The F-Series pickup is the best-selling vehicle in America, but Ford Motor Co. isn't about to stand pat in the face of tougher competition from General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.

To hold ground — and perhaps even increase its volume a tad — Ford will offer a completely re-engineered and restyled F-150 for '04.

Taking its public bow at the Detroit auto show, the new F-150 draws styling cues from Ford's current F-350 pickups and the Tonka concept truck shown last year in Detroit.

The new model is distinguished by a taller, bolder, honeycomb grille; a higher, more deeply cut hood, and high-tech headlamps. Bumpers have been lowered for better crash-compatibility with smaller passenger cars.

The pickup's high beltline extends all the way to the tailgate, providing a deeper bed that Ford says offers 13% more cargo room than competitive models from GMC and 40% more space than the Toyota Tundra.

Underneath, the fully boxed, ladder-type frame is 50% stiffer in bending than the current F-150's skeleton, according to Ford. New body and engine mounts improve isolation, and the suspension is a double wishbone design incorporating a lighter weight, cast aluminum control arm at the front and solid axle with leaf springs at the rear.

Ford has dumped the F-150's recirculating-ball steering system in favor of a stiffer, more precise rack-and-pinion setup. It helps contribute to a relatively tight 46-ft. turning circle for some SuperCab models, Ford says. Brake rotors and calipers have been upsized, and a 4-wheel antilock system with electronic brake force distribution is standard.

Also standard are 17-in. wheels and tires, with aluminum wheels and 18-in. tires offered on upper trim levels. The new model is rated to tow up to 8,300 lb.

The base engine is a 4.6L 2-valve-per-cylinder Triton SOHC V-8 carried over from the current model, but boasting improvements such as electronic throttle control that compensates for changes in altitude and helps lower emissions and maximize fuel economy.

Optional is the new 5.4L 3-valve Triton V-8 that delivers 300 hp. and 365 lb.-ft. of torque. A V-6 won't be available with the truck until 2005.

Both V-8s are linked to an updated version of the current 4R70E 4-speed automatic transmission in the new model. No manual will be offered for now, though Ford officials say the possibility is under study.

Ford will offer the new F-150 in five series: base XL; sportier STX; mainstream XLT; off-road oriented FX4; and luxury-oriented Lariat.

A regular cab featuring rear-access doors on both sides, SuperCab and SuperCrew (four full-size doors) configurations will be available. or circle 303