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All these improvements and changes look great on paper; when we finally get a turn behind the wheel, we’ll let you know how successful the engineers were.

The new 3-cylinder 5.4-liter V-8 will be manufactured at the Windsor, Ontario, Canada, engine plant, with the full engine assembled at the Essex, Ontario, Canada, plant also in Windsor. All engines feature slide-out air filters for easy changing, and will last 100,000 miles before needing a major tune-up

To complement the engine choices, the F-150 will be using the a new 4R75E automatic transmission, which is an evolution of the 4R70E currently on the ’03 model. The tranny needed to be upgraded to handle the extra torque of the new 5.4-liter, and features a redesigned torque converter, turbine speed sensor, increased microprocessor speed, and “smart” shift technology that learns the driver’s patterns and applies the shift points accordingly. The transmission case is sealed, so the fluid is lifetime and maintenance free.

The F-150 will be offered in both 4x2 and 4x4 configs, with the 4x4 featuring a two-speed transfer case with optional electric shift-on-the-fly capability. In low range, the part-time four-wheel-drive system provides plenty of traction for stump pulling or off-road rock climbing. A limited-slip diff is an option on all F-150 models.

Going always requires stopping, and in this case, the stopping is performed with the help of 13.0-inch front and 13.7-inch rear vented disc brakes with standard ABS and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) at all four wheels. The brake rotors are 7 percent larger and the calipers are larger as well, and are 60 percent stiffer than the previous model. The pads are made of high-friction semi-metallic lining, and should stop the F-150 with no trauma involved.

The steering system is also new for 2004. Instead of recirculating ball, it is now rack and pinion, and is larger and stronger than any steering system used before by Ford. It features low-friction movement and good stiffness for improved road feel from behind the wheel. The turning diameter on the SuperCab with a 6.5-foot cargo bed is about 46 feet, which beats the Silverado’s two-wheel-drive Extended Cab short box by a half foot, and the 4x4 by almost a foot.

Frame and Suspension, or What Lies Beneath

We’ve seen the F-150 inside and outside, now what’s going on underneath? A lot, is the best answer. For 2004, Ford has developed an entirely new frame and suspension setup that should provide one of the best truck rides on the road.

It all starts with a new, fully boxed frame with hydroformed front rails for extra strength. The new frame is nine times stiffer in torsional rigidity and about 50 percent stiffer in bending than the ’03 truck. In order to provide the optimum setup, the engineers utilized the computer to preview the frame, powertrain and suspension before actually building any product.

The ladder frame features stiff, through-rail joints at the crossmembers to further reduce flexing, and the brackets that attach the suspension, body, and powertrain to the frame are what Ford calls “wide footprint” designs that maximize the size and stiffness of the attachment points.

The body mounts are a new type called sheer mounts, and are designed to spread any forces across the entire bushing surface, which helps the mount last over 150,000 miles with less that a 10 percent degredation factor compared to traditional compression-style mounts with degradation factors up to 60 percent.

The suspension is unique in the production truck market as well. Both the two- and four-wheel-drive models are utilizing a double wishbone front suspension, with coil over shock design and a lower cast aluminum control arm for weight reduction. This is the first use of cast aluminum suspension components in the truck market, and should help with ride control and comfort.

Once again borrowing from the luxury market, the suspension features bushing that are stiffer laterally but more compliant longitudinally for good control under more spirited driving, while not giving up a comfortable ride. The “grippy” bushings fitted to the front stabilizer bar have a subtle flat area forged in the top and bottom of the bar that allows the bushing to fit snugly inside to keep it compressed against the stabilizer bar. This actually helps with crisper steering response, but keeps the bushing rates low for a smooth ride.

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