluminum for the F-150 body was not just for the sake of being different. In the truck world—at least as far as advertising goes—the two numbers that really matter are towing and payload. How much a truck can tow and haul is affected by several factors, including its construction, engine, rear end gearing and transmission, but weight is also important. That’s because of the GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, which is the maximum combined weight of everything involved: truck, trailer, passengers, and any cargo in the truck or on the trailer.
If you take weight out of the truck, you can add it back into the capability. Using aluminum for the body, and substituting more high-strength steel in the frame, Ford brought down the overall weight. The F-150 line’s maximum payload is now 1,497 kg (3,300 lbs.), while maximum towing is now 5,534 kg (12,200 lbs.), representing a towing gain of about 400 kilos. Keep in mind that those are maximum numbers, of course. As with any truck, the biggest advertised numbers are usually for regular-cab models, which weigh less than extended or crew cabs.
Four engines are available, including an all-new 2.7-litre EcoBoost V6, and carryover versions of the naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre V6, an EcoBoost 3.5-litre V6, and 5.0-litre V8. It’s hard to compare fuel economy ratings from the heavier 2014 models because this is the first year for more realistic five-cycle testing, but all show an improvement over what Natural Resources estimates last year’s models would have achieved in the new test. That said, the idea behind the turbocharged EcoBoost is that these engines return smaller-displacement fuel figures when you’re cruising, and deliver bigger-engine power when you put your foot into it. As with any forced-induction engine, if you consistently drive it hard, or if you tow or haul a lot with it, you will find that it uses considerably more fuel than the published figures suggest.
Base MSRP ranges from $21,399 for the XL Regular Cab in two-wheel drive, to $66,999 for the Platinum Super Crew in four-wheel. Ordering has been simplified to five trim lines (XL, XLT, Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum) with available appearance packages to add or delete chrome, the FX4 Off-Road package, a technology option that adds a 360-degree camera and lane-keeping system, and towing and maximum payload packages.
Now, this was intended to be a winter driving demonstration, and Mother Nature happily obliged by sending enough snow and wind that we were just shy of whiteout conditions a couple of times. We started out on snow-covered roads that took us to the day’s exercises of handling in snow, towing, payload, and off-road.
As mentioned, all of the F-150s were 4×4 SuperCrew models, and all were clad in BF Goodrich’s new T/A KO2 tires, which bear the mountain-and-snowflake logo of a winter tire to conform to Quebec’s mandate for season-specific rubber. Winter tires have a softer compound so they get better traction not just on ice, but also on cold asphalt. The KO2 also has design specifications that give it more traction on these soft surfaces, including serrated “shoulders” (where the tread meets the sidewall), rubber tread bars that help to clean off mud and to eject small stones, and deep sipes, the narrow grooves you see inside the tread blocks, which open up when the tire touches the ground to provide more grabbing surface.
Depending on what trim line you buy, your F-150 4×4 will either have 4High and 4Low by themselves, or an additional 4Auto. Those familiar with four-wheelers can skip the explanation, but if you’re buying your first truck (or SUV, since some of those can have this as well) you need to understand the differences between the two. In 4High and 4Low, the system locks the front and rear axles together and the wheels turn at the same speeds. This can cause a problem if you drive in four-wheel on hard surfaces, because as you travel over bumps or the odd slippery area, the front wheels will tend to drag the back ones along, which can eventually cause component wear.
If you can set your truck into 4Auto, the system will let the front and rear wheels turn at different speeds when necessary, giving you that four-wheel traction on dry surfaces without the possibility of damage.
The new F-150 also features LED taillights, as well as available LED headlamps. Automakers are switching over to this new lighting feature because these bulbs use very little electricity, which ultimately adds to fuel savings. The problem, as many Canadians are discovering, is that LEDs don’t get hot and so they don’t melt the snow that lands on them. Fortunately the F-150’s taillights wrap around the box and a sliver of red was still visible on the sides where the snow didn’t kick up, but winter driving is going to remain an issue for most vehicles when their lights disappear under built-up slush.
There are numerous improvements throughout the truck, along with some neat new features. The optional tailgate step used to have a handle that folded flat against the gate, where it could catch on cargo being pulled out of the bed. That handle now slips into the gate, along with a spring-mounted step so you don’t have to unfold it. There are available LED lights in the bed, pointed back toward the cab to reduce glare in your eyes when you’re loading stuff, and spotlights on the mirrors that can be aimed to where you need the light to shine. There’s also an optional cargo system, called Boxlink, with reinforced plates that accept lockable cleats or a variety of industry-standard tie-downs, and optional ramps that hook onto the tailgate for loading, or store against the box sides when they’re not needed.
The SuperCab and SuperCrew models have a completely flat rear floor, which came in handy when tossing luggage inside without trying to push it over the driveshaft hump. But while the interior is an improvement over the last generation, it’s still not as handsome as some of its competitors, and I had some minor issues with it. On the higher trim levels, many of the controls are small and placed low on the centre stack, and it was tough to quickly spot the windshield defroster button when the glass fogged up. And I’m no fan of the small icons in the tough-to-hit corners of the MyFord Touch infotainment touch-screen. That’s destined to be replaced shortly by an improved system called Sync 3, and not a moment too soon.
Overall, though, the F-150’s improvements are undoubtedly going to keep it at the top of the best-seller truck list, where it’s finished on top for the last 49 years, if you can believe it. It handles well, rides smoothly, looks good, and as I found out, tackles nasty winter weather just fine.