First Drive Review: 2009 Ford F-150
By: Mike Levine, Photos: PUTC, Ford Motor Company Posted: 08-17-08 00:01 ET
© 2008

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For the new Ford F-150, it’s all about the transmission. While much of the truck has been toughened and tweaked for 2009, it’s the fresh gearbox that contributes most to a significant update of the previous-generation pickup.

At Ford’s invite, we drove the new six-speed F-150 at Ford’s Michigan Proving Grounds and around the surrounding area, including many of the same roads, trails and test tracks used to develop the truck.

Class Leading Transmission

Adding two extra cogs and Mensa-IQ-sized shift logic to the F-150’s transmission has yielded three wins over last year’s four-speed automatic: a critical reprieve for Ford’s 5.4-liter V-8, improved fuel economy and a wickedly smart tow/haul mode for trailering.

Ford’s modest 5.4-liter V-8 hasn’t kept up with the rest of the half-ton herd’s premium engines. Power is up to 320 horsepower and 390 pounds-feet of torque when running on E85, versus the 2008 F-150's 300 hp and 365 pounds-feet, but that’s still well below the top eight-cylinder engine options available in GM (6.2-liter, 403/417), Chrysler (5.7-liter, 390/407) and Toyota (5.7-liter, 381/401) trucks.

The new six-speed transmission compensates for the engine’s shortcomings by reaching deep into its power band, smoothing out acceleration and delivering peak torque 250 rpm sooner than it did last year.

First gear is a deep 4.17:1, versus 2.84 in the 2008 model, so you’ll feel the truck pull away aggressively at wide-open throttle and confidently during modest, low-speed takeoffs. Smaller steps between the gears (4.17, 2.34, 1.52, 1.14, .87 and .69 in the new six-speed, versus 2.84, 1.55, 1.00 and .70 in the old four-speed) reduced the perception of the 5.4-liter becoming bogged down after each upshift by placing the engine mill into its optimal power band sooner.

The lower level of acceleration effort we perceived with our ears and butts gave a feeling of increased confidence in the truck’s capabilities, even though we found no significant gains in 0-60 times. We clocked the F-150 at 8.96 seconds in a 5,500-pound four-wheel-drive SuperCrew with a 3.73 rear axle, 18-inch wheels and two adult male passengers. That’s about the same 0-60 time we’ve experienced in similarly configured 2004-08 F-150s.

The new lease on life that the six-speed transmission has given the 5.4-liter V-8 should be enough to propel the F-150 along until Ford delivers a rear-wheel-drive version of its turbocharged, direct-injection V-6 EcoBoost engine. That engine is expected to have higher power ratings than the 5.4-liter V-8. Ford is in wait-and-see mode as to whether a long-awaited light-duty 4.4-liter diesel V-8 will find its way into the F-150 to create the premiere power-pulling engine.

The 4.17 first gear and two overdrive gears – versus a single overdrive gear in the four-speed – help raise fuel economy to an EPA-estimated 14/20 mpg city/highway, up from 13/18 mpg, while enabling Ford to delete the 4.10 rear axle option, which was necessary in order to achieve the previous F-150’s 11,000-pound maximum trailer towing rating.

Now, 3.73 is the shortest (numerically highest) rear axle available for maximum trailering, and a brand new, tall 3.15 rear axle (standard on two-wheel-drive 5.4-liter F-150s) is available for the lineup’s best fuel economy numbers and reasonable maximum towing loads. In fact, the combined ratios of the first four gears of the six-speed transmission, when paired with a 3.15 rear axle, provide final gearing ratios that are lower than the first four gears in the four-speed transmission with a 4.10 rear axle. That’s progress!

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