Whenever a new generation of a vehicle is introduced those of us who write about them tend to dismiss the just-superseded machine as an archaic and unworthy artifact of a bygone era. When the 1997 Ford F-150 was introduced that was appropriate since the outgoing F-150 had been introduced as a 1980 model and was outclassed in refinement by several second-tier skateboards. But while the 2004 F-150 is obviously better than the F-150 it supplants (the one introduced as a '97) it's hardly a quantum leap forward. That's not so much because this latest F-150 isn't a spectacular truck, but because the old F-150 was still pretty good. So good in fact that Ford kept it in production through the 2004 model year alongside the new model.

Ultimately everything and everybody eventually faces obsolescence. But early and involuntary retirement is never pretty.

More massive

Where the old F-150 was rounded and sleek, the new F-150 is built to be blocky and massive. Surely Ford has tweaked the aerodynamics for effective noise and drag management, but this thing looks like a 5000-pound block of two-tone, wire-cut Wisconsin cheddar from virtually every angle.

But the exterior in only wrapping over an interior that is radically better than before. This test truck carried a sticker price just $10 short of $40k and the interior almost makes that seem worth the price. The dash is square, but full of oversize vents, a great sound system with in-dash six-disc CD changer, and big buttons that could be operated by someone wearing mittens whose hands had been numbed with injections of Novocaine. But those knobs and switches also feel so good that even the fingers of the most sensitive mohel would be satisfied with their operation. The graining and texture on all the surfaces is vastly better than before and the phony wood on the door panels look like they glued Broyhill coffee tables on there. There's even a relatively good use of chrome-looking plastic to highlight the instrumentation and add some flash to the center console-mounted shifter for the four-speed automatic transmission. Oh yeah, the front seats are flat but comfortable and there's enough room in the rear seat for a full kick-line of 3/4-scale Rockettes (that's roomy - if not quite Radio City Music Hall).

So as an exercise in cab improvement, the new F-150 is a success. And yet the cab in our Lariat was so nice, that it provokes a sort of melancholy nostalgia for a time when truck cabs were different than car interiors; when you were expected to hose out the truck's floors after trudging in the day's debris from the construction site or ranch. There's as much Country Squire in this new F-150 as there is real country.

Twenty-four valves, some waiting

When Ford introduced it's 1997 F-150 along with it came a new series of overhead cam V-8 "Triton" engines and each full-size pickup manufacturer has been one-upping the market with the introduction of every new truck. The new one in the F-150 is a three-valve per cylinder version of the optional 5.4-liter Triton with a single overhead cam for each cylinder bank. Rated at 300-horsepower the new Triton makes 40 more horsepower than the 2003 two-valve, 5.4-liter Triton and 69 horsepower more than the two-valve 4.6-liter that carries over to 2004 and 2005 F-150s from the old truck.

A few years ago 300 horsepower would have been a stunning achievement for a truck engine. But today, compared to the 305-horsepower 5.6-liter V-8 in the Nissan Titan or the 345-horsepower 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 in the Dodge Ram it's only just competitive. The new Triton is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission that works with little fuss, but lacks the fifth gear offered in the Nissan, Dodge, and (for 2005) Toyota big pickups.

But it's not lacking that final gear that haunts the F-150 as much as its sheer heft. The test truck weighed in at about 5600 pounds and that's up over the previous generation F-150 by somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds (depending on equipment) and also porkier than just about every other big truck. And that means every pony the engine makes has to tug along a bigger load. So this new truck feels no more powerful than the old one.

Having said that, Ford has made huge strides in taming the Triton's noise, vibration and harshness. This engine operates quietly and smoothly if not quite as quietly and smoothly as the smaller, less powerful 4.7-liter V-8 used in the Toyota Tundra, but is more civilized than the Chrysler HEMI or GM's various Vortec V-8s. The HEMI does however have an eager charm and the Vortecs their own pleasant personality, but this big Triton would be at home powering a limousine - and they wouldn't.

Looks big, drives big

Does the new F-150 drive like a car? Hey, if someone ever built a nearly three-ton sedan that sits up high on a four-wheel drive system, we could only hope it rode this well. But if there's one word to describe driving this truck, that word is "big."

The handling is solid and secure, but the truck doesn't really want to go around corners. Aim it at an apex, turn the wheel and it feels like there's a micro-second of apprehension before the truck actually starts tacking to the left or right. The rack-and-pinion steering has some feel to it (but some isn't the same as "a lot of feel") but it's somewhat slow. Point this thing straight along I-70 though and it tracks like a freight train and rides with the well-controlled motions of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

On less silken roads the F-150's tail will shudder and shift, and there's some harshness through the structure, but it's more subdued than in the Ram or Silverado. It shows how far the world of pickups has progressed that a truck as capable of hauling loads as the F-150 can still be criticized for not riding even better than it does. The expectations of today's buyers would seem absolutely ludicrous to the truck buyers of a decade ago and like drug-induced hallucinations to anyone buying a pickup in the Seventies.

In other words, by historic standards, even in 4x4 form the new F-150's behavior is exemplary. But it's still in a tough fight against its contemporaries.

Sooner or later truck buyers may actually want to haul something with their vehicles and the F-150 remains fully capable in that department. The most apparent evolutionary change from the old F-150 being a new bed that's two inches deeper. That means the bed sides are now two inches taller of course, so lugging stuff up and in over those sides is that much tougher (and truck owners probably load that way more than any other); but still the extra capacity has to count as a net positive.

The tailgate itself seems to be lighter than others and well balanced so it's easy to raise and lower. The test truck's rather short bed could be lengthened through the use of an optional extender that flips over onto the tailgate when it's down. The extender also makes a nice bin within the bed when it's folded in-and removes easily when it's time to fill the bed with bikes or caskets (Six Feet Under is on TV as I write this). There are tie downs in the cargo box as well, but Dodge does a better job with the cleats in the Ram.

Look, the F-Series is always the best-selling vehicle line in America and obviously critical to Ford's profitability - so it damn well has to be good. But honestly every truck in the full-size, half-ton category is good with something to recommend it. If you want a truck that's powerful and useful go for the Nissan Titan. Want a truck that looks like a big rig? Dodge Ram and you can get a HEMI in the bargain. Want something refined? That's the Toyota Tundra. And no truck is available in more powertrain, cab, and bed variations than the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra twins.

The new F-150's edge lies in its ability to split the difference of all of them. It's not quite as powerful as the Titan, but nearly as refined as the Tundra and carries many of the square-cut, big-truck styling cues that have made the Ram so popular. Finally now that a V-6 powered work truck is part of the new F-150 line for 2005 and the old truck is truly dead, with the notable exception that there's no regular cab available, this truck can be custom-tailored to almost any taste or task.

Even heavily optioned the new F-150 won't inspire much passion. But that doesn't mean it's not a rational choice.

2004 Ford F-150 SuperCrew Lariat
Base price: $35,875 ($39,990 as tested)
Engine: 5.4-liter V-8, 300 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 224.0 x 78.9 x 76.0 in
Wheelbase: 138.5 in
Curb weight: 5577 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 14/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, two-speed transfer case, power windows
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper


© from TheCarConnection.com

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