TEXARKANA, Tex. -- Livestock, cornered near the wire fence on a sprawling Texas cattle ranch, cast a wary eye on a big truck as we drive across a soggy pasture. Recent rains in successive waves have flooded fields and turned a route through the cow pins into spongy sod interspersed with squishy patches of tire-sucking mud.
To make forward movement possible through the gumbo requires a husky vehicle not only hiked high in the chassis but equipped with a traction system which applies the engine's muscle to all wheels.
For this chore we're steering a new rendition of the F-150 full-size pickup by Ford posing in tall stance and projecting a bold face with new three-bar grille.
It comes with the power of 320 horses as harnessed through Ford's 5.4-liter Triton V8 with massive torque racked as high as 390 lb-ft.
And it applies all the power of that hunker V8 to all four wheels so the huge 275/55R20 all-terrain tires plow through the goo but still find traction grip to keep us rolling forward.
New F-150 employs Ford's four-wheel-drive system with a control knob on the dashboard for dialing up a driving mode, from rear two-wheel traction to four-wheel high and low or automatic all-wheel-drive. For pavement travel the system seamlessly distributes traction to wheels that maintain tread grip, yet when heading off pavement -- such as our trek through cow country -- the 4WD high and low system locks the differential and applies torque evenly to both sets of wheels.
Ford's new truck doesn't slip or slide, although rain water laps at the hubs and the wheels, floating independently up front in a double wishbone design, dance over the ruts and craters.
A new lighter-weight chassis, with super-strength hydroformed boxed rails, remains rigid despite these tire contortions, while in the truck's enlarged cab with fancy leather-clad front bucket seats the ride quality feels surprisingly smooth and stable.
The new pickup -- 2009 models with three V8 engine options, plus three cab styles and three lengths for the truck box in back -- provides ten percent greater torsional rigidity and feels far more agile when steered around a curlicue circuit.
Ford's concept for the pickup also provides more powerful engines with class-topping towing ability, and there are larger passenger compartments dressed with seven different designations of trim including a new over-the-top Platinum series, the most luxurious F-150 ever devised.
Actually, there are so many different configurations for cab and box lengths, powertrain and trim, that you need a chart to sort it out.
Cab designs conform to the labels of Regular Cab, SuperCab and SuperCrew.
Two-door Regular Cab is a conventional scheme offered with bench or bucket seats and the rear truck cargo box extending in length for 78.8 or 97.4 inches.
The SuperCab has four doors and two rows of seats.
Exterior cargo boxes for SuperCab include the two lengths used for Regular Cab plus a brief box of 67 inches.
Spacious SuperCrew comes with four doors and two rows of seats for a capacity of five or six plus vast legroom for the backseat. The rear bench flips and folds upright against the back of the cab to convert the area into a large interior cargo compartment.
Cargo box choices for SuperCrew are the short box at 67 inches and the regular length of 78.8 inches.
* Box Side Step -- a booster step extends from below the front of the box with the push of a button.
* Tailgate Step -- an extension step housed within the tailgate drops down to forge an extra step for easy access into the truck bed.
* Midbox -- a steel storage case mounted in front of the standard pickup box but behind the cab brings 26.3 cubic feet of lockable space for stowing valuable equipment.
Two-wheel-drive (2WD) orientation with a front-mounted engine sending torque to the rear wheels is standard but four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction is offered with manual or electronic switching.
Brakes for all versions set a disc on every wheel plus anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD), even Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability control device with RSC (Roll Stability Control) and Trailer Sway Control (TSC).
For passive safety, the trucks stock dual stage frontal air bags and side-impact air bags plus side curtain-style air bags installed for every cabin size.
Three V8 engines link to automatic transmissions.
Standard is a reworked version of Ford's overhead-cam 4.6-liter 2-valve V8, which achieves 248 hp at 4700 rpm and as much torque as 294 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
It links to a four-speed electronic automatic transmission (4R75E) and delivers a definite kick for off-the-line action while still mustering fuel economy numbers as high as 19 miles per gallon.
Optional is the new 4.6-liter 3-valve V8 featuring open valve injection for boosted power and pared emissions.
This V8 ties to Ford's six-speed electronic automatic transmission (6R80E) and generates 292 hp at 5700 rpm with torque of 320 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
The truck's top powertrain is the reworked 5.4-liter Triton V8 with CVT (variable camshaft timing) and flex-fuel capability to run on gasoline or E85 ethanol. Using the six-speed electronic automatic, it runs to 320 hp at 5000 rpm with torque extending to 390 lb-ft at 3500 rpm.
High power and torque ratings for the larger engine make this one the best choice for towing a trailer. Maximum towing capacity rises as high as 11300 pounds with an optional payload towing package.
Trim tiers for the new F-150 rise from a base XL workhorse edition and sporty STX to a well-equipped XLT, the off-road FX4 with ELD (electronic locking differential), deluxe grades of Lariat or King Ranch, and the ultimate new Platinum series.
F-150 Platinum dresses in monotone paint with chrome-capped mirrors, a unique grille with egg-crate mesh behind three horizontal chrome bars and polished aluminum wheels. Plush appointments in the cabin include captain's chairs clad in fine leather with tuxedo stitching and ash wood accents lining the dash, console and doors.
Ford sets base MSRP figures for 2009 F-150 trucks in a spectrum stretching from $21,500 to $44,500.