F-150 drive impressions

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Now for 2011 … [we’re] allowing our customers to be more productive by maximizing their workload and their fuel economy.” –Mark Fields, president of The Americas, Ford Motor Co., from press materials accompanying the roll out of the new F-150 pickup

So I’m cruising along the rural back roads just north of Ft. Worth, TX, at the helm of a new 2011 model F-150 XLT 4 x 2 crew cab pickup, powered by one of Ford Motor Co.’s new 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost engines – a power plant I’ve discussed before in this space.

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I’m sharing the 127 mile or so ride with John Shanahan, an engine calibration engineer with Ford, to get a sense as to how the 2011 model F-150 equipped this new fuel-sipping engine performs on the road.

Now, of course, we’re running unloaded in this particular pickup, which boasts a 7,100-lb gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), 3.15 ratio rear axle, and some 1,700-lbs of payload capacity. But the object of this exercise – to my mind – is to see what kind of fuel economy we get in just “regular driving” conditions.

Ford also set up a 17.8 mile “fuel economy course” within this extended route to see if we truck reporters could notch better numbers than Ford’s test engineers, who’d achieved 26.9 mpg with these pickups powered by EcoBoost engines.

Yours truly managed to log a flat 28 mpg during the fuel economy test – a demanding course comprised of rolling hills, plenty of curves, and a few intersections to navigate as well. Yet I only managed to tie for sixth place, with the winner – Byron Pope, one of our “brothers in arms” at automotive magazine par excellence Ward’s – achieving an astounding 32.5 mpg.

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[Ah, Brother Byron, well done! The Force is strong with you!]

But that’s not really the big deal here, for all of us were doing all sorts of non-typical things to achieve the ideal fuel economy footprint: windows rolled up with no air conditioning (a tall order for a 90-plus degree Texas day!); feather light touch on the throttle; even shifting in and out of neutral at regular intervals.

No, the big deal occurred on the ride back, where – with the A/C going and me driving to keep up with the flow of traffic – I achieved 22 mpg over a 60-plus mile stretch. That is a noteworthy number, particularly for commercial fleets. For we all know pickups ride empty at many points in their day, and if you can achieve 22 mpg or better without thinking about it, that’s a lot of money saved in fuel costs over time.

[Here’s a brief overview of some of the features you’ll see on some of the “commercial grade” 2011 model F-150 pickups headed for the showroom floor.]

Other aspects of the new F-150 and EcoBoost engine provided interesting impressions, too. First, since the engine is equipped with two turbochargers, it’s some serious “get-up-and-go” when you need it. I found that out while pulling 6.700-lbs on some local highways and needed to get around a few big rigs laboring to get some of the steeper grades.

The EcoBoost also doesn’t have a “shrill” tone when accelerating either; something that can wear on one’s ears over the course of the day. It’s also very smooth in terms of acceleration and deceleration, largely due to the in-depth work that’s gone into the F-150’s six speed 6R-80 automatic transmission.

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Kurt Nickerson, a Ford transmission engineer, told me the software “brain” within the 6R-80 is packed with 400,000 lines of code in order to better control its seven solenoids and five clutches – allowing the transmission to more finely tune fuel economy and performance on an as-needed basis.

There were a few small things, though, I didn’t like. First, the steering wheel column mounted gear shifter proved EXTREMELY sensitive; for example, I downshifted from “manual mode” right past “drive” into “neutral” more than once.

Also, the turn indicator is electronic now, meaning it returns to center rather than holding in place and then “clicking off” once you’ve made a turn. Ostensibly, the wheel is supposed to automatically “sense” you are straightening out and then shut off the signal – be it a lane merge or a turn – but that didn’t happen with regularity. So I had to futz about with the turn indicator quite a bit.

But those are minor quibbles. On the plus side, take EPAS: Ford’s new “electric power-assisted steering” steering gear, which about 18 months to develop, that allows for more precisely tuned feel for both on-road and parking maneuvers.

The tuning is software-based, so the steering can be programmed and essentially customized to each model based on wheelbase, powertrain and other factors, Garry Smith, engineering supervisor on the F-150's EPAS, told me – while helping improve fuel economy up to 4%

[Here are some of my observations about EPAS, as well as other acceleration and handling impressions of the F-150.]

“The key with EPAS is that it offers ‘on demand’ power,” Smith (seen below at left) explained to me. “Before, with our hydraulic steering system, the hydraulic pump was ‘on’ all the time whether you needed steering assistance or not. That equated to a power drain of about three to four horsepower on the engine.”

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EPAS, by contrast, only consumes about half an amp of power when not in use and up to 100 amps at maximum -- typically during parking applications. Also, Smith pointed out, there’s no maintenance required for EPAS as to what’s needed for hydraulic-powered steering – so operators save twice, from less maintenance expense and better fuel economy.

The key to all of this, however, is the EcoBoost 365 hp engine – can it really deliver the fuel economy of a V6 with the power of a V8 over the long haul? I mean, let’s face it – commercial fleets work pickups HARD, and expect long life from them with minimal maintenance costs where possible. That means downsizing from a gasoline or diesel V8 requires a lot of convincing.

Ford’s done a lot of its own “torture testing” of the EcoBoost to see if it can go the distance expected by commercial operators and consumers alike, as you can see by clicking here.

But at the end of the day, it’s performance in the “real world” with real customers that’s going to count – and a little one-day 127-mile driving loop like mine doesn’t even come close to counting as “real world” experience.

Once these engines become available early next year, that’s when the real test of the new F-150 will begin.

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