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We spend the first day in the F-150 SLT SuperCab, a 4x4 flairside with a 6.5-foot box and a column-mounted shifter, and the second in an FX4 SuperCab, again a 4x4, but a styleside with a 5.5-foot box and with its big, column-like shifter in the center console. Both trucks are equipped with the new three-valve 5.4-liter Triton V8 which mates to Ford’s four-speed automatic transmission. The truck also is available with a 4.6-liter V8 (a six-cylinder engine and manual transmission are in the product plans for 2005).

Our first impression of the 5.4-liter engine was that it doesn’t feel quite up to its advertised 300 horsepower when we punch it off the line, but we suspect that it might be the gearing, not the engine, that the transmission is set up for workloads and towing, not for stop-light drag racing. We are right. The nicely matched powertrain is clearly the best in the towing comparison, providing a sure and steady pull, inspiring confidence from the 2004 F-150’s new rack-and-pinion steering gear as well as a smooth and quiet ride and terrific brakes.

The 2004 F-150’s brakes – 13.0-inch front and 13.7-inch rear discs with standard ABS and EBD (electronic rake force distribution) – inspire confidence in all dynamic situations we encounter, especially when our navigator gives tardy turning commands and we have to slow very quickly, though not with any apparent panic, to make a couple of corners.

In the off-road section, the electronic throttle control for the 5.4-liter V8 includes a special 4Low setup that provides nice control of the power for ascents and also enhances engine braking in steep downhill sections, and it does so without the sort of hesitation that might encourage you to put your foot on the brake pedal, defeating the purpose of engine braking.

Ride quality is outstanding. Ford redesigned the truck’s frame, with hydroforming and fully boxed rails providing 50 percent more resistance to bending forces. The frame has a rear section that tapers enough to allow Davis and his engineering staff to opt for outboard rear shocks and wider leaf springs that improve ride and handling.

The truck’s new design includes a wider track, higher hood line and six more inches of length in the cab, with a much more comfortable rear seatback angle – and with power-down rear windows in the SuperCab, which also has adjustable rear headrests, rear cup holders and air conditioning outlets, and enough leg room that we’re comfortable even on a 65-mile stint in the back seat.

The interior is both very quiet and very well appointed, especially in the more upscale FX4, with its “warm steel” trim, and wood-and-leather trimmed Lariat versions. But even the popular XLT version has an interior that belies the vehicle’s work-truck nature.

The 2004 F-150 may not sprint off the line like the Titan, and it doesn’t offer a four-wheel steering option like the Silverado, but our initial driving impression convinces us that Davis and his team accomplished their goals.

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