2004 Ford F-150 XLT
2004 Ford F-150 XLT. Click image to enlarge

by Craig M. Lee

If you like pickup trucks, you’re among the largest, most loyal and conservative customer base in all of auto-dom.

Large? Consider that Ford’s F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle — not just pickup — in the United States for 21 straight years. In 2001 alone, more than 911,000 F-150s were shipped to happy customers.

Pickups from General Motors and Dodge are also among the 10 best-sellers in the U.S., and in Canada, GM’s Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra outsell even the Ford F-150.

And loyal? Truck buyers hardly ever change brands. Chevrolet, for instance, claims 80 per cent of its pickup buyers are former Chevy pickup owners.

There are good reasons pick-ups are so popular. Unlike sport-utility vehicles, many of which are not very sporty or utile, pickups evoke warm memories of that little Radio Flyer wagon we had, or wanted, as a kid. And pickups are useful companions, handy as all get out to haul around our stuff.

Nothing pretentious and not built for looks, although there have been some new looks introduced over the years, each accompanied by considerable hand-wringing from company marketing types. Truck buyers aren’t receptive to change for the sake of change.

Sure, Dodge did it right when it updated its Ram pickup for 1996, introducing the hugely successful “Big Rig” look. GM held marketplace share in 1999 with its modestly restyled (but still all-new) Silverado and Sierra.

04 F-150 intro
Steve Lyons, Vice President, Ford Division, Ford Motor Company, introduces the all-new 2004 Ford F-150 FX4 to journalists at the North American International Auto Show, January 6, 2003. Click image to enlarge

Ford went way out on a limb when it smoothed the rough edges for 1997, giving us the current look, but that turned out OK. Still, F-Series sales were off 10 per cent in 2002, signalling a need for another re-do. And Ford really had no choice, because there’s lots of new competition on the horizon.

So, how does Ford plan to keep the F-150 as the No. 1 selling pickup in the world? By delivering more of what it already delivers. Enter the all-new 2004 F-150.

Passenger cabs are 100 millimetres (four inches) wider and 150 mm (six inches) longer, for more interior space in Regular and SuperCab models, and for a less-upright back seat in SuperCab and SuperCrew (four-door) models.

The cargo boxes are 50 mm (two inches) deeper, and handling dynamics are better, thanks to rack-and-pinion steering, wider rear leaf springs and outboard-mounted rear shocks.

The look for 2004 is tougher, more angular, but still “Ford,” and not so extreme as Ford’s F-350 Tonka concept truck (whew!). A nine-times-stiffer frame and all-new body structure promise quieter operation and better results in the 40-m.p.h. offset crash test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.hwysafety.org).

2004 Ford F-150 lineup

2004 Ford F-150 in the mud

2004 Ford F-150 Lariat
2004 Ford F-150 Lariat. Click image to enlarge

That’s a much-needed improvement because most pickups are bought for personal (family) use and the current F-150 SuperCab model did appallingly poorly in the offset (head-on, left front to left front) test, exhibiting “major collapse of the occupant compartment” according to the IIHS.

For “garagability,” SuperCab models can be ordered with the 5.5-foot cargo box previously restricted to the long SuperCrew. The regular and SuperCab trucks are also available with 6.5- and eight-foot boxes.

A Flareside 6.5-foot box with external fenders also returns, but with a custom tailgate that features a built-in spoiler.

Output of the optional 5.4-litre V-8 jumps to 300 horsepower for 2004, a 40-h.p. increase, thanks to to the addition of three valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. The 4.6 V-8 is essentially a carry-over, though transmissions are supposedly tougher.

Inexplicably, if you want a six-cylinder engine or five-speed manual transmission, you’ll have to wait until 2005. For fleet buyers, or anyone with an environmental or fuel-cost concern in this Kyoto era, these oversights will be hard to forgive. As well, development work with Navistar (formerly International Harvester) on a baby-PowerStroke 4.5-litre V-6 diesel, which was planned for the 2002 model year, is apparently stalled.

But it’s the dramatic new interiors for this ninth iteration of the F-Series pickup that will undoubtedly part piastres from purchasers. There are three different and much nicer dash and instrument cluster designs for the model range; none looks or feels like the Rubbermaid-like dash of the current F-150.

Lariat interior
2004 F-150 Lariat interior is one of five distinct interiors. Click image to enlarge

Lariat and FX4 (offroad) models promise unique “warm steel” dash inserts with a T-Bird-like centre console and, for the first time, a floor-shift. According to Jim Smithbauer, the new F-150’s design manager, “The look is very modern, precise and industrial, and it’s executed in an honest, straightforward way.”

For the aging comb-over crowd, the tailgate can be raised or lowered with one little pinkie, thanks to the addition of torsion bar assist. And for the testosterone-fuelled, the SVT (for Special Vehicles Team) Lightning variant gets a six-speed manual transmission option (currently, it’s automatic-only) and a supercharged engine reportedly putting out upward of 500 h.p. Stand back, Loretta! Regular cab models gain small access doors, so you can reach in more easily for tools behind the seat. No news yet on Harley-Davidson and King Ranch models.

Ford hasn’t announced pricing, beyond saying it will try to keep suggested retail prices close to current levels, despite higher production costs for the new model. Current F-150s range from less than $25,000 for a trades-special XL with V-8 engine and automatic to $38,000 for a SuperCrew 4X4 with options. Factory production of the 2004 F-150 begins in June, with late 2003 delivery dates to be confirmed.

By then, Ford will compete with more than just Chevy and Dodge. This fall, Nissan rolls out its own full-size pickup, the Titan. It will be available in regular, extended and crew cab models with a five-speed automatic transmission and a 5.6-litre, 300-h.p. V-8 engine. Nissan’s design target with the Titan? Consider that Ford’s V-8 engine is called the Triton, and it’s a no-brainer.

Toyota already has its Tundra pickup (code-named, until Ford threatened to sue, the T-150.) The Tundra’s really about 7/8 scale, but a new four-door Double-Cab Tundra is coming this year.

Honda, too, may have a midsize or larger pickup truck up its sleeve. Like the Titan and Tundra, it would be “built in America by Americans” (or at least in North America by Canadians) and undoubtedly high quality, so it too would be a formidable entry.

When GM unleashes its Chevy Colorado/GM Canyon replacements for the diminutive S-10, also for 2004, they too will be attractive, larger, midsize alternatives, with crew cabs.

But Ford, which has been producing its “Built Ford Tough” F-Series trucks since 1948, will be hard to dislodge from the sales lead. To appease its most conservative buyers (and to ensure a supply of trucks), Ford will even continue to build the current F-150 at its Oakville factory for another year, to be sold alongside the new model.

Ford followed the same strategy in 1996, partly because of fears the redesigned 1997 model could be too radical for some of the F-150 faithful.

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