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The 2009 F-150’s tow rating has increased to a segment-leading 11,300 pounds. To help manage loads that large, Ford has finally added a tow/haul mode to the transmission. Similar to the system found in competitors’ trucks and Ford’s Super Duty pickups, tow/haul mode holds engine rpm at higher revs during acceleration before upshifting, and it downshifts the transmission on descents, using driver brake input to engine brake the truck rather than burning up the wheel brakes to slow the load.

In practice, we towed 7,000-pound trailers up some of the same hills on which we did our 2007 Heavy-Duty Shootout. Running up the grades at wide-open throttle, to speeds of 45 to 50 mph, the transmission wound up to more than 5,000 rpm before shifting to a higher gear, to keep momentum up. Each shift was nearly as smooth as when the truck was unloaded and had changed gears at lower rpm. The amount of driveline noise that intruded into the cabin was among the lowest of any half-ton truck we’ve driven with a similar trailer load. First- and second-gear shifts were cleaner and more confident than in the five-speed automatic 2009 Dodge Ram we drove several weeks ago, even though the Ram’s 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is rated at 390 hp and 407 pounds-feet of torque. The Ram had difficulty overcoming the steep drop-off between first and second gear.

On descents, after cresting the top of the proving ground’s hills, the transmission seemed to intuitively know when to downshift. Depending on momentum, speed and throttle position immediately before hitting the top of the hill, the transmission would auto-magically downshift after the truck glided over the crest without throttle. When we were aggressive with the accelerator to the top of the hill, the transmission downshifted only after a tap of the brake. A second tap yielded a second downshift. A third shift could have been executed, but the transmission denied that request, as it would have pushed engine rpm over the redline. The transmission didn’t upshift at the top of this hill, which could have bogged the truck down had we been in a towing scenario in which, after cresting one hill with a small descent, we needed to climb a second hill. This also reduced gear hunting versus non-tow/haul drive mode.

Other transmission changes include stronger input and output shafts and a larger torque converter with increased pump flow to idle the truck at lower engine speeds for better fuel economy. Depending on the model, you can get the shifter mounted on the steering wheel or on a floor-mounted console. The floor-mounted shifter shifts straight back; though we prefer the gated approach Chrysler uses in the Dodge Ram’s floor-mounted shifter.

Also helping improve fuel economy, the F-150’s engineers delivered a new torque converter with variable lockup speeds – depending on the gear, pedal position and driving environment – so it always locks up as quickly as possible instead of running the engine harder and longer before the driveline and rest of the drivetrain hook back up.

With all of its features and shifting finesse, loaded and unloaded, we think the 2009 Ford F-150’s new six-speed transmission is the best gearbox in the half-ton segment.

Tough Frame

Beyond the transmission, though, the second biggest engineering revision that will noticeably impact F-150 drivers and passengers is the truck’s improved ladder frame.

The platform remains fully boxed with through-welded cross members, but Ford has substituted high-strength steel in the middle and rear rails, slimming down wall thickness to shave up to 15 pounds of weight, depending on wheelbase. The high-strength steel also improves bending stiffness by 10 percent over the 2004-08 F-150, which was already 50 percent stiffer than the 2003 F-150.

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