Pros: Varied model lineup; turbocharged V6 engine; lots of clever options to assist on the job site

Cons: Poor fuel economy on V8s; confusingly long list of options and trims

In the world of full-size half-ton pickups, the selection is limited to six brands (four of which are domestic) that together dominate the market. The long rivalry among Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Ram (formerly Dodge) has been joined by Toyota and Nissan, but many believe the best pickup to have is the top seller, and that is the Ford F-150. Technically, the twin Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra beat the Ford in combined sales, but let's not quibble, because the F-150 has held this spot for 34 years, and it will probably continue to do so for the next 34.

The secret to the F-150's success is Ford's refusal to rest on past accomplishments. Last year, the company revamped the F-150's engine and transmission lineup to include a twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6. For 2012, the big truck receives more improvements in interior comfort, convenience and off-road ability. New for 2012, for example, is an expanded use of Ford's new electronic locking rear axle, replacing the old-fashioned limited-slip differential. Hill Start Assist, which prevents the truck from rolling backward when stopped on a steep angle, is now standard, while a new two-speed automatic 4x4 system is added to top F-150 models from the Lariat on up.

In the world of half-ton pickups, it doesn't get much better than the Ford F-150. From features to towing and hauling to fuel economy, the F-150 can be anything from a basic beat-it-up work truck to a luxurious country limousine.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Ford F-150 comes in a dizzying array of possible combinations, all predicated on three cabs with a choice of long or short beds. The Regular Cab actually features a small front-facing rear door that allows easier access to the space behind the front seat. Next up is the SuperCab, which also has swing out side doors with roll-down windows. Finally, there is the SuperCrew with four full-size doors. Bed lengths are 5 , 6 and 8 feet.

There are no less than 10 trim levels, from the entry-level XL to the range-topping Harley Davidson. The XL comes with the basics and includes air conditioning, a V6 engine, automatic transmission, vinyl flooring, a 40/20/40 vinyl seat and tilt wheel. The models move up through STX, XLT, FX2, Lariat, FX4, SVT Raptor, King Ranch, Platinum and Harley Davidson versions. Among the more off-road-oriented are the FX and Raptor, while the King Ranch, Platinum and Harley Davidson models combine maximum towing and hauling with cabins so luxurious that they might as well wear a Lincoln nameplate.

The engine choices are impressive: there's the base V6, a torque-heavy 5.0-liter V8, a powerhouse 6.2-liter V8 and the twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6. Other available equipment of note includes a Sony audio system, Ford's SYNC app link, a rear-view camera, leather seating, dual-zone automatic climate control, power adjustable pedals, heated and cooled seats, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a 110-volt power outlet, a power sliding rear window, a power moonroof and wheels ranging from 18 to 20 inches.

Items geared toward the kind of work expected of a pickup include a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive setup on base models and, new for 2012, a two-speed automatic 4x4 system; it's featured on Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum models. Among other options, there's the Ford Work Solutions cable lock system, a 36-gallon fuel tank, a 4.2-inch LCD productivity screen, max trailering package, skidplates, box side steps, an integrated tailgate stepladder and a stowable bed extender.

Technology

Inside the F-150's cabin, Ford offers its popular SYNC voice-activated communication system to control your cell phone and iPod. Available on all models except the base XT, SYNC makes it easier and safer to operate a cell phone while driving, allowing you to take incoming calls, make calls and even hear text messages read aloud. You can also stream popular apps like Pandora via the Bluetooth wireless link. When the F-150 is equipped with the optional navigation system, Sirius Travel Link can be added, letting you locate the cheapest gas around, keep you up to date on movie times and sports scores and display the weather forecast.

Standard on FX2 and higher trims and available on the XLT is Ford's 4.2-inch LCD productivity screen. It shows data such as fuel economy, towing information and off-road data, all easily controlled via a steering-wheel-mounted controller. For times when it's not convenient to bring along the remote key fob, the SecuriCode driver's-side keypad can be used to lock and unlock the truck.

On the mechanical side, the F-150 offers a number of useful electronic features such as Trailer Sway Control, Hill Start Assist, Trailer Brake Control, electronic locking rear axle and remote start.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The base F-150 engine is a 3.7-liter V6 good for 302 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque. Although it's no V8, this engine has good power for light-duty towing and hauling, and it returns fuel economy figures of 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway (2WD) and 16/21 mpg (4WD). The twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 uses a 3.5-liter block and produces a very healthy 365 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque while returning fuel estimates of 16/22 mpg (2WD) and 15/21 mpg (4WD). Properly equipped, the EcoBoost V6 can tow up to 11,300 pounds and carry a payload of 3,060 pounds.

In the V8 category, the F-150 offers a 5.0-liter engine rated at 360 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy figures are similar to the EcoBoost at 15/21 mpg (2WD) and 14/19 mpg (4WD). At the top is the monster 6.2-liter V8 rated at 411 hp and 434 lb-ft of torque. EPA fuel ratings for this engine are a dismal 13/18 mpg (2WD) and 12/16 mpg (4WD).

Safety

The 2012 Ford F-150 comes with ABS, electronic traction and stability control, front and front seat side impact airbags and side curtain airbags (for both front and rear passengers on SuperCab and SuperCrew cabs).

The F-150 scores fairly well in the Government's crash tests, although some models got only three out of five stars in the rollover roof strength test. However, the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2012 F-150 excellent marks in all of its crash tests and named it a Top Safety Pick

Driving Impressions

Given its impressive towing and payload abilities, one might expect the F-150 to ride like a stiffly sprung work truck. But that is far from the case. On the open road and even around town, the F-150 delivers the kind of ride and handling one would expect of a large SUV, which is to say smooth, stable and comfortable. The F-150's electrically assisted power steering delivers good feedback and handles the job of moving the F-150's bulk with ease.

On rough roads, the F-150 remains composed, with no shuddering transmitted through the steering column and a cabin that remains rattle-free. We like the power provided by the 5.0-liter and 6.2-liter V8s, but it's the EcoBoost V6 that most intrigues us. It is an amazingly willing engine, delivering huge supplies of power when asked yet achieving better than 20 mpg on the highway.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevy Silverado - It's equally capable, but some may find the Chevrolet's styling a bit low-key and its field of available features not as rich as the Ford's.

Toyota Tundra - The Tundra can't match the F-150's luxury options or towing ability, but it retains resale value right up with the F-150 and has an excellent history of reliability.

Ram 1500 - Like the Chevy, the Ram is equally competent in the areas of horsepower and towing, but its resale value falls short of the F-150.

AutoTrader Recommends

With so many trims and models, it's impossible to pick just one. We'd say go with the EcoBoost engine for most uses, but if you tow heavy loads on a constant basis, there is no substitute for the 6.2-liter V8.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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