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Standard equipment for the STX includes a 4.6-liter engine, 4-speed automatic transmission, rack-and-pinion steering, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, CD player, air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels and locking tailgate. Added equipment for our test vehicle included 3.55:1 limited slip differential ($285), chrome tubular running boards ($350), tow package ($350), 6-CD changer ($295), rear defroster ($150) and fog lamps ($140). Total MSRP: $31,145.

Other leading available options for the STX include 3.73:1 limited-slip rear axle ($285), audiophile system ($250), cruise control ($225) and sliding rear window ($125).

How does that compare with the competition? Well, Ford says there really isn’t a direct competitor, so we’ll compare the base models from Chevy, Dodge, Nissan and Toyota and look at any options on a 4x4 extended-cab, stepside body style that would be necessary to match up with the standard STX trim on a configuration similar to our test vehicle.

The base Chevy Silverado 1500 Extended Cab 4x4 comes close with a starting price of $29,570 (including $850 destination) and matched up quite well with all the features, except alloy wheels—which aren’t available as an option—and the Sportside bed, which costs $795. Also a premium audio system can’t be ordered with the base trim but the usual tow and utility options are available.

The Dodge Ram 1500 ST Quad Cab 4x4 shortbed (stepside not available) starts at $28,415, including $850 destination, but needs optional automatic transmission ($1170), anti-lock brakes ($495) and CD player ($125) to match up in standard features with the Ford.

The real competition comes a new American-built import brand. The Nissan Titan XE King Cab 4x4 is base priced at $26,150 (including $650 destination) and comes with a 305-horsepower 5.6-liter engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, tach, ABS, tow package, A/C and CD player. You could order a $1000 off-road package with alloy wheels, Rancho shocks, BFG all-terrain tires, locking-slip differential and skid plates along with a $650 extra-value package that includes an 8-speaker audio system with 6-CD changer and still come in below the base price of an STX. But you can’t get a stepside bed.

Rounding out the baseline competition, the Toyota Tundra SR5 AccessCab 4x4 stepside starts at $28,065 (including $540 destination) and features a 4.7-liter engine with more horsepower and torque than the smaller Ford Triton V8. The base Tundra also comes with ABS, CD player and A/C but needs the $400 optional alloy wheels to match up comparably with the standard STX.

(--Editors Note: All prices listed are MSRP and taken from the manufacturers’ Web sites in the spring of 2004. Prices do not reflect regional specials, cash-back allowances, rebates or any other promotional incentives.)

Our STX had a Spartan but spacious interior with firm seats covered in washable cloth, hose-it-out vinyl flooring and simple instrument panel with no tachometer. It’s a clean, structured appearance that fits well with the simple paint theme, but don’t expect all the class, luxury and amenities often reported in the press when the new F-150 was introduced. With five trim levels, Ford is very different interiors in each. Power windows are not an option: It takes nearly 8 1/2 revs on the window crank to drop the side glass. On the plus side, we liked the STX audio system, the bottle holders that really work and a middle lap belt in the rear seat to keep the little ones secure.

What the STX does share with the Lariat is the exceptionally quiet ride and impressive safety features that come from the redesigned chassis. The new fully boxed frame gives the truck a tight, solid and isolated feel. The overall structure is designed to absorb and dissipate crash energy. Recently, the F-150 earned five stars—the top safety score—for both the driver and passenger protection in the federal government’s frontal impact crash test. The new truck also received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) highest ranking of “Best Pick” in frontal crash performance.

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