COUNTRY KING

2004 Ford F-150 is the strong, silent type—perfect for On, and Off-Road Travel

By: Bruce W. Smith - Special to GCN

   The tires were spitting gravel as we scooted along a Hill Country ranch road just east of Boerne, Texas, creating a whitish cloud of dust in our pickup’s wake. We dropped down into a small gully, sailed across a low-water crossing, and motored up and over a small rise where the gravel was momentarily replaced with the requisite cattle guard.

      But inside the pickup we were driving, the ride was so smooth and quiet one would have thought the ranch road was paved; a testament to the terrific engineering that’s gone into Ford’s 2004 F-150. Ford had invited auto journalists from around the country  for a comprehensive Ride and Drive of their new truck in the hill country around San Antonio.

       The 2004 F-150 blends design elements from the current F-250/350 Heavy Duty, the Expedition, and the Tonka concept pickup into a very pleasing, package that oozes with ruggedness tempered with a heavy dose of sophistication.

WHAT’S NEW

      From bumper to bumper the new F-150 is a considerable change from the ‘03s, which were already fine rides.

      The new pickup’s cabs are bigger, the bed box 2-1/2-inches deeper, the suspension finely tuned, the chassis stronger, the engine more powerful, the stance wider, the ride softer, cargo capacity higher, and the interior layouts and model variations unique.

      In short, the 2004 F-150 is a brand new pickup that, as Bill Ford said, is more than an “incremental step” beyond what F-150 owners are driving today. After our  test drive, we know that’s an understatement.

      For example, not only does the new F-150 have a torsion bar built into the tailgate so it can be easily lifted with a couple fingers, the 2004 is the first pickup to have “four-doors” standard in every configuration. The new cabs are also six inches longer than the 2003 models, giving even the base model a full 13 inches of cargo space behind the seat—all without increasing the truck’s overall length. (The new bumpers are tucked tight under the grille and tailgate.)

      Ford designers have also made the interiors of the five different trim levels – SL, STX, SLT, FX4 and Lariat – as distinctive as the models themselves. (This is another first in the pickup market.)

      The designers utilize a modular-type look in the two-tone instrument panel, and utilize three different instrument cluster designs as the major element in giving each trim level its distinctive look. Seats, tire/wheel packages, front grilles, and other trim items also make each model different.

      Our favorite of the group is the new FX4, which is the four-wheel-drive-only model aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. It is replete with skid plates and shocks tuned specifically for off-pavement romps. It also comes with the transmission shifter mounted in a center console that has the look of burnished stainless steel. We liked its placement, ease of use, and feel.

      Regardless the model, all feature seats redesigned with firmer cushions and deeper bolsters. The rear seatbacks are angled 21-degrees (current model is only 19-degrees) for better passenger comfort.

      Our only negative comment on the new pickup is the front passenger’s seat bottom cushion needs a bit more upward angle to keep you from slipping forward when the gigantic four-wheel-disc brakes are applied.

NEW DRIVETRAIN TECHNOLOGY

      Although the 231hp 4.6L V8 is the base engine, don’t bother; the optional 300hp 5.4L is a far better performer.

      The all-new V8 utilizes a three-valve aluminum-head design that gives a 15-percent improvement in power over the current 2-valve design and as much as a 10-percent improvement in fuel economy. (Estimated EPA figures show 15 city/19 highway.)

     Variable cam timing allows the onboard computer to adjust the operation of the three-valves so that the combustion cycle is optimized for the driving conditions and engine speed. Add in a new cam profile and the 5.4L to delivers a much wider and flatter torque curve than the current engine.

      Despite the impressive horsepower and torque numbers, our initial driving impressions don’t reveal the kick-in-the-butt acceleration one would expect. The new pickup accelerates quickly, but in a deceptively smooth, linear fashion. In fact, the 5.4L’s 365 lb/ft of torque is delivered so smoothly through the “torque-based electronic throttle control” and four-speed automatic that it feels a little sluggish.

      Pete Dowding, Modular Engines Manager, says “We make more than 80-percent of peak torque starting at 1,000rpm. And the torque increases at a relatively steady rate throughout the rev band.”

      The throttle-by-wire system, which uses the onboard computer to replace cable-controlled throttle, also contributes to the truck’s strong, steady power. It senses the foot-throttle’s position and then adjusts the engine and new 4R75 E transmission operating parameters according to current weather conditions, vehicle speed, altitude, and numerous other conditions where low-speed throttle control is essential.

      We also found another trait we loved: engine braking. The new F-150 allows you to ease down the steepest cow paths in first gear, low-range without the need to ride the brakes.

      In fact, every aspect of driving the new F-150 is a smooth delivery of power and control.

THE PERFECT SUSPENSION

      However, the most astonishing aspect of the 2004 F-150 is the overall on- and off-road ride and handling. It’s a soft, superbly controlled ride that is sans bounce and sway—even when towing a 7,000-pound horse trailer or working your way over rough terrain.

      Ford engineers changed the new pickup’s underpinnings basing them on a fully boxed frame that is nine times stiffer in torsional rigidity than the old model. A stiffer frame leads to better control over suspension tuning.

      Outboard-mounted rear shocks provide better axle control, and wider and thicker leaf springs more stability. Stability is further enhanced by a track thats 1.5-inches wider than the old model. Larger and more powerful four-wheel disc brakes and a very responsive rack-and-pinion steering give the driver a sense of complete control.

      In fact, driving around the Texas countryside, surrounded by leather, a very cool dash layout, sunroof, and all the first-class features found in the upscale Lariat, you feel like you’re driving a fine European sports car more than a pickup.

      That’s not to say the 2004 F-150 is shy on muscle for work. It is stronger than ever. The tow rating is up to 9,500 pounds with a load capacity of 2,900 pounds when properly equipped. Even with the small V8 in base form it can tow 6,500 pounds and tote another 1,700 in the high-sided bed.

      All in all, Ford’s newest F-Series set a whole new level of ride quality and performance in the pickup market. We really hated to give back the keys after our F-150 tour of Texas Hill Country.-Bruce W. Smith

2004 Ford F-150 FX4 SuperCrew

                Engine: 300hp 5.4L Triton V8

                Transmission: 4-speed automatic 4R75E

                Frame: welded/fully boxed

                Suspension: Front: IFS; Rear: solid axle w/leafs

                Steering: rack-and-pinion

                Special Std. Equipment: Skid plates and limited-slip rear diff

                Wheels: 17” std; 18” optional

                Bed Length: 5 ½’; 6 ½’

                Standard Tow Rating: 9,200 lbs.

                Max Payload: 1,550 lbs.

                Brakes: 4-wheel disc w/ABS

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