Overview

Test driving the most popular model of the best-selling full-size pickups is a piece of cake ... sort of. In evaluating the latest edition of the Ford F-150, there can be a tendency to overlook its many assets because they are so familiar. Also, there can be a tendency to overlook the refining and honing that have been applied to make a good pickup even better.

We tried the 1994 Ford Flareside SuperCab F-150 in the 4x4 version and fell into the trap of taking the familiar for granted. It was predictable in doing what Ford pickups have been doing since they took over full-size sales leadership 16 years ago-satisfying their owners by performing well, handling nicely and delivering great value in a lasting, reliable manner. But we got a wake-up call when we used our F-150 to pick up a piece of furniture: The men at the loading dock went bonkers over our truck.

So we stepped back and tried to look at the F-150 with fresh eyes. It was difficult because we kept slipping into a "that's the way it's supposed to be" frame of mind. But we recalled the enthusiasm of the guys on the loading dock and tried anew to appreciate fully this pickup.

Walkaround

Styling is one area of significant change. Our SuperCab F-150 had some of the styling cues Ford has applied to the Ranger Splash. The familiar upright stance of its full-size Ford pickup has been modified with some softening of lines, rounding of edges and flaring of the wheel cutouts. Our truck was bright white with red accents. Mirrors, grille, bumpers and wheels were bright metal.

Flareside styling included practical steps fore and aft the rear fenders. These are great for loading and unloading. Another great convenience feature also adds to the softer look-a molded running board or step under both doors. Full-size pickups, particularly 4WD full-size pickups, usually require some clambering to enter and exit.

The pickup bed, true to the Flareside type, had no intrusions in it for clean, easy loading and unloading. The box has the standard double-wall construction. The tailgate can be removed.

Interior Features

Say "1994 Ford XLT Flareside SuperCab F-150 4x4 Pickup" and you've said a mouthful. But don't you dare leave out the XLT part because it would have been a noticeable loss in our test truck. The XLT package included the new convertible console front seat, which is basically three individual front seats. The outer two have built-in headrests and are reclining and adjustable. The middle front seatback folds down to become many things for driver and passenger: an armrest, a platform for cupholders and storage for a cellular phone, loose change and other things that seem to take up permanent residence in our vehicles.

In the rear compartment of our SuperCab was a full-width bench seat and seatback, with seat belts for three. Two passengers are going to be a lot more comfortable than three. Adjust the front seats all the way back and you're going to infringe on rear seat knee room, but all and all, the rear seating area is fairly roomy and nicely finished, and even has cupholders.

The front seats offered good support and were quite comfortable, given that pickups have long suffered from poor seating. All gauges, controls and switches are sensibly placed with one exception: Controls for the driver's power seat are somewhat blocked by the door storage panel. The standard driver-side air bag, new on full-size Ford pickups for 1994, is mounted in the steering wheel hub. The hub also carries the cruise control.

Visibility is excellent. The glass and mirrors offered great vision all around the truck. But our F-150 was equipped with manual mirrors; we would quickly spend any reasonable amount for power-adjustable mirrors. Pickup mirrors seemed to get knocked out of adjustment a lot, and manually adjusting the right-hand mirror is a chore. Another complaint is that the small quarter windows in the cab do not open. True, the back window is a slider that can provide circulation, but reaching way back to open it for some fresh air is a stretch. It would be much easier to merely pop open a limited-access quarter window.

Driving Impressions

full-size Ford pickups are solidly built, and that's the way they ride solidly. Our F-150 continued the tradition. Ford spends a lot of time and money proclaiming the ride and handling advantages of its Twin I-Beam front suspension. We can only say that it seems to work well. In 4x4 Ford pickups, it's called Twin Traction Beam, which means that each front wheel is supported by an axle arm and coil spring and reacts to road surfaces independently. Gas-pressurized shocks are mounted at all four wheels.

The braking system is a power front disc/rear drum system with a computer-controlled anti-locking feature on the rear brakes. This has become standard full-size and midsize pickup braking. It works well, with no appreciable fade or shudder.

Power on our test truck was the 5.8-liter 210-hp V8, the latest version of the very popular 351 CID truck engine. It has multi-port electronic fuel injection, a computer-controlled fuel/air mixture feeding the engine for optimal performance under a wide range of climate, driving and load conditions. The transmission was a very smooth four-speed automatic with electronic shifting. The 4WD system had a two-speed transfer case with electronic shifting, an option available only on the F-150. Our test truck had the peculiar combination of this shift-on-the-fly system and manual locking front hubs. We are basically lazy and convenience-minded and thus would opt for the auto locking hubs, but 4WD purists like the ability to decide when to lock the hubs. And many 4WD purists buy Fords, hence the manual locking hub choice.

Our test truck made us feel like road gods. As a 4x4, it sat up high. The expanse of glass and the elevated seating enabled us to look down at traffic from a serene, quiet environment. A word about the quiet: Only when we put our right foot down hard did we notice any intrusions low growl as the engine spooled up rpms. Performance was great; this engine has ample power for cruising with a load in the bed or a decent-sized trailer on the back. Towing capacity on this particular rig was 7,300 pounds.

Summary

If you appreciate full-size pickups, you'll have trouble ignoring this one. It's great to look at. Even better to drive or ride in. And it performs like any full-size Ford should--solid ride, handling and performance.

One thing: Tricked-out full-size pickups don't come cheap. Our F-15 stickered out at a hefty $22,656. True enough, you're paying $2,607 for the XLT package and $2,303 for 4WD. But it still adds up to a light-truck package with a price not to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, it looks to us as though Ford has made all the right moves to maintain its full-size pickup sales leadership. But we appreciate that Chevy concedes nothing and has some great full-size trucks to choose from. You can only be the winner in this competition.

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