2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

San Antonio, Texas – In this big, dusty state where Ford sells more F-150 pickups than anywhere else on the planet – reputedly one every minute – Ford flew in hundreds of journalists from across North America to get the first taste of the all-new 2004 F-150 pickup.

A lot, and I mean a lot, is riding on the success of this new F-150. The current F-Series (which includes under 8500 GVW and over 8500 GVW Super Duty models) is not only Ford’s best-selling vehicle, it’s the best-selling vehicle in North America and accounts for about 23% of Ford’s total sales. Ford sold 800,000 F-Series trucks in the U.S. alone last year, and is hoping to break the one million barrier with the new model. In light of Ford’s recent financial problems, negative publicity over recalls and quality issues, and increasing competition in the full-size pickup truck segment, the success or failure of the new F-150 could be a pivotal turning point in Ford’s future.

Nick Scheele shakes hands with Patrick Heath
Ford CEO and President Nick Scheele shakes hands with the Mayor of Boerne, Texas, Patrick Heath, at the official media launch of the 2004 F-150

2004 Ford F-150 Press launch

2004 Ford F-150 Press launch

2004 Ford F-150 Press launch
Click image to enlarge

After driving the new F-150 on and off the pavement for about five hours, my first impression is that Ford designers, engineers, and marketers have done their homework. The 2004 F-150 has been improved in all the areas that count for truck owners – and beats the competition in many important respects, such as standard payload and towing capacity.

Major improvements include a new, stronger frame; longer, roomier cabs on all models; standard rear access doors on all models; a standard 4.6 litre V8 engine and a more powerful optional 5.4 litre V8 engine; bigger standard tires; standard four wheel disc brakes; new rack and pinion steering; revised front and rear suspensions; more cargo box volume; more payload and towing capacity; a redesigned interior; and big improvements in noise and vibration reduction.

The exterior looks tougher and bigger than the 2003 model which, I have to say, looks a bit wimpy beside the new Dodge Ram and Chevy Silverado. The hood of the 2004 F-150 has been raised by 2 inches and the front-end is much stronger and bolder, with obvious similarities to the restyled Expedition. As before, the F-150 is offered in ‘Styleside’ and ‘Flareside’ bodystyles.

The cabs on Regular cab, SuperCab, and Crew Cab models have all been lengthened by 152 mm (6 inches) which has increased rear legroom and added more interior storage space. Three box lengths are now offered: 8′, 6 1/2′ and a new 5 1/2′ box. As the 2004 F-150 is now six inches longer, the new 5 1/2′ box was made available for people who still want their truck to fit in their garage.

Improved 5.4 litre V8

An improved version of the 4.6 litre V8 engine, with 231 horsepower and 293 ft-lbs of torque, is now the standard powerplant – replacing the 4.2 litre V6 with 202 horsepower and 252 ft-lbs. The revised SOHC 4.6 litre V8 now has an electronic throttle and is mated to an upgraded standard four-speed automatic transmission – a five-speed manual transmission is no longer offered, according to Ford’s technical specifications.

Ford engineers spent most of their time bragging about the improved 5.4 litre V8 engine, now with three valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust), a new aluminum cylinder head, variable cam timing, and electronic throttle control. Horsepower is up to 300 @ 5000 rpm, a 15% improvement over the current two-valve 5.4 litre engine – and maximum torque is 365 ft-lbs at 3750 rpm. Improved throttle responsiveness and more torque at lower rpm for towing and hauling are the big advantages of this engine. A revised heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission is standard with the 5.4 litre V8.

Stronger frame, better towing capacity

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCab Lariat

Click image to enlarge

According to Ford, the F-150’s new frame is nine times stronger torsionally, and 50% stronger in bending rigidity, providing the foundation for improved towing and hauling capacity. With a maximum towing capacity of 9500 lbs. and a maximum payload capacity of 2,900 lbs., the 2004 F-150 is now at the top of its class in the under 8500 lb. GVW truck class.

The new cargo box is 50 mm (2 in.) higher which translates into a 12% improvement in cargo volume, another best-in-class feature according to Ford. As well, the tailgate is easier to lift up and down because of a new torsion bar assist mechanism built into the tailgate.

Improved driving dynamics

Key suspension, steering and braking improvements have significantly improved the F-150’s dynamic performance both on and off the pavement. In front, both 4X2 and 4X4 models have a coil-on-shock double wishbone suspension with cast aluminum lower control arms – current 4X4 models have front torsion bars instead of coil springs. The suspension reduces unsprung weight for better ride and stability.

At the rear, the Hotchkiss solid rear axle and leaf springs now has the shock absorbers placed outboard of the frame rails to reduce ‘skipping’ on washboard roads, and the leaf springs are 20% bigger to reduce sway and improve towing stability. As well, the front and rear tracks have been widened by 38 mm (1.5 in.), and the standard tires are now 17 inch.

I found the ride in the F-150 SuperCab to be comfortable on the freeway and well-damped off-road, but curiously sensitive to small ripples in the pavement – it may have been stiff shock valving.

A new rack and pinion steering system replaces the current recirculating ball system. More responsive, the new steering tracks better and offers more control than before. A 2004 F-150 SuperCab with a 6 1/2′ box now has a relatively tight 46 feet turning diameter.

For improved stopping power, bigger four wheel disc brakes with four-wheel ABS and electronic brake force distribution are now standard on all models, replacing the current front disc/rear drum setup on base models.

As before, manual or electronic shift-on-the-fly 4WD systems are available.

Roomier, quieter cabs

Regular cab and Supercab models now have two rear access doors which open to the rear. The door handle is now on the inside of the door jamb, and it’s designed so that it can be reached from the inside or the outside when the front door is open.

The cabin is slightly wider, and there’s plenty of headroom for adults up to about 6′ 4″. A standard tilt steering wheel and optional power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals make it possible for shorter drivers to find a comfortable driving position. In the Regular Cab, there’s 13 inches of storage space behind the front seats, and in the SuperCab the extra 6 inches of cabin length provide adequate, if not generous legroom for adults. Rear passengers also get three point seatbelts and outboard head restraints. The SuperCrew model offers the most rear legroom, although I think the Silverado/Sierra crew cab is still roomier.

All cabs have a new interior design with a two-tone dash, and an attractive, well-finished design. My top of the line SuperCab Lariat featured creme-coloured gauges, wood dash trim, two-tone plastic, and metal and chrome accents. Base models offer a 40/20/40 split front bench seat and column shifter, but some models have front bucket seats and a floor shifter, which is positioned to the left of the console for easier reach. A new feature for 2004 is a power sliding rear window controlled by a button on the overhead console, and the SuperCab is the only extended cab pickup available with power rear side windows. Buyers can now choose from a variety of modular overhead consoles that stretch from the windshield to the rear window.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the interior was how quiet it was. Even under hard acceleration, the engine is just a distant purr, and at highway speeds, the F-150 is impressively quiet.

Improved crash safety

Ford displayed an example of a new F-150 that had been crash-tested in an in-house test similar to the 40 mph offset frontal crash test that will be conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Though the front-end was completely caved in, there was minimal intrusion into the cabin, and Ford engineers expect the 2004 F-150 to receive the top rating when tested by the IIHS.

crash tested Ford F-150
Click image to enlarge

The 2004 F-150 cab also includes multi-stage front airbags, a sensor to determine if the front passenger seat is empty, five three point seatbelts with the front shoulder belts integrated into the seats, and LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) and top tethers in the rear seat and front passenger seat of the SuperCab and SuperCrew models, and front seat of the Regular Cab model.

Recipe for success?

With the strength and power to handle tough hauling and towing jobs, improved interior quality, more interior room, and a quiet, car-like cabin, the 2004 F-150 appears to have all the right ingredients to maintain its momentum as the top-selling truck. With the Silverado, Sierra, Ram, Tundra, and Titan nipping at its heels, these changes couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

Connect with Autos.ca